At last, it’s time for One Piece’s triumphant return! After far too many days/weeks/months of dilly-dallying, we’re back on the One Piece train with the second volume of the fabled Arlong Park arc. Nami’s backstory, the powers of her crew, and Arlong’s menace all rolled into one explosive manga adventure. And after all this time away, I have to say that… this volume is maybe a bit of a letdown.
There are a lot of anime out there! Literally thousands, with over a hundred more being released every year. There are new hits every season, and old favorites that have slowly lost their topical sheen. Given all those shows, it can be understandably hard to pick what to watch next – anime, like every other medium, is full of stuff that will disappoint you, and everyone’s tastes are different.
My own tastes in particular are a little weird – I like arthouse stuff and intimate character studies and occasional cathartic message-focused shows. But fortunately, there is indeed such a thing as “normal” taste in anime, or at least the most common preferences shared by fans outside of Japan. And today, I’m hoping to help that audience – or more specifically, hopefully, You.
One Piece’s ninth volume is titled simply “Tears.” It’s a thematically relevant choice, but it’s also about as clear an indication as you could hope for of the emotional trials to come. This volume is a harrowing journey, featuring One Piece’s greatest moments of character writing and most cathartic points of high drama so far. It’s an easy peak for the manga, a dramatic accomplishment any story would be proud of.
The Baratie arc came to an end in this volume, concluding with as much dignity as it could muster. As before, a great deal of this volume’s weakness came down to the fact that Don Krieg is just not a particularly exciting opponent. Volume six deliberately undercut him by using him as a prop to build up a more threatening opponent, and volume seven dawdled through a series of fights with underwhelming underlings. Even Don Krieg’s theming isn’t particularly compelling – his main gimmicks are a focus on “military might” and his wide variety of weapons, neither of which serve to make him particularly threatening. Don Krieg is altogether pretty much a failure of an antagonist.
The battle against Don Krieg continues in One Piece’s seventh volume, hampered only by one small but somewhat significant problem – Don Krieg himself is not an intimidating villain or interesting character.
Part of this comes down to his fundamental design. If Krieg has any character or power-related gimmicks, they are “weapons and ruthlessness.” His personality is based on only looking out for himself, which somewhat works in the context of this particular arc, but doesn’t make for a particularly engaging character. And his battle tricks lack the unique style or cohesion of Kuro and Buggy – he’s just a guy in a big metal suit who shoots a lot of cannonballs.
One Piece has been chugging merrily along so far, gathering crewmates and engaging in one-off adventures, but it’s been a fairly self-contained story. We know this is the “era of pirates,” but that doesn’t really feel tangible outside of the fact that all of the bad guy groups have been pirates or naval officers. The story doesn’t really have a sense of coherent scale – it’s largely felt like episodic adventures were just being invented one after another, which is quite possibly true. On top of that, very little so far has felt legitimately threatening; though Luffy and his friends have certainly been in danger, there’s been little threat of actual consequences or death.
I’m pretty stuck on this train at this point. One Piece’s fifth volume concludes the fight with Kuro’s cat-themed pirates, and adds one more member to Luffy’s humble crew. In doing so, it consistently demonstrates the two-pronged atmospheric attack that I assume has made One Piece such an unstoppable institution. The volume opens with Luffy fighting Kuro on the slopes while Usopp’s pirates attempt to stop Django, who react to his new weapons with the wonderfully absurd “he’s not a typical traveling hypnotist after all!” It’s absurdity and action all the way down, a ride that doesn’t let up for the first two-thirds of the volume.
One Piece’s fourth volume is action-packed from start to finish, wholly dedicated to the protracted battle between Usopp, his new friends, and the former Captain Kuro. And it’s all very fun stuff! There isn’t necessarily a continuous heightened level of tension throughout these chapters, but there’s certainly plenty of momentum, and no sense that anything is being dragged out. I’d worried in discussing the last volume that Usopp himself would be more aggravating than endearing, but whether it comes down to the speed of manga versus anime or the simple execution of his character, Usopp is actually turning out to be one of the highlights of the manga.
The battle between Luffy and Buggy’s pirates concludes in this volume, across a trio of chapters that basically split the difference between slapstick and traditional action. While Buggy came across as intimidating in the earlier Nami chapters, Luffy outclasses him pretty handily, and so any attempts at tension here are mostly about Buggy putting either Nami or Luffy’s hat in danger. Even Buggy’s special power no longer comes across as dangerous – it’s more a tool for slapstick, where Buggy’s ability to send his top half flying becomes a lot less powerful when Luffy can still kick his bottom half in the junk. Buggy’s power kinda sucks, but it sure is good for gags.
With Zoro now on the team, One Piece’s second volume digs into a longer narrative on just one island, as Luffy and Zoro wander their way into the territory of Buggy the Clown. The first volume of One Piece was a collection of scattered small adventures, stories reflective of the clear Toriyama influence that still shows through in moments like the early dragon-ride coloring image. There’s still more of that here, from the wild expression work and character designs to the slapstick and word game silliness that flavors Buggy’s entrance. But we’re already stepping into longer narrative territory, and though One Piece is still a generally light and very readable production, it’s also starting to demonstrate some interesting thematic teeth.