One Piece is the greatest thing ever.
Try not to look TOO smug about it.
Okay, not really. There are at least several things better than One Piece (the Bible, true love, Robocop) but when you’re watching it, it can often feel like it really is The Best. And I would legitimately argue its status as one of THE great pop epics of our time.
And I do mean epic. One Piece is HUGE: a multimedia franchise that began in 1997, One Piece started as a manga by Eiichiro Oda which now has about 750 chapters and soon spawned a televised anime adaptation with over 600 episodes. Neither shows any sign of stopping, being a singular cultural juggernaut in its native Japan and beginning to penetrate the wider world. Considering his story’s amazingly ambitious scope, Oda has been admirably unafraid to keep making his fictional world ever-larger, more complex and rich, often planting plot seeds which take hundreds of chapters to bear fruit.
One Piece is the story of Monkey D. Luffy– possibly the ur-example of the single-minded & virtuously simple protagonist– his journey to become the next Pirate King, and the friends & adventures he piles up along the way. The show runs through a lot of themes, but most prominently, One Piece is about dreams, and what ends a man will go to accomplish them. There might not be any modern story which is so thoroughly optimistic as One Piece yet it doesn’t shy away from the dark realities of human nature: the story’s world is filled with good people who have failed or made compromises, and villains who have committed unspeakably vile deeds. But one way or another, none of them are unchanged once they cross paths with the relentless engine of goodness that is Luffy.
This blog could always do with a bit of branching out, so tackling a small slice of One Piece is both an opportunity to examine our first TV show (an animated Japanese show, at that) and hopefully nudge some Western readers towards a property that’s relatively unknown in their part of the world. (On that front: I hate to be such a cliched nerd, but avoid the dubbed American versions of this at all costs, especially the early stuff by 4Kids; seek out the subtitled material instead. Dubbing competence aside, the story & characters simply lose something in translation.) Also, it couldn’t hurt to pull in some traffic from otakus on Google.
And this will be a small slice, examining the five distinctive battles which occur at the conclusion of the show’s famous Alabasta arc, from relatively early in its run. The Alabasta storyline was not the first one to impress or win over new fans, but it was the first time the show engaged in some seriously long form storytelling and arrived at a thrilling conclusion that managed to pay off years of investment.
A word for the uninitiated: Many of One Piece’s characters have fantastical powers for one reason or another (the most common explanation is having eaten one of the rare “Devil’s Fruits” which grant the consumer a certain set of superhuman traits), but even many of the ostensibly “normal” characters are capable of feats far beyond actual human ability: impossible leaps, exaggerated strength, incredible endurance, etc. It’s just another one of the stylized conventions inherent to shounen anime programs, kind of like calling out the name of your special attack before you do it.
1) Usopp and Chopper vs Mr. 4 and Miss Merry Christmas
(Did I mention the show and its characters are very, ahem, colorful? Get used to that.)
- Usopp, one of the more inexperienced and least powerful of Luffy’s crew. An incurable liar (complete with comically long nose) and often a shameless coward, Usopp is a good soul who can be counted on when it matters most. Voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi.
- Powers/abilities/weapons: Usopp has no special powers to speak of, and is not even physically impressive by normal human standards. His main asset is his advanced cleverness, both as an inventor of useful devices and quick-thinking battle tactics. His most common weapon is a slingshot, but he has all sorts of little gadgets with him.
- Tony Tony Chopper, the doctor of Luffy’s crew and its newest member. Although brilliant and talented, Chopper is very naive, having not seen much of the world; he’s very childlike in both attitude and appearance. He’s also a reindeer. Voiced by Ikue Otani.
- Powers/abilities/weapons: Yep, a reindeer. Specifically, he’s a reindeer who ate a Devil’s Fruit that gives the consumer human-like attributes: speech, intelligence, etc. Chopper can transform at will between a very human-like appearance, a powerful reindeer form, and a sort of hybrid form that’s about three feet tall and totally adorable– which is what he spends most of his time in. He has the considerable strength of a wild reindeer, and has also devised a special drug called the “Rumble Ball” which augments his abilities for a short while after consumption.
- Mr. 4, one of the high-ranking members of Baroque Works (see below). A huge, slow-talking, and slow-moving simpleton. Voiced by Masaya Takatsuka.
- Powers/abilities/weapons: Mr. 4’s powers are not supernatural, which is rare in his organization. He’s merely an incredibly strong human with a knack for baseball– his main weapon is a four-ton (!) baseball bat, which he uses either as a direct weapon or to smack exploding baseball bombs at his foes. The bombs are launched by his “dog,” Lassoo, which functions as a sort of pitching machine but with explosive cannon balls. It’s very weird.
- Miss Merry Christmas, Mr. 4’s partner. An obnoxious older lady who’s as agile and loquacious as her partner is slow and quiet. She’s the brains of the pair, and their abilities complement each other nicely. Voiced by Mami Kingetsu.
- Powers/abilities/weapons: She ate a Devil’s Fruit that gave her the abilities and appearance of a mole, allowing her to tunnel rapidly underground.
The Setup: At the risk of making this too long:
Monkey D. Luffy’s crew, called the “Straw Hat Pirates” due to their captain’s signature headgear, are a motley band of do-gooders in search of excitement and treasure. Soon after entering the Grand Line– the chaotic center of the fictional world’s vast ocean– the heroes run afoul of a criminal organization known as Baroque Works. BW is a vast, secretive enterprise which has currently set its sights on taking over the desert kingdom of Alabasta, and has been subtly fomenting instability there for years. This is discovered by Alabasta’s young princess, Vivi, who was able to infiltrate Baroque Works’ ranks and attain a fairly high position. Once the criminals discover Vivi’s true identity, she hires the Straw Hats’ help.
After a VERY convoluted series of events, the separated Straw Hat pirates end up in and around Alabasta’s capital city Alubarna, facing off against the highest-ranking officers of Baroque Works as a civil war begins to erupt around them. There’s a lot of overlap between their various battles, but first (and weirdest) is Usopp and Chopper’s showdown outside the Southeast City Gate.
[Baroque Works’ higher ranking members work in male-female pairs, usually around a theme. The male half is assigned an alias corresponding to his rank, and the female’s name is calendar-based (days of the week and holidays). It’s delightfully bizarre.]
The Fight: Chopper is actually there first, and has to contend with the pair alone. He’s taken by surprise at their tactics and is seen getting hurt in some unspecified manner before the camera pulls away to elsewhere. When we return, a dazed Chopper is being roused by Usopp, who was sent over by Sanji after getting thrashed a bit by Mr. 2.
Usopp thinks they’ve run off, but they’re still underground, tunneling around ominously. Turns out, these two work as a pretty efficient, if bizarre, team: Merry Christmas (hmm, typing that name is going to get old REALLY fast) creates a local tunnel network with plenty of holes. Their dog, Lassoo, fires the baseball-shaped bombs, which are explosives on timers. The bombs either reach their targets or are lined up to be batted the right way by Mr. 4– who can get around those tunnels pretty quickly for such a slow guy.
Meanwhile, the much-faster female half is free to run interference, such as when she seizes Chopper’s foot to keep him from attacking her partner directly early in the fight; the young doctor only avoids taking a direct volley from Mr. 4 by reverting back to his tiny form at the last second, letting them sail harmlessly overhead.
The crafty Usopp takes this opportunity to disappear into the tunnels himself, and unnerves the villains a bit by calling them out from the unseen depths. He emerges and bashes Mr. 4 on the head with an enormous mallet before he can react, knocking the criminal unconscious.
Usopp wields it with casual ease, despite the “5 ton” label on it, shocking all the others present. He talks trash– his usual brand of self-aggrandizing lies coming in handy for once– and pursues Miss Merry Christmas, though she keeps dodging him easily. The bit’s resemblance to a certain classic, non-digital arcade activity is unmistakeable:
Skee ball. It’s clearly skee ball.
It goes on for quite a while, and there’s even a hilarious, blink & you’ll miss it gag where Usopp drops the hammer for a second and flicks her with a rubber band– even calling out the “attack” name for it (simply “rubber band”) in sotto voce– just to annoy her. He never does whack that mole, but they both get visibly tired.
Unfortunately, Mr. 4 wakes up, not as injured as assumed, because as an attack from Lassoo soon reveals, Usopp’s hammer is a bluff– it’s just two frying pans he jerry-rigged together, then covered with fake vinyl and a “5-ton” label. Cute, but it infuriates Miss Merry Christmas, so she enters her combat mode where she can dig through the ground freely– no longer relying on the tunnels– and goes after Usopp.
She chases him to some nearby ruins, where he lures her into colliding with the underground wall, which she hits hard enough to bring the whole thing collapsing down on Usopp. Afterwards, she grabs hold of him from underneath, and drags him along with her, Jaws-style, as she “swims” through the ground, pulling him through several ancient walls and leaving Usopp-shaped holes like Bug Bunny.
This is starting to get downright cartoonish.
Meanwhile, Chopper contends with Mr. 4, who uses a technique where his dog fills the air with baseball bombs and explodes dozens of them at once. Chopper survives (… somehow) and uses his rumble ball to enter an enhanced intellect mode, analyzing Mr. 4’s tactics. He finds it, and scrambles over to Lassoo, splashing sand in the clueless dog’s face. Chopper then shoves the dog’s head down a nearby hole when it sneezes repeatedly in reaction, each sneeze launching a bomb from its mouth. Chopper links up with the wounded Usopp and both run from the tunnel network area just as it erupts in a massive explosion, engulfing both villains.
You’d think THIS would be enough, right?
It’s pretty big, but after a short breather, the bad guys reveal they still have plenty of hit points left. Usopp tries to run away one last time (it’s kind of his thing), but he’s seized from beneath by Miss Merry Christmas, who ends the episode on a cliffhanger by mocking the pair and telling them that Luffy’s dead– which, as far as she knows, is true.
Strangely, this drives Usopp to find his courage. He tells Chopper not to believe the news, and believe in Luffy instead. But the liar nevertheless gets dragged upright through the sand by Merry Christmas again, this time right smack into Mr. 4’s deadly bat. The poor kid breaks more than a few bones, and the impact sends him flying through the air.
What a Foul move.
Miraculously, Usopp survives, defiant as ever. The mole woman (who, incidentally, Usopp has repeatedly described as a “penguin,” much to her annoyance) grabs him and tries to pull another Batter Up, but this time the good guys are ready. Using the last remaining power from the rumble ball, Tony Tony Chopper enters his “Horn Point” mode: a hulking, four-legged appearance with enlarged antlers. He follows behind Merry Christmas as she drags his friend, and when they get close, Usopp uses a slingshot to fire a smoke pellet in the air, obscuring everyone’s sight.
He breaks free by slipping out of his shoes, and imitates the mole lady’s voice to give Mr. 4 the go ahead. Chopper uses his horns to scoop up Miss Merry Christmas and runs her right into her own partner’s waiting bat. Thud.
MMC goes flying, and without the brains of his operation, Mr. 4 can only stand in shock as Usopp uses Chopper’s antlers to create a massive slingshot, and puts a small (but real this time) hammer in it as the pellet. The launched mallet hits the batter dead-on.
“… and THAT’S how we settle things back home in Asgard.”
The blow knocks Mr. 4 into Lassoo and they both land next to Miss Merry Christmas. Just to put a nice bow on the whole thing, the dog accidentally barfs up one last grenade, which goes off right on top of them all. Good boy.
Usopp collapses and melodramatically prepares for his own death, and Chopper frantically calls out for a doctor, before being reminded that he is one. Then, the action freezes and this is slowly typed on the screen:
It’s definitely out of nowhere, too: the show is of course very stylized, but never in the preceding 100+ episodes has the action stopped to read out fight outcomes like it was a sporting event. It doesn’t just make for an unexpected capper to the fight but also provides a welcome bit of triumphant silliness to relieve the tension regarding the high stakes at play– remember, Vivi’s beloved kingdom is erupting into civil war thanks to Baroque Works’ machinations, and the heroes have recently suffered a set of severe setbacks (including Luffy’s near death). It’s nice to have an almost literal scoreboard pop up and essentially say “GOOD GUYS: 1, BAD GUYS: 0”
This is probably the oddest and easily the most convoluted of all the climactic clashes that are beginning to happen. Chopper and especially Usopp are ill-suited for direct physical combat, so this showdown necessarily has to happen in a wildly complex scenario, where the heroes get in their licks via mostly unorthodox means.
There are a few demerits, the most prominent being the over-reliance on explosions, and how little those explosions seem to do. Over & over again, the villains and especially the heroes are caught within bomb blasts– not ten or twenty feet away but just a few feet or even inches away, and not only do the characters miraculously survive but they’re barely hurt, lacking the decency to even get all scarred up like Harry Osborn. Of course, it’s a cartoon and a willfully silly one at that, but even this kind of ridiculousness has its limits. Similarly, the abuse the heroes (particularly Usopp) withstand makes it hard to accept the idea that the villains go down for the count after taking a lot less.
But it is a good deal of fun, silly or otherwise. Usopp & Chopper engage in varied combat both separately and cooperatively. The staging follows a strong pattern: the good guys seem outmatched, they find a smart way to bounce back, the villains come back even harder, and finally the good guys are able to rally and win the day for good– it’s a template the other battles will follow, to an extent.
The battle is also paced fairly well, taking neither too long or too short: it begins at the tail end of one episode, takes up the bulk of the next (with a cutaway or two to Vivi’s efforts to reach the palace), continues on into the episode after that and ends before the commercial break. It’s a cliche to say that most of any given “fight” in Dragon Ball Z is really like 90% charging up and yelling at each other with 10% actual punching & kicking and dragged out over half a season… but it’s a cliche because it’s true. So it’s refreshing to break away from this obnoxious anime tradition, and have some battles that are over in about an episode and a half, with very little time wasted. One Piece is legitimately as cool as you thought Dragon Ball was when you were in high school.
Recommended Links: Chris Sims at Comic Alliance gives the series his own unqualified recommendation after reaching an earlier, but still great, point in the manga. Worth reading if you’re curious to learn more/other opinions about One Piece.
Coming Attractions: Remember when I said this fight was “probably” the oddest?
There’s a reason for that.