You know I’ve talked about a couple comic books now, even a few manga, and yet I’m surprised I haven’t yet mentioned one of my all-time favorite comic books: One Piece. To very quickly summarize, One Piece (ワンピース) is a story about a crew known as the Straw Hat Pirates led by their Captain – Monkey D. Luffy – as they traverse vast oceans and dangerous islands in search of a mythical treasure known as the One Piece. Written and drawn by the insanely talented Eiichiro Oda, One Piece was first released back in July of 1997 in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump and has been releasing chapters on a near-weekly basis for over 21 years, with no signs of stopping anytime soon. It has a small but substantial following here in America but that pales in comparison to the cultural juggernaut it has become in Japan covering books, a TV show, dozens of movies, and even an amusement park. With over 440 million volumes sold worldwide at the time of this writing, One Piece has surpassed titles including Bleach, Naruto and all of the Dragon Ball series to become the best-selling manga of all time.
Now to clarify, this post is not going to be one big all-encompassing review of the series; there have already been many, many in-depth reviews and professional think pieces that can give you a much better understanding of One Piece than I could ever dream of matching here. Instead, I’m going to narrow my focus to a single chapter – Chapter 108 to be specific – and dig into the reasons why I think it works so well.
First, some context: the Straw Hat Pirates have just reached the first major checkpoint on their journey, the small island of Whiskey Peak, arriving to a huge and welcoming reception. The townspeople there spend the entire day throwing a wild celebration for the grateful crew; eating, drinking, and partying the night away until the Straw Hats have passed out from exhaustion. Unfortunately, it seems that the residents of Whiskey Peak have less than altruistic plans for the Straw Hats.
As it turns out, these seemingly benevolent people are actually a group of bounty hunters in disguise, all working for a single organization known as Baroque Works. The Straw Hats have already met a couple of their agents before arriving here but largely dismissed them as a serious threat, but it seems their reach extends a lot wider than the crew had thought possible. Well, all of them save one.
The Straw Hat’s first mate, Roronoa Zoro, is all too aware of Baroque Works intentions. Since running into the agents from before, he suspected something was amiss and avoided letting himself go completely. Too bad the rest of the crew didn’t take as much care; while Zoro is still awake and alert, the rest of the crew have left themselves completely defenseless. The odds certainly don’t look good; the only thing standing between our helpless heroes and over 100 bounty hunters is a single solitary swordsman. Unfortunately for Baroque Works, that swordsman happens to be Roronoa Zoro.
One thing you should know about Zoro is that as long as he has been a member of the Straw Hats, he has only ever lost one battle, and that was to the most skilled swordsman in the entire world. In every other fight he’s had thus far Zoro has emerged victorious which, naturally, has made him more than a little cocky. What follows then is a fight across twenty or so pages that is simultaneously awesome and hilarious, as we watch Zoro basically “troll” his opponents throughout the entire fight.
At no point do we believe that Zoro will actually lose to this group of run-of-the-mill bounty hunters – Zoro is more concerned with testing out his new swords than anything – but watching his enemies slowly realize just how screwed they are is endlessly entertaining, whether you’re reading it for the first time or the fifth. In a way it’s a bit like how the fights are set up in One-Punch Man: we know that no matter how powerful the villain is that our hero will effortlessly defeat him, the joy comes from watching his enemies and the people around him realize it, too.
Oda gets a lot of opportunities to show off here, keeping things energized as Zoro gets to use more than just his swords in this fight, moving from location to location using different environments to his advantage. A lot of the time the swordsman is running around from ground level up to the rooves of different houses and then back down again, constantly keeping his enemies on the move and letting Zoro control the pace of the fight. As the hopeless goons attempt to climb up after him, Zoro merely pushes the ladders over, hopping on top of them as they fall over and using them to boost himself over to a new location. Zoro gets a lot of chances to use his swords here of course, slicing up tables, barrels, stone hammers and ceilings as he effortlessly works his way through the clueless bounty hunters. By keeping things constantly moving around Oda gets to draw his fights from some fun perspectives, setting up a whole bunch of chuckle-worthy visual gags.
As I was reading this fight through the first time I admit I couldn’t quite figure out why exactly I was enjoying it so much, until another something clicked in the back of my mind: this sequence is structured almost exactly like a classic Jackie Chan fight scene. Now admittedly I’m no expert on how Jackie Chan and his team of experts choreograph their fights, but I think the tone between Oda’s fights and the fights in many of Jackie Chan’s work are very similar. Certainly there are hundreds of movies where one man ends up decimating entire armies singlehandedly, but what I enjoy about Chan’s work is that there’s a sense of humor to the battles as well as a dramatic element. See this one scene in the 2003 “classic” Shanghai Knights for example:
To quote Mr. Wilson, “wow”. Call me an old cynic, but there’s just something about watching a bunch of dudes get beat with an umbrella set to the music of “Singing in the Rain” that delights me. But I digress, this is about Eiichiro Oda after all, and I’d hate to give off the impression that I find his work derivative in some way. The fact of the matter is that in many ways Oda is pushing Chan’s work to the next level, doing things on the page that Chan with all his expertise could never replicate in the real world. Like Chan, who often takes just as much damage as he’s dishing out, the characters regularly take tremendous amounts of punishment in their fights, and yet somehow the violence never comes off as cruel or disturbing. In a way it’s almost like the characters of One Piece operate on “Looney Tunes” logic where life-threatening injuries are often brushed off or downplayed for the sake of humor, except of course when things start to get serious and our heroes decide to take the kid gloves off.
In my humble opinion, “100 Bounty Hunters” works as a perfect microcosm for the One Piece series as a whole with it’s ability to capture Oda’s brand of silly humor mixed with his talent for clear action and fun, interesting characters. It’s really amazing how much Oda is able to pack into one chapter, and it’s one I continue to go back to and study just to marvel at how effortless he makes it all look. I honestly wish the Whiskey Peak arc got a little more attention from fans; as the opening for the Baroque Works Saga it does a great job of building tension, releasing it, and then building it up to a fever pitch, the perfect way to kick off One Piece‘s first major story arc.
It seems to me that this simple trick – Oda’s skill at balancing drama with humor – is at the core of what makes One Piece so entertaining, not just in the fights but the series as a whole. While Oda occasionally takes his characters and his readers into some downright depressing territory, he always makes sure to balance the story out with some silly humor and a genuinely good heart. One Piece reminds us that our problems may seem overwhelming right now, but if we trust in ourselves and our friends, things will eventually be okay. We could use a lot more people like Oda these days; we’re lucky to have a talent like him.