by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 894 of
One Piece ?
It might be too early to be making any bold statements about the Wano arc as a whole, but as of episode three, I'm ready to say that the anime adaptation has been—and promises to remain—a universal improvement on its source material. It's like the difference between reading a screenplay and watching a finished movie in terms of how much crucial texture and atmosphere doesn't exist on the page without the layers of visuals, sounds, and performances intended to compliment it. There's true adaptation happening, and it's all in the service of a crystal clear thematic endpoint.
A barebones plot summary to get us started: Luffy has just befriended Tama, the little girl who lives near the beach and got kidnapped by Kaido's army for speaking about the Kozuki Clan. To thank him for his help, Tama takes him to her house and cooks him rice, which Luffy doesn't realize is the last of her food until it's too late. She passes out from hunger and water poisoning at around the same time that Luffy meets Hitetsu, the tengu-masked swordsmith that Tama lives with. Hitetsu goes on to tell us about Kaido's impact on Wano, as well as Tama's relationship with Ace, who visited the country in the past.
There's a lot of really succinct and elegant setup being orchestrated in this episode that was much harder to appreciate in the manga. We've been adapting Wano at about half of a chapter per episode so far and for once I can't find it in myself to complain about it because each story beat is getting the exact right amount of T.L.C. it needs to breath and leave an impact on the audience. The Ace reveal fits in pretty snug because one of the first mentions of Wano in the series came from the Marineford arc, when Oars Jr. reminisced about the time Ace learned how to weave straw and make hats for him. And what do you know? Tama works as a hat-maker! We're repurposing story details that the series probably could have gotten away with never mentioning again.
This episode serves as the emotional groundwork for the rest of the arc. Everything that happens from now on will eventually have to draw back to what's being discussed here. Tama is just now learning that Ace (effectively her version of Shanks) died two years ago, despite his promise to return one day. This brings us back to the "big brother" talk from last week and reinforces the New World motif where Luffy finds himself pushed into the role model position whether he likes it or not. It also makes me think about how often promises are made between characters in this series and how bittersweet it is when those promises are cut short. That recent side story about Whitebeard and the village is feeling pretty on-message right about now. Luffy is callously blunt in breaking the bad news to Tama, because he's long finished crying over it and he's not interested in prettying it up. Should he be more delicate when talking about mortality with a small child? Maybe, but it's a done deal now. The juxtaposition between the curt nothingness of death and the lingering soul that a person leaves behind is very One Piece.
And I would hate it if all this gave the impression that Tama is simply a proxy for Luffy and Ace's cosmic brotherhood, because independent of them she's still awesomely super good. What a great kid. 10/10. Would babysit again. Part of her promise with Ace was that he would return one day after she grows up and becomes a ninja (which in One Piece is basically a subcategory of samurai), and one of the reasons she was willing to give up her food to Luffy was because she believes a strong ninja should be able to withstand a little tummy rumbling. A true warrior can persist on water alone! Too bad the river is polluted because Wano is also a Princess Mononoke-esque environmentalist epic about the natural world vs. industry. We sympathize with Tama because her circumstances are so tragic, but we also admire her for the same reasons we love any of the heroic characters in this series. She's selfless, and determined to tough her way out of self-imposed limits. She's a child who wants to become an adult as soon as possible, and once again the theme of starvation rears its ugly head—always on the razor's edge between reckless abandon and illustrious machismo.
One of my issues with this part of the story in the manga is how little of the fantastical imagery comes through in black and white. Oda's chicken scratches sell Wano's decay at the hands of Kaido's factories pretty well, but I always got a sense there was a touch of Ghibli getting choked out by the the density of his panels. The forest that Tama and Hitetsu live in looks amazing in animation, with lush greens and sunlight peeking in through the bamboo. It sells us on what this arc is about on a visceral level. The contrast between locations is much stronger, and our motivation to preserve this country's beautiful landscapes is felt without a word needing to be said about it.
As it goes on, Wano will become a sprawling arc filled with a million characters and subplots—frequently too busy for its own good—but I'm floored at how efficiently this episode gets its main points across and I think it's easily the strongest of these first three episodes. It makes me take a look back at the manga and realize just how much about those early chapters I took for granted. The fundamentals are there, the momentum just needs retooling. The ferocity at which you become endeared to Tama and Hitetsu determines how the rest of the story metabolizes, and this episode is as surgically precise as it is heckin' charming.
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