For those just joining us, it’s not very often I share panels from the manga I review — much as I’d like to highlight the exceptional artwork found in the Japanese comics I review, scheduling conflicts induce an uncertain mixture between digital libraries (wherein panels are easily lifted) and physical copies (my preferred manner of library-keeping), and so for the sake of consistency, I’m left with no choice but to simply share their respective volume covers. Regardless, I’d long since noticed the lack of flavor, and while I’d prefer not to over-dilute my opinions with tacky formats, what better way to shake things up than One Piece‘s blessed pair of panels below?
Eiichiro Oda’s odyssey has had its fair share of scrappy tykes embroiled in the Straw Hats’ misadventures, but be they Haki-sensitive guerillas or quarter-merwomen who confuse rabbits for cats, none have charmed me more than young kunoichi-in-training Otama. Merely observe the above panels, and tell me you aren’t in love with her Devil Prowess prowess of extracting dumplings from those exceptionally rosy cheeks: the first, a nonchalant tug, implying she’s used to the procedure (accompanied by a nebulous “myurp” — merely attempting to visualize this sound makes us ponder what transpires within translator Stephen Paul’s wordsmith recesses); the second, a palpable pop accompanied by an adorable expression easily worming her way into our hearts. I confess my fascination may stem from having perhaps imitating this process — perhaps Oda did the same for visualization purposes?
That this all occurs within Volume 91’s very beginning sets the stage for One Piece‘s latest culture shock, wherein we finally embark on the long-awaited Country of Wano. Populated by samurai, ninja, tengu goblins, and yes, even living, breathing komainus — for the unfamiliar, that’d be this Asian guardian spirit — Oda’s love for period dramas and ancient Japan shines through in what may already be the funnest New World adventure yet. It’s not enough for, say, one character design’s being lifted straight from an ukiyo-e painting; nay, the trademark name introductory boxes must be embellished by ornate Japanese architecture, peripheral exposition diving deep into Japanese hobbies (Not once do we pry into Tengu-masked Hitetsu’s collection of Kokeshi dolls, but the casual mention fuels some fun imagination), and having Luffy disguise himself by running around with a sword. (One that, need I remind you, harbors a suspiciously familiar curse.) Oda himself once upheld the value of presenting separate cultures within One Piece‘s vast seas, and although this particular country’s isolationism’s long since shrouded it in mystery, we revel in finally unraveling its traditions — poverty-stricken and corrupt as it may be.
Shame on you if you thought this convention would simply evoke Oda’s love for ye olde Japan; nay, this is One Piece, after all, and the fantastic must be weaved into the grounded period drama. We’ve covered Tama’s mystical dumplings, but this is the first time Kaido’s army of artificial SMILE Devil Fruits seize the spotlight — some are what you’d expect (“Batman”, the rotund archer who may very well be the latest in Oda’s long line of references), whereas others fully embrace Oda’s demented sense of comedy; namely, Holdem’s Lion fruit manifesting as, uh, a half-lion protruding from his waistline. Both master and pet get along terribly, with the latter fond of smacking his owner’s, ahem, “family jewels”, failing to recognize their shared body means they both experience incapacitating pain. Aside from being morbidly hilarious, it’s the most fascinating distinction between these abominable fakes and actual Devil Fruits — could this creation of another “self” imply further animal/human fusions, or perhaps even more unimaginable side-effects, down the road? (Charlotte Daifuku’s genie being the closest example from a genuine DF, and even then, that was something more akin to Stands from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure.)
Quickly: name all the Japanese references decorating this cover!
As we’ve long since learned, however, it doesn’t take the powers of a Devil Fruit to forge strong characters — while Wano isn’t afraid to introduce a new onslaught of characters, most are subject to strong first impressions as opposed to the deluge of fresh faces from Dressrosa and Whole Cake. We meet Okiku, a sword-swinging lass whose fearless courage and proficient katana-work — exemplary enough put sumo wrestler tyrants in their place, even — sets the stage for well-founded suspicions into her background. (One raised by none other than our own resident swordsman in Roronoa Zoro, although his blunt “dang, you’re huge” remains my favorite part of this volume.) But for every do-gooder samurai using their swordplay for good, there’s another sword-wielder, and yet even characters we instantly resent are subject to captivation; why, in the span of one chapter, observe as we helplessly watch Shutenmaru, the samurai bandit, raid a peasant village of its food. Naturally, we feel instant rage at his undoing all of Luffy’s hard-earned work, but when he slices up the billion-bounty Jack the Drought with ease, we’re not just shocked again by Wano’s endless reserves of power — we instantly scramble to theorize on what initially initially appeared to be a peripheral antagonist may very well turn the tides against Kaido and Shogun Orochi.
Point is: in revisiting Wano’s beginning, I’m reminded of just how well-paced this arc is. That this volume condenses much of Wano’s first act — not the least in concluding with a certain big bad descending from stormy skies — is certainly a boon, but look to how the relevant chapters steadily unroll Luffy’s latest journey. Far too often have New World arcs dove head-first into chaotic whirlwinds of activity, exhausting our engagement in rapidly jumping from character to character to tie up every last plot ribbon; here, Oda expertly elevates Luffy and co.’s 11-chapter adventure with an incidental (Luffy rescues a child and forges a new bond), characters new and old encountering the Straw Hats as they gradually tackle Kaido/Orochi’s lower-rung forces, with these battles and meetings culminating into not just our first big showdown but gradual information dumps — not the least into finally, finally revealing the origins of Kinemon and Momonosuke — a mystery nearly thirty volumes in the making. I could elaborate on how this process quickly warms us to the new cast (Okiku, particularly), but the last few chapters alone are stellar examples of cliffhanger segues — while I’ll save the surprises for the next review, I imagine volume-only readers might walk away thinking twice in envying Shonen Jump subscribers.
I may’ve said this before with last volume’s Reverie, but as it stands, One Piece is back to form. If there’s one thing that’s remained true of the series — and what I’ll personally always cherish in his work — Oda’s infectious passion oozes from every last page, yet our stop in Wano’s proven itself a special case in marrying said work ethic to personal interests. Not that this is the first time he’s done this — let’s not forget timeskip Franky’s been his excuse to jam as much giant mecha awesomeness as possible — but never before have we delved so deeply into a setting so evidently embedded into his psyche, and One Piece is all the better for it. Verily, indeed!
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.