Why The Arlong Park Sequence In ‘One Piece’ Is The Greatest Comic Book Fight Scene Of All Time [Opinion]
Listen, I realize that I'm a little late to the party when it comes to Echiro Oda's One Piece. It's literally the best-selling manga of all time, but I've only just gotten into it over the past few months, on the recommendation of former CA writer David Brothers. I was hooked right away -- the book's signature mix of action, character, slapstick comedy and insanely over-the-top violence was fantastic right from the start, blending in a way that I find completely irresistible.
Then I got to volume 10, and the characters arrived in Arlong Park for a single fight scene that literally lasted for over 250 pages. And as someone who loves fight comics, I can say pretty confidently that it is quite possibly the best fight scene I have ever seen in comics. Not in manga, in all of comics. And believe me, I've seen a lot of 'em.
For those of you who are arriving to this particular shindig even later than I did, there's good news: Viz has made it as easy as possible to catch up on One Piece, offering the early stories both digitally and in print as bundled volumes that cover three at a time. That's how I'm blasting through them, and while the paper quality is a little thin (if you care about that sort of thing) the tradeoff is getting a huge volume for around ten bucks that's comparable to one of Marvel's Essential volumes or DC's Showcases.
The plot centers on a gang of pirates led by Monkey D. Luffy, who is... well, I'd say "wide-eyed and naïve," but Brothers might have been more accurate when he called him "so dumb." He does, after all, set out to become King of the Pirates by getting into a rowboat alone with no idea how to navigate to where he's going. That's essentially what the first ten volumes -- collectively known as the East Blue saga -- are all about: Luffy traveling to different places, assembling his crew and preparing to embark into the Grand Line, a wild, unpredictable expanse of ocean full of pirates and sea monsters where he'll find the legendary treasure that everyone's looking for. He gets his first mate, a bounty hunter named Roronoa Zolo who fights with three swords -- he holds one in his teeth but can still talk because "he speaks from the heart," which was the moment I knew One Piece might be the greatest comic of all time -- a thief and navigator named Nami, a cowardly liar (but in a good way) named Usopp, and a cook named Sanji who dresses in a suit and tie, is really good at kicking things, and says "crap" more often than Strong Bad.
The Arlong Park sequence comes as the end of East Blue -- it's the first thing these characters have to do as a crew, and the last thing that they do before they leave the relative safety of their homes. It's a rite of passage and the climax of a story that's taken ten volumes and eighty chapters to tell, and Oda goes all out in making it feel like it's a big deal.
The series does pretty big stories before this -- there's a massive pirate invasion of a sleepy, peaceful island that has to be fought off without anyone in town knowing it's happening, the result of a complicated plot that characters have been setting up for years before Luffy's arrival -- but Arlong Park is on a completely different level. It's the first time that the crew is truly united, fighting for each other in a battle where everyone has a personal stake in what's going on, and just to push things a little more over the top, they're essentially fighting supervillains. Arlong isn't just a dude who runs a park, he's the super-powered leader of a gang of hybrid fish-man pirates, each of whom have their own combat specialties in addition to being physically more powerful and able to breathe underwater.
Incidentally, if I had written that line, I would have retired from comics immediately, but "I'm a 40th-degree master of Fish-Man Karate!!!!" isn't even the most amazingly silly line in this story. That honor would probably go to "Do you know why I'm proud of this nose? Because this nose... CAN'T BE SHATTERED!"
So from the beginning, the fight is something different for these characters, even by the standards of people who can stretch their limbs like Mr. Fantastic or separate their heads from their bodies as a form of combat, and it's different in terms of character and your investment in what happens, too -- going into it, you don't really have any reason to believe that anyone is going to survive or stay with the team. It's a fight that could easily go either way, providing a galvanizing moment of unity, a motivating tragedy or both.
And then there's the scale of it.
Like I said, it's a single fight that goes for over 250 pages. It takes up most of v.10 and a decent chunk of v.11, too -- and to be honest, it actually all gets set up back in v.9. It's massive, and that number might seem ridiculously excessive, it isn't. Everything that happens from the moment that Luffy steps into Arlong Park burning with fury and knocks out two henchmen by cracking their heads together without ever taking his eyes off Arlong, every single action has purpose and consequences in the story. The pure structure of it, the way it escalates and breaks off into individual characters, small victories and defeats that build to an emotional climax is mind-boggling. I've read it twice in the past week and I'm still not sure how Oda pulled it off.
The opening sequence is actually a perfect example. Luffy shows up, clocks Arlong's men and challenges him to a fight, simultaneously defending the people that Arlong has been lording over as a bully-tyrant and seeking to avenge the more personal injustice of what is essentially Arlong keeping Nami as a navigational slave since her childhood. He effortlessly takes out two of the fish-men, and then almost as effortlessly takes out a monstrous sea cow -- literally a gigantic waterborne cow with a mermaidesque fishy half -- by flinging it out into the ocean with his bare hands. He's righteous fury personified, and with the rest of his crew, he looks unstoppable.
Then Arlong himself gets into the action, picks up Luffy and tosses him into the water with his feet planted in concrete. See, Luffy's stretching powers come from the Devil Fruit, but they also take away his ability to swim and essentially make seawater his Kryptonite, which is pretty bad news when you're setting out to be a pirate. So just a few pages after showing unbelievable strength and determination, Luffy's out of action, on the edge of death, for about a hundred pages.
It's a classic, simple technique that's even downright cliché -- one guy does something badass so then the other guy does something even more badass that proves he's a super badass -- but it doesn't feel cheap here. It serves the story, showing just how far out of their depth the Straw Hat pirates are, and how much they have to lose. It's their transition from danger they can understand to danger they can't possibly prepare for, where rushing in headlong and hoping to tough it out isn't going to work the way it has been.
It's a tone shift for a series that takes place in a single scene, and it sets up an incredible dynamic for the rest of the fight. The other characters take center stage, matched off against their opposite numbers on Arlong's crew, but how much are they willing to risk to press their advantage? Can they get to Luffy before he drowns? Will the wounds Zolo has been ignoring catch up with him? Will they free Nami? And then it gets even bigger -- if they fail, every person on this island, every person who did not ask to be liberated from Arlong, will be killed in retribution.
Through all that, though, it doesn't lose its sense of humor. It's not "lighthearted" at all -- things are deadly serious, in fact -- but Oda works in bits of comic relief and nods to the idea that things are escalating to a degree that's flat-out silly, full of six-armed fish-men and underwater karate.
It spins further and further out of control as it goes on, and the character development on display is phenomenal. Usopp gets the best of it, the coward who runs from the fight but makes sure one of the Fish-Men is chasing him to lead him away from the innocent citizens, and ends up having to out-think an opponent while armed with a slingshot. But by the time Luffy comes back -- spoiler warning, he's the main character of the comic and doesn't die 10 volumes into a 64-volume-and-counting series -- the emotions are at a fever pitch, all because of the way this fighting has happened.
And when Arlong, having defeated everyone else, challenges him and asks what he can do alone?
No joke, when Luffy just flat-out said "I can beat you," I had to put the book down and go do a couple of pushups. I was that pumped.
One of the chapters is called "Heroism vs. Fish-Man Cruelty," and while that seems like one of those bizarre, blunt descriptions that you get in translation, it's actually the perfect summary of how this story plays out. As silly as it might sound to talk about a scene where a character suffers an incredible wound and simply refuses to die with reverence, but the emotion that's on display here is hard to convey without just showing you the entire fight scene from where it starts. It really is about heroism against cruelty, about whether the superior ideology is forcing others to do your will to create a paradise for yourself, or about risking everything you have, your life, your dream, everything for freedom and kindness. It's a simple idea, but it's the kind of simple idea that I love, and every single bit of it is thrilling.
I've heard from fans of One Piece that while the Arlong Park sequence is a turning point, it just gets better from there. I'm honestly not sure it could -- this fight has so much that's right up my alley (unironic heroism, emotion explored through exetended fights, kicks to the face, fish-man karate) that I'm not sure I could enjoy what follows more. I'm willing to try, however -- if anything could've made me decide to jump on a series with the intimidating length of 64 paperbacks and counting, it's this.