With Eiichiro Oda’s pirate-swamped seas being as dense as they are — each individual island and culture weaving into a rich, conspiracy-laden tapestry stretching back some eight-hundred years — it’s hardly uncommon for plot agents slithering just underneath our notice to suddenly coalesce into the bigger picture, often playing into sudden twists that have us marveling at the meticulous world-building Oda-sensei’s poured into his creation. The man once claimed this could occasionally be chalked up to coincidence, yet I can’t imagine that’s the case for the tragedy afflicting Wano’s poverty-stricken villages.
Putting it this way: did you ever stop to consider why those artificial Devil Fruits were dubbed “Smile”? Yeah, see, turns out its distributors thought it was simply hilarious how whoever didn’t obtain its Zoan powers were condemned to uncontrollable laughter for the rest of their days, not the least in the starving residents of Ebisu who had no chance but to fill their empty stomachs; yes, this means that witnessing the execution of a universally-beloved daimyo masks anguish and grief into sobbing giggle-fits — even if said daimyo was your father.
Um, oof. That’s the One Piece gut-punch for you.
As Act II of Wano ramps up, Volume 94’s opening tragedies and tears pave the way to rabble-rousing and selfless courage — all encapsulating the cartoonish fever weaved perfectly Oda’s tribute to his beloved period dramas. We’re dealt with further misfortunes beforehand: Kidd’s connection with Kamazo the Manslayer, for one. We’ve long since known Kidd is something of an antithesis to Luffy — both he and right-hand man Killer readily slay anyone who dares mock their dreams or physical deficiencies, whereas Luffy simply shrugs such insults unless the safety of his friends is threatened. Our Straw Hat hero might convince broken samurai to grant pirates a second chance, but ever the lone wolf, Kidd has no time for “friendship” — or at least in form of pirate alliances, having already been burnt from Scratchmen Apoo’s betrayal. With numerous factions already aiming for Kaido’s head, are these two members of the Worst Generation truly isolated in their own method in Kaido counterattack…?
Even so, One Piece is always the optimist — Luffy’s eternal role as the catalyst returns in the volume’s best scene: Not even the return of the Akazaya Nine’s enough to mend the broken souls of Udon’s samurai prisoners, yet it takes one selfless act from our favorite pirate to literally rein them in. Perhaps this might be echoed into the larger-than-life legend of Kozuki Oden; after all, is there any question at this point that Luffy embodies Oden’s wish of open borders? The distrustful roots of nationalism steeped deep even within Wano’s patriotic samurai are what the legendary samurai wished to cleave, yet as they shed off such shackles under the banner of both Kozuki Momonosuke and a complete stranger, we’re roused right along with them as readers in taking down Kaido and Orochi’s rule. (And before y’all start accusing me of pushing an agenda, I direct you to reading Anime News Network’s excellent historical piece detailing Wano’s undeniable callbacks to Momotaro and Edo isolationism; seriously, it’s all but spelled out!)
Not that the Akazaya Nine don’t pull their weight in this volume: Bridges are finally mended between Kin’emon and Ashura, for one — desperation and resigned nihilism sundered under the unified hatchet that was Lord Yasuie’s sacrifice. We also meet our latest recruit in Kawamatsu: the enigmatic fish-bone chewer locked deep within the cells of Udon. If his intimidating glares conjured the image of up-and-at-’em badass, prepare for your expectations to be circumvented yet again with this goofy-looking kappa swordsmen, whose amazing blend of sumo-swordsmanship is immediately offset by a veritable waterfall of venomous vomit.
Note Otama stealthily pulling those cheeks.
Naturally, such gaffes are no surprise to veteran One Piece fans — we’ve long since recognized Oda’s talent in rendering even the silliest of designs into genuinely endearing, captivating, and dare I say “cool” characters. in Kawamatsu’s case, he’s the easily the humblest of the legendary samurai, taking even Kozuki Hiyori’s tear-laden apology with a level of grace undoubtedly tempered by the poisonous meals he endured over the past decade. Kine’mon and co.’s time-traveling trials and tribulations may’ve taken center-stage, but it’s Kawamatsu’s perseverance for survival — be it his slow execution by polluted fish or resorting to hoarding grave-robbed swords — that may very well prove him the most dedicated Scabbard under Oden’s banner.
As things ramp up to a tumultuous climax — not the least in Kaido and Big Mom’s massive clash, as well as the prospect of a new sword for Zoro — Act III of Wano is primed to deliver on its promise to transform the world of One Piece as we know it. The exact ramifications of the Ninja-Pirate-Mink-Samurai Alliance’s gestated revolution are chipped away chapter after chapter, with the next volume — which may very well present the finest info dump in all of One Piece — slated to deliver the final pieces of the puzzle. As Kin’emon and the rest toil away in preparation, the series’ sword remains sheathed, confident in knowing the best is yet to come.
(By the way, I honestly thought most of the cover stories following the timeskip proved mediocre, but Capone “Gang” Bege’s Oh My Family? Easily the funnest one in years. Keep an eye on this one!)
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.