Instead of my first impressions of the manga I published earlier, this will be a pretty comprehensive sorta-review of the overall saga, focusing on each individual arc and writing way, way more for the arcs I actually liked (it won’t be subtle).
This time it’s the Alabasta Saga, which signals a rather massive shift for the series compared to the easy episodic flow of everything that came before it.
Following Chapter 100 – including the tiny Loguetown arc that happens right before it, which I didn’t cover last time – everything starts to feed into the wider Alabasta storyline. I loved how self-contained each arc was up to and including Arlong Park in the last lot of chapters, so, even if it was inevitable for almost any shonen manga, it’s a disappointing move for this specific reader. Going off the wiki’s very detailed chart, it looks like it’s a permanent change for the series moving forward.
It doesn’t change that much, but I still found it double-edged.
On one hand, having smaller arcs feed into a larger overarching story can make for a more gratifying journey, just as it does in most other serialised stories in general. It can be really rewarding when a story can leverage your investment in it by weaving story threads and characters meaningfully throughout in a very satisfying way, building towards a single cohesive conclusion. This is how most shonen series seem to operate; they’re rarely episodic (as far as I know, at least) but grow into broader comprehensive stories, like chapters in a novel.
But on the other hand, it can – but doesn’t necessarily – mean that these individual arcs are less satisfying when they’re so obviously smaller cogs in a larger engine. When one of these individual stories ‘fails’ (at least with you as a reader or viewer), you’re left staring at what’s charmless machinery underneath.
By the end of the Alabasta Saga, I found myself thinking more of this latter one.
Last time, I found One Piece at its best when it told tight, succinct stories. I really enjoyed how self-contained each story was; just fast-paced, easy-going tales that didn’t wear out their welcome. While the Arlong Park arc represented a capstone to the larger East Blue Saga, wrapping up with an arc focused on each Straw Hats’ dedication to the crew and especially, at its climax, Luffy’s intense determination to each and any of his crewmates – a strong point to ‘end’ on as we move into the rest of the series – it wasn’t led up to as explicitly as the conclusion of the Alabasta Saga.
While Alabasta has some high points throughout, the new format didn’t prove itself to me in its first outing. Considering my favourite arc of the saga was the Drum Island arc, which introduced Tony Tony Chopper and could easily slot into the East Blue saga with next-to-no effort (more details below if you want it), having a larger story to keep track of and anticipate wasn’t really worth it. It just made the earlier arcs – Little Garden especially – feel unimportant and borderline superfluous.
It doesn’t make much sense for this series but just in case: SPOILERS.
The Loguetown arc represents the very end of the East Blue Saga after Arlong’s defeat and the very beginning of the Alabasta Saga. It’s essentially an anniversary event for the series’ 100th chapter.
Villains Buggy and Alvida pop back in for an appearance, swordsman Tashigi is almost a straight clone of Zoro’s childhood rival, and Luffy finds the resting place of his idol Gol D. Roger, the former King of the Pirates (who appeared in the very first chapter). It’s a retrospective without the flashbacks, reminding Luffy and Zoro where they started and how far they’ve come as they approach the start of the Grand Line.
It’s also a very short arc – only five chapters long, ending as soon as it starts – but it’s an entertaining palette cleanser after the tensions of Arlong Park. The return of Buggy and Alvida also confirms that the cover panels – the side stories that follow characters from earlier arcs, including Buggy – can have a bearing on the main story, which will be interesting to see as I read through the rest of the series.
Otherwise, it’s a simple soft introduction to the Alabasta Saga, mainly in introducing Navy commanders Smoker and Tashigi.
Another short five-chapter arc, the Reverse Mountain or ‘Laboon’ arc plays a similar role as a feel-good story about a strange whale.
It’s a simple story, but a refreshingly odd one. It plays into Oda’s obvious love for absurd, high-spirited fantasy, where Luffy and the Straw Hats help out a gigantic whale named Laboon, and its caretaker, who lives on an island inside an engineered pocket of artificial ocean inside Laboon (it’s weird).
Like Loguetown, it’s another soft intro to the saga. It introduces two members of Baroque Works (and foreshadows the organisation itself for the next arc) and the saga’s main player Princess Vivi; as well as the Log Pose, a spherical compass that’s central to the saga and (presumedly) the rest of the series. The latter is surprisingly important, with Oda seeding just how essential and brilliant Nami is as the crew’s navigator – a fact that crops up more than a few times.
Otherwise, it’s just a good-natured detour right before the Straw Hats get (very slightly) serious again. In that sense, Reverse Mountain is a solid side-story that’s great in how very weird and different it is to what’s happened so far. It’s a taste of the Grand Line.
Now sailing the Grand Line, the Straw Hats find themselves on an island of cactus-like mountains in a seemingly-friendly town – but is instead a secret haven for the Baroque Works, an eccentric mercenary group that takes centre stage in the Alabasta Saga.
Yet another short arc before all the long ones kick in, Whisky Peak is a more official opening to the whole Alabasta Saga; Loguetown and Reverse Mountain are more like prologues that are just as important to the rest of the series as they are to Alabasta specifically.
It’s where we learn about the Baroque Works in detail, it’s where we’re formally introduced to our saga heroine Vivi and her quest – and therefore the Straw Hats’ quest – and it’s where we get more info on how the Log Pose works. When Zoro effortlessly fights off hordes of oddball mercs, we’re also reminded that Zoro’s something of a heavyweight alongside Luffy, back to using three swords and going toe-to-toe with (a confused and stupid) Luffy.
Though it had already ‘started’, Whisky Peak is the Alabasta Saga’s grand dramatic entrance – it even ends with an explosion.
Little Garden starts on the heels of Whisky Peak and, compared to most of the series, is a little unwieldy and messy. It doesn’t gel together quite as well as the other arcs.
To be fair, though, Little Garden has a lot of heavy lifting. It’s where we learn about Vivi as a character and as a (temporary) crew mate, it’s where we learn more about the scope and variety of the Grand Line with all the strangeness of the island, and it’s where we meet a handful of more important Baroque Works members, setting up the broader power scale for the saga – which isn’t super important, but important for knowing who matters and who doesn’t as we get closer to the end.
All of this is probably why the arc is longer than it probably should be for an otherwise inconsequential story. The strong central tale of the arc – the rivalry of the two giants Dorry and Brogy – is buried beneath the appearance of the mostly-uninteresting Baroque Works agents, whose intrusion seems to stretch out for a solid ten chapters or so as Vivi, Nami and Zoro slowly turn into wax statues and Luffy fails again and again to save them.
Honestly, the arc itself is fine in retrospect, but Little Garden is surprisingly tedious for a manga that’s otherwise fast-paced. It’s meant as more of a gag arc but is far too long to really work as one. The villains are explicitly set up as weaker than the main cast but the arc loses momentum when everyone’s sidelined and stuck watching Luffy trip over himself again and again. The core of Little Garden is fantastic, where the Straw Hats befriend a pair of 150-year-old giants stuck in an endless duel on a dinosaur-filled island, but the body of the story is sort of dull.
The ending saved it for me – where Dorry and Brogy sacrifice their ancient weapons against a sea monster so the Straw Hats can leave the island – but the arc itself was a bit of a slog.
And then we get to Drum Island and I’m reminded why I loved the last saga so much. Good characters and an entertaining villain wrapped around a fast-paced story and a curious setting.
Following the end of Little Garden, the Straw Hats head to the next island in search of a doctor who can cure Nami’s sudden illness. When they arrive, they find a ‘nameless’ island and a people hostile to pirates. They learn that the island was attacked and dominated by a small squad of pirates several years ago, and that their tyrannical ruler Wapol had fled to the seas in fear of these pirates, which left the people in genuine peace for the first time in a long time. They also learn about the single eccentric doctor on the island – the only person who could help Nami.
Drum Island – the name its people rejected when Wapol left, hoping to leave their past behind – is completely fantastic. It is a lot like the Arlong arc in a few ways: it’s about a region under the tyrannical rule of a villain (though here, it’s about his dreaded return) and it has a large focus on a crew member’s backstory. It’s a contained story with endearing characters and a wide variety of creative scenarios throughout – which is a lot of words to say ‘it’s solid’.
Oda also makes good use of the entire cast, and while I’ll admit that this isn’t that impressive – using your characters instead of… not using them – Drum Island manages to keep a fast pace and tell its story gracefully without taking his characters off the board in a cheap way (which is what Little Garden does a lot of).
Even the plot itself is refreshingly straight-forward and compelling, especially as the rest of the saga becomes bogged down by mostly-meh Baroque Works conspiracy. The Straw Hats’ only real goal is saving Nami from whatever she’s sick with, and this motivation is what makes it compelling and entertaining. The crew are desperately searching for the island’s single doctor, with Usopp and Vivi rushing around the initial towns and Luffy and Sanji struggling up the perfectly-cylindrical mountain at the centre of the island. It gives the arc an emotional core, which is elevated even further by Tony Tony Chopper’s (pretty heartbreaking) flashback chapters and the plight of Drum Island’s pitiful population.
Again, it’s similar to most of the East Blue arcs in that it’s not about fighting and beating the boss but about the individuals who the Straw Hats feel obligated to help. The boss is just an obstacle in the way of that goal. Wapol isn’t even set up as a major threat to the Straw Hats; he’s just an entertaining villain that drives up the stakes of the situation.
But wait! I have even more to say!
Speaking of the arc’s Big Bad, Wapol is a fantastic villain (as One Piece goes, anyway). Just completely shallow and overtly evil in an entertaining ‘love-to-hate’ way, with a great gimmick that Oda gets a lot of mileage out of in the Munch-Munch fruit – eating cannons to grow cannons out of him, eating his henchmen to fuse them together, eating himself to become skinnier. He’s wacky and I love him.
The action throughout the arc is great in that there isn’t too much of it – which, again, contrasts with Little Garden’s excess. So far throughout the series, One Piece tends to falter whenever it focuses too much on action and the plot fades into the background. The manga works best when its pieces are in motion and that’s definitely the case throughout the Wapol arc: there’s an urgent goal, there are threats to achieving that goal, and our heroes are trying their hardest to do so (usually in surprising, entertaining ways).
Then there’s Tony Tony Chopper himself, the crew’s new doctor. He’s compelling in how odd and weird he is as a concept – he’s essentially a ‘werehuman’, a reindeer who gained humanity and the ability to change forms at will by eating a Devil Fruit. He stops being a mystery early on once Oda digs into his backstory, but his role adds even more variety and intrigue to an already great arc.
Despite all these words, Drum Island isn’t terribly distinct – its similarity to previous arcs is almost a detriment – but I found it pitch-perfect for what I want from One Piece. A charming, fast-paced and entertaining yarn about a weird new island that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
The Straw Hats finally arrive at the desert kingdom of Alabasta. This is Vivi’s home and station on the cusp of rebellion, where the Straw Hats need to stop Crocodile and his orchestrated unrest before the island explodes into a full-blown civil war – and that’s the essence of the entire arc, and it’s why Oda’s first try at a more intricate, detailed story works as well as it does.
The Alabasta arc is the final and titular part of the saga, and it’s an ambitious one for One Piece. It’s the first and mostly-successful attempt at a more multi-threaded story – one with parallel plots weaving back and forth across its length; the type that’s inherently complex and can be difficult to pull off well. It’s the type where having characters explicitly marked on a detailed map can pretty important for the reader to keep track of what’s going on.
During the Alabasta arc, there’s Crocodile doin’ bad guy stuff, the Straw Hats tracking him down, the final Baroque Works agent preparing for the final phase, the rebels preparing their coup on the capital (led by Vivi’s childhood friend), there’s the king (Vivi’s father) and the royal guard trying to deal with and prepare for the ensuing chaos, and other threads I’m probably forgetting…
But despite all this, it stays a pretty simple story. It’s still One Piece. All these layers and threads do is add scale and tension to the arc, expanding it as the finale of a 100+ chapter saga. The Alabasta arc feels complex, even though it isn’t, even when you absolutely know that it isn’t.
As far as I can tell, Oda achieves this by boiling it down into its core parts, until it’s simple enough it can all be explained in a single sentence: Crocodile uses ‘dance dust’ to change the weather of Alabasta, he blames it on the king to spark a civil war, all so he can leave the country in ruin and primed for takeover. This arc itself is about the Straw Hats trying to prevent this civil war in any way they can. It’s a ticking clock where the tension is rising higher and higher right up until the very end.
The Alabasta arc is an impressive feat for Oda, not because it’s a complex story but because he was able to pass it off as one. By keeping the ticking clock central to the arc, by constantly cutting between characters and scenes inside and between chapters, Oda was able to take the two disparate halves of the arc – a simple adventure manga on one side and a large-scale conspiracy on the other – and bring them together into a natural whole. It’s a change of pace for the manga but isn’t a massive departure from what people expect and/or want from the series.
I had more but I already wrote a lot about Drum Island, so I’ll leave it there.
The Alabasta arc and its saga has high points but lacks the consistency of the first 100 chapters. Drum Island was easily my favourite and if Oda pulls one of those out every so often, I’ll be happy.