What can I say about One Piece that hasn’t already been said? It’s the best-selling manga in history and one of the best-selling comics in the world — just behind Batman and Superman. That is a fantastic achievement for a comic with a title logo that makes it look like it’s called “Nep Ec”.
It’s transcended status as a manga and become a full-on cultural phenomenon. One Piece events and shops like the Mugiwara store and Sanji cafe spring up all over Japan. The manga has also recently reached the important milestone of 900 chapters. That, along with over 830 anime episodes, 13 movies, and numerous TV specials are a sign that Luffy’s pirates will still be going strong for the foreseeable future.
As you can guess from my outpouring of praise, I love One Piece. Eichiro Oda’s pirate epic ranks up there with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Dragon Ball as some of the finest examples of what shonen manga has to offer.
In this article I’m going to talk about a certain story arc that I feel is, at worst, unfairly criticized and, at best, severely underrated — Fishman Island.
What is Fishman Island?
If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re well versed in One Piece already, but let me give you the quick rundown just in case. Monkey D. Luffy is a small-town boy with dreams of being the Pirate King. He heads out to sea on a tiny sailboat. It’s not long before he has a crew of wacky characters and a sweet boat with a lion’s head on the bow.
The Fishman Island arc is a major turning point in One Piece’s story. It’s the reunion of Luffy and his crew after they were separated following the events of Sabaody Archipelago, Impel Down, and the War at Marineford. These events cover 103 chapters of One Piece’s serialization.
The crew reunites with renewed purpose and upgraded abilities, ready to take on all the challenges they were unprepared for previously. This arc is meant to reintroduce these characters and is almost like a new beginning as symbolized by volume 61’s cover being an updated version of the first volume’s cover. On top of that, it builds on plot points and characters introduced years ago.
The usual complaints I see thrown at Fishman Island is that the antagonists aren’t threatening enough, or that they come off as too weak. This one seems weird to me since the previous 3-4 arcs feature instances where Luffy and his crew are completely overwhelmed by their adversaries.
From Thriller Bark to Sabaody Archipelago, the crew is met with a series of confrontations that either leave them completely battered or outright defeats them. Pile on Impel Down and Marineford, where Luffy is repeatedly faced with obstacles that completely outclass him and you have something unseen in the pages of shonen manga.
The protagonist losing fights in shonen manga isn’t an uncommon event. Ippo doesn’t win every boxing match. Kenshin gets his sword broken in a fight with Seta Sojiro. Even Goku loses his fair share of fights.
It’s an effective way to build sympathy and anticipation for when our hero is ready to take on this challenge again with renewed determination. It also makes these new antagonists seem more menacing when they can so easily subdue our favorite heroes.
What makes this stretch of One Piece different is that it’s such a long period of our heroes being utterly powerless. Remember, this is at a point where Luffy and The Straw Hat Pirates have already toppled, like, two corrupt governments and beat a guy who lived in the clouds and thought he was a god.
Even after all this craziness, we learn there are still guys out there who completely overshadow the crew with little to no trouble. The realization that they have enemies that tower over them so menacingly is what encourages our heroes to take a two-year sabbatical to train and grow stronger before advancing any further toward their goal.
That being said, is it really that surprising that Oda would try to establish his new and improved Straw Hats by having them squash their newest foes with relative ease? Later arcs did see fights that provided more of a challenge for the crew, Dressrosa in particular. Fishman Island is also an example of Oda’s writing strengths. The arc features callbacks to several other story arcs, including one that’s a personal favorite of mine — Arlong Park.
Arlong Park takes place way back in the early stages of One Piece — it’s first year of publication, in fact. It marks several firsts in the series history. It’s the first time a member of Luffy’s crew deserts, only to return by the arc’s conclusion. It’s the first time the crew is separated between different islands. Most importantly, it’s the audience’s introduction to fishmen.
Fishmen are the first non-human characters we are introduced to in the One Piece universe, so this arc is where One Piece establishes itself as high fantasy. Eventually, we would be introduced to giants, dwarfs, people who live in the sky — even furries (well, in One Piece, they’re called “Minks”).
Arlong is an important villain in his own right. He’s easily the most menacing threat we see in the East Blue and it’s only after he’s defeated that Luffy gets his first official bounty, a major event in the series.
As an introduction to the concept of fishmen, Arlong and his crew do not give a good first impression. His crew — creatively named The Arlong Pirates — are ruthless marauders. They hold an entire village hostage and enslave a young girl, Nami, who would join Luffy’s crew as the navigator at the conclusion of the arc. The Arlong Pirates are destructive and vicious on a scale not yet seen in the series at that point. Our heroes walk away from the fight completely battered.
Arlong Park also shows us a new level of emotion in One Piece’s storytelling. Shonen manga is no stranger to the melodramatic; however, the story of how the Arlong Pirates gain control of Nami’s hometown, as well as kill her adoptive mother, Belle Mere, is truly heart-wrenching. “The Feelz” is what I think the kids call it. Those elements combine to create a story arc that still ranks among one of my favorites.
The truth about fishmen
Fishman Island’s importance begins with shedding new light on fishmen as a whole. Prior to Sabaody Archipelago, the audience’s only exposure to fishmen were the villainous crew from Arlong Park. But now they’ve met Hatchan, a reformed Arlong Pirate who runs a takoyaki stall, and Jinbe, a former crewmate of Arlong’s who ultimately joins Luffy’s crew.
Once Luffy’s gang sets foot in the fishmen’s territory, we see that their community is vibrant and colorful. Its people welcoming and warm. A far cry from the brutality on display from before. We even see the return of Jinbe, which leads to a scene where he reveals his connection to Arlong and takes responsibility for the villain’s action by apologizing to Nami himself.
This is not where the callbacks to Arlong ends. We meet Arlong’s sister, Shyarly, a fortune telling mermaid who does not share her brother’s demeanor or his distain for humans. The arc’s major antagonist, Hordy Jones, is a Fishman who admired Arlong and his crew.
Needless to say, Hordy jumps at the chance to take out the pirate who defeated his hero. Arlong’s presence is felt throughout this arc and the aftermath of his actions shape the characters in it.
A major theme of this arc is the fragile relations between humans and fishmen. During the Arlong Park arc, Arlong repeatedly expounds about the superiority of the fishman race and how he refuses to acknowledge humanity in any regard. This attitude is given context as we learn more about the world of fishmen.
We learn that in many areas of the surface world, fishmen are looked down upon as second-class citizens and even enslaved by human nobility. We also learn that mermaids are hunted and sold off quite frequently by pirates who travel down to Fishman Island. This new information portrays Arlong in a more sympathetic light.
Now he’s less of a monster and more a man shaped by the injustice he’s had to endure. This is exemplified when we see flashbacks focused on Fisher Tiger, captain of the Sun Pirates, a group that dedicated themselves to freeing slaves across the world. A crew that both Jinbe and Arlong were a part of.
We see a younger Arlong unwilling to trust humans the more he is exposed to their cruelty, despite Tiger’s pleas against these kinds of grudges. Sadly, his teachings are lost on Arlong when the government ambushes Tiger and murders him.
You’re missing the point
The Fishman Island arc is a not-so-subtle allegory on racism and racial prejudices. A common criticism I see with this arc is that its message falls flat because of the “ham-fisted” way it’s presented. This often leads me to ask, “If you wanted subtly, why the hell do you read One Piece?”
We’re talking about a wacky pirate manga, not Selma. Oda is not a stranger to addressing poignant topics in outrageous ways and it’s more or less been working. This is a manga that points out classism by having a class of nobility so stuck-up that they wear spacesuits to avoid having to breathe the same air as common folk.
The idea that a moral lesson loses its punch if it’s exaggerated is a sentiment I see expressed toward a lot of media. But it often seems to be expressed by those who don’t seem to want to bother with moral quandaries, subtle, or otherwise.
Setting the stage
It’s also worth noting that Fishman Island opens the door for what is to come in the world of One Piece. We learn more about Void Century and the Ancient Weapons, terms that have been a constant in One Piece lore.
An earlier arc, Water 7, was focused on Ancient Weapons; particularly, the blueprints for one of them, Pluton. In Fishman Island, we learn that the princess of the fishmen, Shirahoshi, is apparently another “weapon” due to her ability to summon sea monsters. This will be important in the future.
The arc also finishes with an introduction to Big Mom, the major antagonist that has been the focus of the series for the past two years of publication!
Fishman Island gets a bad wrap for being less exciting, having lower stakes, and less intimidating villains than other arcs. It’s to the point that I hear many fans suggesting that new readers skip it. The arc is certainly not my favorite, but if you choose to skip it, you’re missing out on something great.