Crooks and cooks

March 21, 2010

The Reverse Thieves recently podcast their thoughts on why Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece (originally published by Shueisha and released in English by Viz) isn’t the mega-hit here that it is in Japan. (That’s a volume sold every 1.6 seconds, basically.) As a relatively recent convert to the Cult of the Straw Hats, I’ve pondered this question, and I certainly enjoyed hearing the Thieves speculate. I enjoyed listening to them geek out over the title’s many glories even more, since I’m increasingly given to doing the exact same thing.

One observation that really caught my ear was about Oda’s world building and his willingness to plant tiny, seemingly irrelevant narrative seeds that come to full flower later, sometimes much later. Natsuki Takaya did this all the time in Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), turning seemingly oblique observations and sideways glances from volume two into searing heartbreak in, say, volume nine. It’s quite a skill, that kind of callback work, and it displays a great deal of confidence on the part of the creator that they’ll be able to tell their story according to plan.

That’s a nice element of Oda’s work, but what really make the book addictive are the moments when action, comedy and drama come together perfectly. It’s amazing to see Oda mix heartbreaking bits of character development in with a wild, sprawling brawl packed with over-the-top action and bizarre opponents. It’s what pushes One Piece from the level of very good shônen fantasy to great manga in general.

One of my side obsessions is finding the spot where that combination first really clicked. It doesn’t happen in volumes four through six, collected here. One Piece is still just very good, and Oda is kind of vamping as he assembles his core crew and introduces the kinds of adventures they’ll be having for the foreseeable future.

In this case, it’s settling the affairs of poor old Usopp, the sharpshooter and compulsive liar who’s trying to protect his seaside village from the byzantine schemes of Captain Kuro and Kuro’s bizarre henchmen. These chapters reinforce Oda’s ability to craft antagonists who are freaky and amusing and genuinely menacing at the same time. They also reinforce some of Luffy’s defining qualities, specifically his utter confidence even when he’s getting his rubber butt handed to him.

That settled, the Straw Hats then sail on to a floating restaurant staffed by brawl-happy former pirates and led by a chef with a peg leg and a moustache that’s practically a character in its own right. These chapters highlight Oda’s way with absurd scenarios and interesting settings. They also introduce us to Sanji, the assistant chef with the uzumaki eyebrows and the high-kicking fighting style. Sanji loves the ladies in that ineffectual way of supporting characters in shônen adventure stories, and he loves to feed people. He’s foul-mouthed but oddly dapper, and… wait for it… he has a dream.

Precisely what that dream is will have to wait for the next omnibus. Also on deck for that collection is the secret ingredient to One Piece’s greatness: the crushingly sad character flashback. But there is plenty to enjoy in the meantime. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the sprawling fight sequences are really, really good. I don’t have a whole lot of patience for incomprehensible battle techniques and drawn-out struggles, and Oda has yet to fail on those fronts. All of his combatants have specialties, but they always make sense, and there’s more than enough humor and surprise in these knock-down drag-outs to maintain my interest.

But oh, those crushingly sad character flashbacks… you don’t even know, but by volume nine, you will.