(warning: spoilers up to One Piece chapter 993)
One of the most impressive things about One Piece is the world building. Eiichiro Oda has created this massive sandbox within which to play and, while still having rules and boundaries, is open to nearly limitless possibilities. Which is why, in a world of sea-fairing pirates, a mobile island full of zombies and mad doctors fits right in.
Like many of the arcs in One Piece, Thriller Bark shows us all of Oda’s storytelling strengths: adventure, humor, and an emotional punch to the gut. While I think Thriller Bark may be the funniest arc to date, I also once found myself fighting back tears in public after making the mistake of reading Brook’s flashback chapters on the train. As I revisited the arc, I’m honestly surprised I rarely see it on people’s Top 5 arcs lists; it is full to the brim of so many insanely iconic moments and abundant with payoffs from previous foreshadowing, while also including numerous story elements that become essential in future chapters.
We enter Thriller Bark coming off the emotional turmoil that was the Enies Lobby Arc and, thankfully, we are soon overwhelmed with comedy. Oda gives us a classic bait and switch—we’re greeted with a truly terrifying image of a ghost ship and a haunting skeleton, only to be attacked with some truly groan-worthy puns.
The beginning of the arc introduces us to Brook, the soon-to-be ninth crew member, who provides an abundance of comic relief. While his tragic backstory is mostly kept secret until the end of the arc, Oda of course cleverly throws in some foreshadowing through some rather standard-sounding comments. Brook mentions how lonely he had been and how excited he was to meet people—some rather stock lines that become immensely tragic upon a re-read.
Of course, Thriller Bark’s strengths not only come from the incredible story and humor, but the art as well. One of the techniques Oda uses to create the horror environment of the island is heavy black shadows. By employing these huge chunks of blackness, Oda is able to create an entirely different atmosphere. That, combined with the creepy and hilarious Frankensteined creatures that inhabit the island, is one of the reasons Thriller Bark stands so visually distinct from the rest of the series.
As I go through this arc, I struggle not to screen cap every panel. Not only is Thriller Bark visually stunning, but it is hilarious. Oda’s comedic timing is as on-point as ever as he leads us through this creepy kooky horror show he has created. Perona’s negative hollow ghosts, which pass through people and send them into utter depression, are simply unforgettable. However, possibly of the most memorable gags, one that has extended far beyond the One Piece community, is of a zombie rising from the grave and Luffy simply… pushing him back in. I’d be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t seen the gif of this scene from the anime at least once. It shows Oda’s strength of taking familiar tropes and playing with them in a way to catch us off guard.
But in between all the gags and funny zombies is a battle against a pair of seemingly insurmountable foes—a giant zombified… well, giant, Oars, and the warlord Gecko Moria. When Oda introduces a new villain, he does so in a way that the reader cannot fathom how they can possibly be defeated. While we generally understand that Luffy and the gang will be victorious in the end, the way in which Oda frames them leaves the reader completely baffled as to how they can possibly accomplish it. It’s never a matter of just being stronger, but rather understanding the enemy’s strengths and thereby figuring out their weaknesses. And, as always, Oda likes to make things big and excels at showing scale. And Oars is definitely big.
A One Piece arc wouldn’t be complete without a ton of fantastic fights, of course, and Thriller Bark certainly delivers. Usopp gets to use his self-deprecation to fight against Perona, while Zoro has an intense one-on-one with legendary Wano samurai Ryuma. Chopper takes the ethical high ground over his former hero Dr. Hogback, and the entire group comes together to try and take down Oars, leading to another iconic moment: Robin’s refusal to dock. Coming back to this moment after so long is quite powerful because we see how much Robin has evolved since; here, new to the crew, just recently having overcome so much pain in her life, she is still reserved. But now, having witnessed Robin’s face-faults and over-acting as a Kaido henchman, I have to wonder if she’d take her rightful place as Big Emperor’s left arm.
The arc ends with a spectacular double final battle of the Straw Hats vs. Oars, and then Luffy vs. a shadow-bloated Moria. Just as the relief of the defeat of one of the Seven Warlords sits in, we are greeted with another, Kuma. No one is in fighting shape, yet Zoro must take on all of Luffy’s pain in order to protect the life of his captain, again bringing us to yet another iconic scene: Zoro’s proclamation that ‘nothing happened.’ We also get a glimpse of Sanji’s willingness to sacrifice as a reflection of his lack of self worth—something which will be explored in the Whole Cake Arc. And, at the end of it all, we are told Brook’s tragic backstory, the loss of his entire crew. Yet in all that despair, he learns Laboon is alive, leaving us with that shining glimmer of hope. All the while, Bink’s Brew is playing in the back of our minds.
I am constantly overwhelmed by Oda’s planning and foreshadowing, and as I revisit Thriller Bark, I’m almost at a loss for words. Just this week, we saw Lola finally get to have her wedding in the cover story of chapter 993, after her marriage-crazed character was introduced over 13 years ago. Lola also gives Nami the vivre card of her mother, Big Mom, at the end of the arc, which led us years later into the Whole Cake Island Arc. Sanji’s perverted furor over Absalom’s possession of the Clear-Clear Fruit was resolved with the revelation of his Stealth Black powers in Wano. And in this arc Zoro obtains the sword Shusui from the Wano samurai Ryuma, a sword which was only recently returned to Ryuma’s grave, leading to Zoro’s obtainment of Enma. On top of that, a large part of the cover pages of this arc are dedicated to Eneru’s Great Space Mission, one of the most fascinating cover stories and one which lends itself to many of the moon-focused theories of One Piece fans.
To me, the mark of a truly great piece of fiction is that it gets better upon each reading. Every time I go through One Piece, it becomes more and more meaningful and I have the urge to cry at just about every panel. With a few days left until Halloween, it’s the perfect time to revisit Thriller Bark and appreciate it all over again.
I leave with you with the final lines of Bink’s Brew, with my own take on the translation:
it doesn’t matter who you are
someday we’ll all be skeletons
our endless, aimless
(note: the Japanese word for “funny story” is 笑い話 waraibanashi, made up of the words for “laugh” and “tale”)
(All images captured from https://www.viz.com/shonenjump/chapters/one-piece.)
My name is Maddie and I post a lot of art on Twitter at @othatsraspberry! I do the art every week for the One Piece Podcast and I’ve also done art for and been on episodes of Talking Simpsons Network Podcast.