by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 832 of
One Piece ?
When it comes to Eiichiro Oda, fans are always ready for that other shoe to drop. What we're never quite ready for, however, are the five or six other shoes he seems to keep tucked under his arm at any given time.
Truly unadorned build-up aside, the conversation around this episode begins and ends with one main scene; the moment of truth during Sanji and Pudding's wedding, when it's time for the groom to kiss the bride. All the various evil plans are designed to intersect at this time, so obviously what will happen must be a surprise, right? As a manga reader, I've been anticipating seeing this part of the story adapted because it was a massive turning point in my experience with the Whole Cake Island arc, as well as a rather controversial one among my group of friends. In a matter of days, it will have been a year since this twist debuted in the manga, and I've continued to digest my feelings since then.
Charlotte Pudding is a roller coaster of a character. There's a real magic trick at play with her and the millions of twists surrounding whether she's "good" Pudding or "evil" Pudding, and just when you think the answer's been handed to you on a silver platter, that's when the story hits you with the next surprise. When we first met "good" Pudding, we were suspicious of her. She seemed way too nice. Then, we got to know her a little more and the idea of her tricking Sanji and the crew stopped making sense. And then BAM, malevolent three-eyed actress Pudding revealed herself! All right, everything's on the table now. What else could we possibly learn about her?!
And then her diabolical plan to shoot Sanji's brains out after he lifts her veil falls apart, because rather than recoiling in disgust at the sight of her third eye like she expected, he blushes and calls it beautiful. It's certainly something. There's a significant presence of "female villain defeated by love" tropes in One Piece, which I go back and forth on when I think about it. Many people do not like it. Hell, I don't like it most of the time, but Pudding is a case where I'm kind of infatuated with it. Problematic warts and all, I think Pudding represents so much of what I find compelling about Oda as a writer.
However, I feel the need to say that I don't think this episode actually does the scene justice. It's extremely straightforward in its adaptive choices, to the detriment of a quality I think is present in the source material. The manga version is fairly bizarre, opting out of any connective tissue that could have added some tenderness and made this romantic gesture seem more grounded and human. Instead, possibly to keep the pace of the story moving, it plays out as a series of big moments. Even with Sanji doing a very Sanji thing, we can't get inside his head at all during this scene. Was this his genuine reaction to seeing her eye up close? Did he recognize something familiar in her ahead of time, and now he's making a calculated decision to speak to that? Pudding's emotional breakdown at the compliment feels right at home with the sudden bursts of crying we see in this series all the time, but in the context of this scene and the general touchiness of the trope being employed, it easily reads much more tawdry.
These are problems that the version of this scene that I like in the manga was already dealing with. That said, I do appreciate the way that the manga leaves the tone open for interpretation, all while sticking to its broad and wacky style of tackling human emotions. Watching it play out in the anime, which is almost lifelessly faithful to the pacing and structure of the manga version, started to sway me in the other direction. I began wondering if I was reading too much into the scene this whole time, that maybe it really was as shallow and tacky as it seemed at face value, but writing my thoughts out is drudging up old feelings again.
More important are the snippets of Pudding's backstory that unravel as a result of this, where we see her being ruthlessly bullied for her third eye. This is the point where the crude selfishness of Big Mom and the people of Totto Land goes from being an amusing characterization to the entire point of the story. Everything about Whole Cake Island is a lie; the promise of safety and racial harmony is nothing but an appeal to a monster's ego, and the deliberate and inescapable cycle of abuse becomes crystal clear. The country's motto is "Leave or Life." Make Mom happy and die slowly, or stand against Mom and die now.
And then there are the obvious parallels between Sanji and Pudding, who are now both unambiguously victims of their own families: two peas in a pod, just like their fake relationship began. The series aimed for a similar scene back in Dressrosa, when it was between Sanji and Viola. There's a clear desire to take the joke of Sanji's chivalry and weakness for women (something villains have historically been able to exploit) and turn it inside out to give him a win. I found the Viola example embarrassing and insincere, but here in Whole Cake Island it threads into the larger story in a more compelling way. Whole Cake Island is about how our parents—biologically or otherwise—create us. It's about how the flaws that we're born with or get bred into us impact our ability to understand each other. Sanji's relationship with his mentor Zeff is hugely important in understanding what motivates him, and what allowed his weaknesses to occasionally become strengths, and I assume we'll learn something similar to be true about Pudding's relationship with her big sister Lola.
At the time that the manga version of this scene came out, my relationship with One Piece had simmered in the wake of the Dressrosa arc, but it was this moment that brought the passion roaring back. It felt like there was something ambitious in the works, a desire to string one of the more eyeroll-worthy elements of the series into some kind of poetry that would pay off as the arc fired towards its climax. At a time when the audience is already expecting the wedding to explode in spectacular ways, this direction feels the most like a crazy gamble, committed to sympathizing with a character who's designed head-to-toe to be unlikable. But I do like her! I find the whole "embarrassed by romantic affection because you're used to acting a certain way around family" thing a little too relatable, and from this point forward I'm invested in finding out where the rest of her character arc goes, because what we've gotten so far is bananas.
So I've got a lot of feelings about Pudding and what Whole Cake Island becomes as we continue to move into the second half, because the weirdness is far from over. For what's such an important chapter to me, I don't think the anime does a satisfactory job adapting it. It's already a challenging story to review, since it's worth breaking down all the ways in which it's going to be unpalatable for a lot of people, but my own response is so passionate and warm regardless. I don't think this episode's direction quite delivers what I see in it, but it's got that One Piece fire in my belly flaring up all the same.
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