Ah, shounen. It’s always somewhat of a relief to take a break with some shounen because things tend to be blissfully uncomplicated. Encounter a bad guy? Fight him. When he whips out a backstory that suddenly makes him your ally? Befriend him. That’s the central idea behind these three volumes.
We begin on Cactus Island in a town called Whiskey Peak, where the residents—who, unbeknownst to our heroes, are bounty hunters—have wined and dined the Straw Hat Pirates in an attempt to make them easier to capture. The most diligent are from Baroque Works, a secret criminal organization that deals in espionage, assassination, and bounty hunting. Zolo fights off a few agents, but then some other agents show up and accuse the first ones of being spies and then suddenly, the Straw Hats are agreeing to convey one of the spies, who’s really a princess, to her home island so that she can prevent a takeover attempt by the boss of Baroque Works.
Alas, Princess Vivi spills the beans about the identity of said boss, so the Straw Hats are pursued on their journey by Baroque Works agents tasked with silencing them. They end up on an island called Little Garden, where two giants have been engaged in honorable battle for a hundred years. I actually rather like the giants, but the ensuing battle with a Baroque Works agent, Mr. 3, who has the power of the Wax Wax Fruit, quickly grows chaotic, complete with quacking ducks running around and a dude with explosive bogeys who spouts cheesy lines like, “You’ll never dodge the bullets from my 6-shot .44 caliber flintlock revolver.” There are some amusing bits, like Zolo, who is about to be turned into a wax figure, adopting a heroic pose so he’ll look cool for perpetuity, but mostly it’s just fighting.
In volume fifteen, the Straw Hats are once again on their way toward Princess Vivi’s homeland, Alabasta, when Nami takes ill. They detour to the nearby Drum Island in search of a doctor. I’m really enjoying the Drum Island folk so far. They had a corrupt king who fled with all the court doctors when pirates threatened the island and are now trying to set up democratic rule, so they’re very sympathetic, especially Dalton, the one honorable guy from the king’s administration who has remained behind to protect the people. Also, the killer bunnies that menace Luffy and Sanji as they carry Nami up a snowy mountain to the one remaining doctor are pretty awesome.
One thing I continue to admire about One Piece is the continuity and planning that’s clearly evident. For example, Princess Vivi, in her Baroque Works persona, first showed up a few volumes ago and only now does her impact upon the story become evident. And in volume fifteen we get some glimpses of both the Navy, on their way to Alabasta, and Mr. 2 Bon Clay, one of the higher-ups in Baroque Works who’s been tasked with eliminating Mr. 3, but neither figures into the tale immediately. (Side note: the coat on Mr. 2 Bon Clay’s back says okama (along with some kanji I can’t read) but hasn’t been translated. Maybe VIZ is shying away from introducing Shonen Jump readers to the concept of drag queens.)
Another thing I enjoy is the art. The cartoonish style and ridiculous foes used to bother me, but they don’t anymore. Now I notice more how Oda uses what I can only describe as “camera angles” in his paneling to excellent effect. In volume fourteen, for example, there’s a nice panel where Luffy and crew are seen from a giant’s perspective, and on several occasions throughout these three volumes, Oda pulls back for a wide shot showing events from a more distant perspective, be it people falling from buildings, exploding ships, or the whole party staring in disbelief a friendly yet enormous bear. The end result approaches something cinematic, which I like a lot.
Lastly, I appreciate that the women in this series are portrayed as capable and smart and that Princess Vivi is pretty immediately likable once her true circumstances are known. Too, in an important moment, she’s the one who tells Luffy that “impulsiveness doesn’t solve anything” and actually manages to get him to listen. Luffy often gets on my nerves with his stupid actions and I wish I could believe that he’d really begin to grow as a result of this realization. I doubt he will, but I liked it anyway.