Next on my catch up list: One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. Volumes 56 through 60 of the series follow Luffy on his desperate quest to save his brother, Ace, from execution by the Marines. Some One Piece arcs don’t necessarily do much to move the larger series arc forward, but that’s absolutely not true of the Impel Down/Paramount War arc. There is so much weight of story behind the events here that it’s hard to escape the sense that everything’s been building up to these moments. This might not be anywhere close to the end of the series, but it’s definitely a huge turning point.
[Warning: there are major plot spoilers in the rest of this post]
Even more than most Weekly Shōnen Jump series, One Piece is a story driven by friendship, by the idea of nakama. Yet during the Impel Down and Paramount War arcs, Luffy is entirely separated from his crew, who we only see in the chapter splash pages. Of course, Luffy picks up friends along the way: that’s just who Luffy is. I am sure I am not the only reader who nodded in agreement when Whitebeard says to Luffy, “I love idiots like you.” As a fan, I miss Zolo, Nami, Sanji, Robin, Usopp, Franky, Chopper, and Brook a great deal, but I suspect this story just wouldn’t have worked as well with all of them around. There are already too many larger-than-life characters taking up space on the page–someone had to be moved offstage. It also makes these two arcs feel distinctly different from previous ones, simply because they don’t fall into the same old familiar pattern.
In particularly, the Straw Hats’ absence allows Oda to focus that much more on the central theme of family. There’s Luffy and Ace as brothers, with Garp as their grandfather; Luffy as the son of his infamous father, Dragon; Ace as the son of Gol D. Roger and Portgaz D. Rouge; and, of course, the family of the Whitebeard Pirates, with Edward Newgate as “Pops.”
The Impel Down arc sometimes is a a bit of a slog to read: each level in the prison seems to bring more of the same chaotic action. The Paramount War arc is much better paced. It’s still one fight after another, but those fights are interspersed with another character moments (such as the flashback to how Ace joined Whitebeard’s crew) and humor (everyone taking advantage of Buggy’s naivete) to make events move quickly.
When the Paramount War arc ends, Ace and Whitebeard are dead, and the world of One Piece is a different place. But most of the antagonists, from Blackbeard to Admiral Akainu, are still around. It’s a bit crazy to think volume 60 of series could really only mark the end of act 1 of this epic, but there’s One Piece for you. Somewhere in a future volume–probably many, many volumes down the line–Luffy’s going to have another showdown with these enemies. And I’ll bet you good money that next time around Luffy will have the Straw Hat Pirates fighting by his side.