One Piece’s sixteenth volume opens with the team in crisis. Having sailed to the island of the former Drum Kingdom in search of a doctor, they discovered the only doctor here lived on top of a towering mountain. Strapping the sickly Nami to his back, Luffy set off with Sanji at his side, fighting through snow drifts and giant killer rabbits on the way to the summit. But then, before they could arrive, their movements prompted a mighty avalanche. And so we find our heroes sprinting back down the mountain, time ticking down with the storm at their backs.
But let’s pull things back for just a moment. In overarching narrative terms, the larger “point” of this whole arc is to gain the team a new crewmate/doctor, and the fundamental choices leading up to this point have all smartly facilitated that goal. Given Luffy has survived challenges as diverse as being eaten by a whale and mauled by a shark man, whether this team would even need a doctor at all feels like a legitimate question. Nami’s sickness is thus a uniquely well-chosen narrative device – not only is a strange illness not the kind of injury you can simply grit your teeth through, but without Nami, it becomes immediately impossible for Luffy and his crewmates to actually go anywhere. In contrast, while Nami is the most important crewmate at sea, she’s the least important when it comes to fighting – meaning that her being incapacitated doesn’t really negatively impact the shoreside drama at all.
In even more wide-ranging terms, it also feels like the right time to mention how much I love One Piece’s idle opening images, where the main characters are all doing some goofy leisure activity. It’s a common technique in manga, but for many stories, those images feel totally removed from the actual characters and narrative. Here, in this absurd world focused on this found family, I can totally imagine these characters just hanging around like this. “The Straw Hats as a legitimate family” is pretty much the most fundamental cornerstone of One Piece’s drama – the manga works incredibly hard to make us believe in their bond, and all our other emotional reactions follow through from there.
But we were dealing with an avalanche. Volume sixteen’s first big challenge is something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, an avalanche does offer Sanji and Luffy the opportunity to attack new challenges – watching the two of them attempt to seek higher ground is a sturdily realistic conflict, and forcing Luffy into what’s essentially an escort mission means he can’t really rely on his powers. If you want to know what separates One Piece from other shonen, “snowboarding down an avalanche while fighting off giant killer bunnies” would probably be a pretty good response.
On the other hand, Oda does have some difficult simply making the avalanche feel visually imposing. Early shots present issues both of perspective (always love to run down a screen) and pure representation, the avalanche often reduced to a simple blob. Drum Kingdom’s mixture of white-on-white backgrounds can occasionally make for some fairly unsatisfying would-be setpieces.
But though finding the visual appeal in a pure white scene can be tricky, Oda ultimately rises to the occasion. Oda’s emphasis on scale has always been one of One Piece’s key strengths, and that focus is perfectly suited to such staggering Man versus Nature conflicts as Luffy trudging through a blizzard or scaling a mountain. There are breathtaking scale-focused compositions throughout this volume, among other smart tricks like a page that depicts Luffy’s eventual climb as one narrow page-height panel, the narrowness of the panel underlining the magnitude of his task.
That page also incorporates one of Oda’s segmented three-piece panels, a trick used both to segue between scenes and to convey the slow passage of time. In one earlier sequence, the aftermath of the avalanche is conveyed in an emotional sense through these partitioned panels, the separation of a single moment creating a sense of time slowing down. Even though Oda’s snowflakes are mostly just big blobby circles, the pacing of his panels is itself very good at creating the sense of a stifling snow drift. The conflict of Luffy against an uncaring storm feels perfectly captured in these progressions of panels, filmic cuts shifting us from Luffy’s determination to Nami’s vulnerability to the endless waves of snow.
After those intense chapters of Luffy battling the elements, we’re quickly reminded that One Piece is also really funny. I loved the contrast of Vivi’s gritty realism and Usopp’s cartoonish anatomy in the above sequence, while also appreciating how well Vivi’s minimalist legs still conveyed her shaking posture. Zoro continues to be one of the naturally funniest members of the crew, demonstrating both punchy visual gags and his now-reliable aggrieved dialogue in his return. And up at the castle, Nami awakens to find herself in both a beautifully detailed chamber and also a Warner Bros cartoon, her “you’re peeking the wrong way” presenting a gag so strong and obvious I was shocked I’d never seen it before.
Thus we are formally introduced to Chopper, the young reindeer who ate the Human-Human Fruit. Chopper’s story starts off pretty routine: he was isolated for his blue nose, and further isolated by his powers, but still longed for companionship. He eventually was taken in by a doctor named Hiriluk, but then Bad Stuff Happened, etc etc etc. It can be very tough balancing the needs of an ongoing narrative versus the need to offer background context for new teammates, and when this volume suddenly jumped into “Six years earlier: the story of Drum Kingdom,” I was more apprehensive than excited. We don’t really have a reason to care about Drum Kingdom, though the introduction of its various key players across these two volumes has been more graceful than some earlier stories. But any device can work if executed well enough, and this volume’s Drum Kingdom flashback passes with flying colors.
The flashback opens strong with a full-page shot introducing Doctor Hiriluk. One Piece has already established a tradition of such shots, but the specific composition of this page feels uniquely effective, from the progressive slumping of the three bottom-left panels to the way Hiriluk’s big profile image simultaneously occupies the background frame and also pokes in over the top panel. Hiriluk begins as an unknown, but his brash idealism soon sets him as fully aligned with the philosophy of One Piece. Describing the pirate flag as a flag that “rejects impossibilities” and is “the symbol of faith” feels like an articulation of One Piece’s most treasured beliefs. Even the dialogue rises to the occasion, with lines like “people say there’s no cure for a sick country, but they’re wrong” possessing an iconic punch and real sense of gravity.
Chopper and Hiriluk’s story continues to marry wide-eyed idealism to classic, cliche-verging film iconography all through the end of this volume. There’s a charming montage of Chopper’s life with Hiriluk, and the classic “go away Chopper, I don’t want you here!” The story plays some very familiar notes, but the visual storytelling is so strong that it’s impossible not to be sold on this relationship. Oda has learned when to layer on the visual busyness and when to hold back, letting such pure expressions of concern as Chopper holding a “miracle mushroom” speak for themselves. Their story is predictable and larger-than-life and executed with such passion and poignancy that it all absolutely works.
The final chapter here serves as the end of Hiriluk’s story, and also one of the finest moments in One Piece so far. Having been tricked into visiting the lord’s castle only to find himself betrayed, Hiriluk can only express relief that no one was actually in danger. And when told he is going to die for his crimes, Hiriluk smiles in the face of death, saying a man can only die when he has been forgotten. Hiriluk’s inspiring words are contrasted against Chopper’s desperate run, a parallel of exertion that exemplifies the familial love that is One Piece’s heart. Returning to the present, we end this volume with Luffy sanctifying that love in the only way he knows how. There are few feelings more pure or anthemic than this.
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