The very cover of One Piece’s thirteenth volume filled me with skepticism. Emphasizing a balloon-shaped Luffy and the Baroque Works baddies, it seemed to promise a volume filled with meaningless battles, where Luffy’s buddies fight inconsequential enemies while Luffy sleeps off his meal. “Luffy is incapacitated” has already become something of a warning sign in this manga – though Oda’s art is strong, the tactical interplay of One Piece’s fights can’t really aspire to the heights of something like Hunter x Hunter, meaning its battle scenes are less likely to be rewarding for their own sake. And after a volume dedicated largely to One Piece’s actual specialties (discovery! adventure!), a volume of empty fighting seemed like a bit of a letdown.
Those misgivings were somewhat validated by this volume’s early fights, though the manga certainly does its best to make a show of it. Zoro and eventually Luffy’s squaring off with the minions of Baroque Works exist in a purposefully different dramatic space from the theatrics of Arlong Park. While the Arlong battles were defined by clear stakes and immediate danger, it never really seems like Zoro or Luffy have any chance of losing these fights. And so Oda decides to frame these battles in a different way – as Jackie Chan-style comedy, a sequence of wacky dramatic constraints that force our heroes to bend and weave in ridiculous ways all through the night.
First off, it certainly helps that Oda’s management of movement and visual drama in battle only continues to improve. It’s clear that Zoro would never ever be defeated by a random guy holding a metal bat, but the distinctive shading on that bat still gives it a sense of presence and impact. Other panels make great use of Zoro’s own design, drawing energy out of his sword approaching the frame, or the distinctive profile of his three-scabbard look. The fact that Oda’s designs aren’t “realistic” belies the fact that he’s gained a terrific understanding of dramatic shading and exaggerated perspective. Perfect realism isn’t often the best way to convey action drama – the felt experience of that drama greatly benefits from exaggeration that leans into action and reaction.
Oda’s loopy designs also somewhat conceal the fact that there truly are consistent rules governing the actions of his characters. If Oda leaned fully into weightless cartoon motion, there wouldn’t be any sense of impact in his fight scenes. But Oda is both excellent at maintaining internal consistency in the way his objects move (Zoro’s arms and legs, while exaggerated, are always exaggerated in similar ways), and also knows that if he wants to go cartoony, cartoony is what he will get. He saves his goofy, visually loose moments for when that’s actually the intent of a panel, and thus won’t undercut any dramatic tension.
The early fights of volume thirteen proceed as a series of intentional gimmicks, as Zoro is presented with and immediately overcomes one silly challenge after another. The introduction of new enemies, and Luffy’s awakening, only leans into the comedy of this overall sequence. While goofy, dramatically empty fights aren’t really what I’m here for, I actually really loved the comedy of Zoro and Luffy’s brief, accidental battle. Instead of building to a truly dramatic point, the fourth chapter was constructed around one running gag, as the agents of Baroque Works desperately fought to maintain relevance while our heroes squabbled amongst themselves. The needlessly convoluted powers and clear irrelevance of the bad guys thus became the actual point – Luffy and Zoro know they’re wasting time here, and they’ll get to the fights when they feel like them.
After half a volume of comedy-of-errors action, One Piece finally cleared its throat and got to the point with the introduction of Vivi, princess of Alabasta. The introduction of the Baroque Works-Alabasta conflict was a pretty necessary inclusion for the story going forward. The Grand Line’s videogame-style format is structurally convenient, but dramatically meaningless – without some level of conflict sitting between “we have to survive this island” and “we have to achieve our dreams,” One Piece would feel like a pretty directionless story. One Piece’s general focus on adventure means it can definitely get away with “let’s see what’s out there!” more than most stories, but having larger dramatic throughlines will only help the story work. And the way Alabasta’s conflict arose naturally out of the base variables of Whiskey Peak is another reflection of Oda’s growing confidence with large-scale storytelling.
The second half of this volume also offers a strong demonstration of the crucial balance created by Nami and Luffy. Early on, Nami takes the clear leadership role in the story, negotiating with Vivi and doing her best to keep her shitty children in line. Nami is pretty much the only member of the Straw Hats who is conventionally competent – as Vivi herself notes, basically everyone else here is some kind of half-cocked idiot. Stories can get pretty far on one-note shounen heroes, but One Piece has clear dramatic ambitions beyond fighting and friendship, and without Nami, none of that stuff would work.
On the other hand, while Nami provides the brains of the Straw Hat crew, Luffy personally embodies its love of life and thirst for adventure. Sequences of Nami and Vivi discussing the hardships to come are consistently contrasted with moments of Luffy simply enjoying the everyday. And when the crew eventually reaches a new island, it’s Luffy who takes the dramatic lead, underlining the gleeful spirit of discovery that is its greatest and most distinctive asset. And even though they’re somewhat oppositional dramatically, it’s still clear that each values the role of the other – Luffy spent a whole arc demonstrating his respect for Nami’s work, while here, it’s actually Nami who tells Vivi to take a moment and enjoy the sea breeze.
It’s that spirit of adventure that informs this volume’s final segment. Setting sail from Whiskey Peak, we’re first treated to a brief but lovely segment embracing the thrill of life at sea, before the Straw Hats make port at Little Garden. Evocative shots of treacherous rivers and ominous jungles give way to soaring images of dinosaurs and roaring volcanoes. One Piece knows what we’re here for, and it’s happy to provide.
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