And so, it begins: The Straw Hats’ three-volume escape from Big Mom. Let it be known that while series creator Eiichiro Oda is no stranger for prolonging arcs, he’s more infamous for providing…shall we say, “loose” predictions of series/arc longevity. One Piece apparently being halfway over right before 2002’s Skypiea arc is one example, but in this case, the current Wano arc was expected to start late 2017…only to be pushed back into this year thanks to Whole Cake Island’s climax dragging like molasses. I’ve made my ambivalent feelings towards the saga known, but in my eleven years of following One Piece, I cannot recall another moment in series history where I was left on my hands and knees begging, pleading for Luffy and Co. to get the hell out of here so we could hang out with samurai and digest whatever mouth-watering plot developments awaited us in the Reverie meeting.
Imagine my surprise when I walked away thoroughly enjoying Volume 87, where our heroes only just begin their escape. Granted, there are obvious strains– that the crew only reaches the Thousand Sunny by the volume’s end is telling – but absorbing the hunt within a concentrated volume format renders it much more palatable as opposed to a weekly one. With the chase only just beginning, however, it’s perhaps only natural it hasn’t run out of steam just yet, but it helps everything still feels relevant and engaging: there’s plenty of double-spread action, noble sacrifices, fakes-outs illustrating the unstoppable threat of Big Mom, unexpected developments to fend off the pirates (baking a cake?!?), and hints signalling the involvement of languishing characters.
So, what is good about it thus far? The comedy, for one: Sanji’s former bride-to-be in Charlotte Pudding has engaged in a change-of-heart by assisting the Straw Hats’ escape, but her flip-flopping emotions have rendered her a wreck whenever Sanji so much as speaks; in other words, she’s become a genuine tsundere who cannot be honest with her lovesick emotions, right down to ending her vehement speeches with a subdued “…dear ♥”. Nami’s devilish bribing and sadism also catch us by surprise, be it her recruiting an unlikely ally from Big Mom’s side through delicious cumulonimbus clouds or the shock of her literally telling a liberated Caesar Clown to go off and die. (Yikes!)
Of course, an escape from one of the Four Emperors will not be sunshine and rainbows — no matter how much the scenery of Totto Land would have you believe otherwise — and that’s how the volume ends on a bittersweet note in Pedro’s sacrifice. To anyone who paid attention, this shouldn’t come as a surprise — his prior involvement with the Big Mom pirates raised some serious death flags — but given One Piece isn’t exactly known for definitively killing off its cast, we’re left to wonder what this means for Pedro. We could be cynics and dismiss his loss as undermined given how other characters have miraculously escaped massive explosions, but given that such deaths are ambiguous in themselves, they provide an engaging springboard for theorizing — could Big Mom’s prediction over Pedro’s lifespan prove true, or might he still have a role to play in the future? (Perhaps the prolonged pursuit provide clues to his whereabouts?).
Not even the whole family!
There are other good bits of drama – Sanji puts his family behind him for good, and we even learn Bege has a heart beating for both his cronies and his family within his cold mafia exterior — but it’s Pedro’s role that certainly plays into the Big Mom’s stunning prowess. If we must cite one thing about this extended chase that works, it’s that Oda certainly illustrates her tenacious invincibility throughout the entire volume — against the Emperor’s demented state of hunger, Luffy’s Gear 4 techniques that demolished Doflamingo are but an irritant, and not even Nami tapping into Zeus’s powers in colossal bolt of thunder can slow her down. With her cohorts are just as persistent — her oldest son in Charlotte Perospero shrugs off a point-blank dynamite blast by forging a new candy arm — Pedro’s final act could only throw so many enemies off their tail, and in turn, Luffy stays behind to take down Big Mom’s strongest child: Charlotte Katakuri, the Mochi-Mochi man whose monstrous Haki perceives the future.
Which brings us to the art — Whole Cake Island is easily the most animated arc in some time, and so this volume’s condensed blend of comedy and drama provide the perfect outlet, be it the ever-shifting countenances of Pudding or Luffy and Katakuri’s chapter-closing staredown, the latter being my favorite since our hero faced down Doflamingo. Aside from getting our adrenaline pumping for the next installment, it plays perfectly into our expectations — at this current point in time, we obviously cannot expect Luffy to out-muscle an Emperor, and so we settle for the next best thing in this Emperor’s top commander. The road to Kaido of the Beasts has been a long, treacherous ordeal, but should Oda’s last prediction in One Piece being 80% done prove true, we may just be seeing the tunnel’s light.
They say dragged-out arcs like this are better consumed in volume form, and given how much more invested I was this time, perhaps they’re right; however, given my bias from reading it prior within Weekly Shonen Jump, the cynic in me assumes it’ll run out of steam soon enough. In the meantime, a more pressing question rears its head: Will Broth Splatterina, a girl from Kidd’s past we hear whispers of in Oda’s Q&A corner, ever appear in the main story? Only time will tell.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.