I'm torn between the "good" and "okay" ratings. On the one hand, the good in the arc has been good enough that at a glance it seems like it should be firmly in the former category. On the other, not once before have I ever felt so unengaged during the process of an arc as with this one.
Fishman Island suffered from one of the the weakest casts of antagonists yet but still managed to pull together a beautiful story in the end. Punk Hazard had a messy, messy middle but there were so many fun characters all bunched up in one place, and it had an outstandingly good both beginning and ending. Dressrosa was my greatest disappointment with the series yet, but even then I can say that I prefer its highs over anything Whole Cake Island brought to the table. Nothing from this arc has stuck with me as much as the Law, Doflamingo and Corazon storyline and the flashback which was top tier even within this series known for extraordinarily good ones. And Zou… Zou's the best post timeskip arc as far as I'm concerned, short but sweet heavily condensed classic One Piece goodness with near-perfect execution.
So I'm in an awkward position of knowing the arc was not really satisfying or fully engaging but having a hard time pinpointing the exact reasons why. I've reread the arc in full over the last few days, and I think I agree with the sentiment I've seen that this arc probably benefits the most from being read as a whole over being read weekly more than any other so far. There's more to like here than I was feeling from week to week. There are a lot of fun characters and Carrot already feels like a crewmember to me. The theming is strong, the Charlotte family has grown on me a bit as antagonists (still nothing compared to the Doflamingo crew - but the contrast to Doffy's family-by-bonds, for whom he was an incomparably greater patriarch and family head, is certainly appreciated), and Katakuri ended up being a thoroughly satisfying character in the end with his initial stoic blandness being subverted wonderfully.
But there's still no way I can consider it as up there as one of the best arcs, and as a nearly 80 chapters long arc with a focus on Yonkou and what was supposedly the "year of Sanji"... it should be, damn it. The reason I can't help but feel it's below par is more that it didn't manage to live up to those lofty standards than because it's actually subpar, if that makes any sense. It's subpar in the "big, epic arc" category.
So what are the problems making it so, then? As I mentioned I think it's much harder to pinpoint them here than it was in Dressrosa, which practically wore its flaws on its sleeve in the second half. For this arc I find you have to dig a bit deeper and consider more carefully what worked and what didn't.
I think this is the easiest criticism to make and from what I see, many other agree. They were perhaps Oda's worst supporting character group/secondary antagonists ever in my opinion. The three brothers lack any kind of memorable personality and I could never see them as engaging characters, no matter how many flashy spectacle panels they get. Judge is also frustratingly shallow and uninteresting. He's your typical arrogant monarch that does little to stick out despite being such an important figure in Sanji's life, so most of his panel time felt thoroughly uninteresting to me. Being this genius scientist who used to pal around with Vegapunk and Caesar was the most valuable thing his existence brought to the table, and that's not really thanks to any part of the character himself being well done.
Lastly I want to say that the Germa have made me feel something One Piece never made me feel before - disturbed. They're extremely unpleasant in a disturbing way and never felt like they got their comeuppance for it. Not in a getting beat up way but in a poetic justice way, y'know? They battered one of their terrified servant women to near death out of pure pettiness just to spite Sanji. Judge forced his wife into an invasive surgery that tore the ability to feel emotion from her unborn children, pushing her into taking heavy drugs in desperation, which eventually led to her sickness and death. I'd like you to read that last sentence again and think about it for a moment. Maybe it's just me, but this all hits me as deeply disturbing in a way that feels out of place in One Piece, despite that it's far from the worst thing that has happened from a utiliarian perspective. And where does this all go? They get beat up by Big Mom's crew a bit and just kind of get told off by Sanji in Capone's fortress. Then they vanish for half the arc only to return in a series of flashy, impressive panels as they burst in to save the day. Of all people, they toss around Sanji like a ragdoll between them, insulting his skills as he completely fails at rescuing his captain. I was shaking my head at this both times. Why do that? Rereading the arc it was the thing that baffled me the most.
And now, if they go do out against Big Mom, it'll be in a vaguely heroic moment that doesn't feel earned or in any way satisfying. I don't feel for these characters in any way. The one moderately brighter spot about the Vinsmokes is Reiju, but even she can't be called remarkable.
Good lord is this a bummer of a character. I'm not even going to focus on her being underwhelming in her displays of power for a 3rd-strongest Yonkou crewmember, which in my opinion she very much was. Instead I'm going to do the RLM thing. What's her personality? What are her character quirks and reasons for being the way she is? I bet you'll have a hard time telling me because she has none of those things. Throughout the whole arc she was little more than a mediocre design with a 900 million bounty walking/sitting/standing around doing nothing. This is one of the biggest proofs to me that something really was wrong with the arc and I'm not taking crazy pills. Never before has such a high profile villain been given such a thoroughly lame treatment, and for this to happen in a 75-chapter arc where her crew were the main antagonists is just unacceptable. It may be a small point that one character in Big Mom's crew was weakly handled, but it adds to that feeling of something being "off".
Okay, so I'm not totally negative about Sanji in this arc. He was decent. But decent simply isn't good enough to fully satisfy what the premise promised.
I don't think his whole leaving and sacrificing himself schtick could ever have worked. It's not an implementation problem. I think Oda was diligent in doing what he could to work it out. But there's just no way he could ever have sold me on this concept, this far into the journey, with a crewmember that's been there since nearly the beginning. I understand Sanji's reasons for being unable to do exactly what the crew convinced Robin to do way back. They make sense, even if they feel contrived to force this development to happen. But he should never for a moment have thought there was a chance that Luffy would let it happen. He should never have even entertained the thought of it. As a result, all this ended up feeling like a whole bunch of drama with no real edge to it despite all Oda's efforts. He put a lot of effort into all this, tying back to Sanji's childhood with the mirroring of him bringing food to his mother in the rain with doing the same to Luffy. It really would've been great stuff if I bought into the premise. It makes me genuinely sad that I can't connect with this aspect of the arc but it simply doesn't work in my opinion.
Then, the whole cake plot. I'm not the biggest fan of this but not its biggest detractor either. I'm of two minds about it. I like a lot of the other events that it forced to happen, like Luffy vs. Katakuri and a lot of cool moments with the other crewmembers. But the actual cooking was just not entertaining to me. I feel like this was a mission impossible for Oda. Shima he is not, Toriko this is not, and I don't know if there was anything he could have done to show the cake bake process in a way that lived up to how much he hyped it via everyone absolutely losing their minds. In the end I came away feeling like I was just being told about how godly a chef Sanji is instead of being shown him doing actually impressive things. Nothing in that cooking process was as memorable and entertaining as his fight with Wanze. A third rate sub villain in the transition between two real arcs! And while I'm much more positive about Pudding than some people seem to be, the constant gags and fawning did get old at this point, especially considering how her turn at the wedding happened in the blink of an eye.
The character development and thematic stuff Oda did with Sanji still kind of works. It's there, but it stands on shakey ground… and the execution just wasn't impressive or entertaining enough to match the lofty standards I will always hold this series to.
Pacing and structure
I think this is something else a lot of people have criticized throughout the arc. And while I've certainly felt the effects of it as well, especially read weekly, I once again find it difficult to pin down exactly what went wrong and what should have been done instead (unlike Dressrosa, where I'll take the big, mean meat cleaver to everything dwarf-branded). I will say the arc is too long. Probably by about 10 chapters. And I think there's enough content to cut it down without losing something of great value or fundamentally screwing up the arc's goals.
Luffy leaving the mirror for a break in his fight with Katakuri, only to return right to where he was, felt like pointless padding. I realize this stems from the flaw of Gear 4 as Oda designed it, and that design is justified, but he could simply have had Luffy grabbing Brulée in a similar way and running around off-panel. This chase sequence didn't need to have even more bloat added to it. I think the initial forest sequence probably also went on a bit longer than it should have. Not that it wasn't fairly entertaining, but I have to question whether it was even necessary. It strikes me as Oda feeling the need to recapture that good ol' adventure vibe at some point during these messy arcs full of a million people, plots and places. And as much as that sentiment is appreciated, I feel like he's trying to have his cake and eat it too. It's never going to feel natural in the way adventuring on Skypiea or traveling through Alabasta's deserts felt natural. It comes off as forced and the sequences themselves aren't as good as they used to be either.
I've also expressed my dislike for the Vinsmokes, but I realize it's simply impossible to cut them off entirely and still maintain the arc's core premises. Minimizing their panel time would likely just make them even less engaging and take away from the already somewhat lacking emotional punch their feud with Sanji has. So maybe the solution here is to make better use of the panel time? Maybe cut a few things here and there and use what's gained there plus what was already assigned to make them at least somewhat engaging characters.
Other than simply tweaking numbers, there's also been a fair share of the by now patented post-timeskip scene-skipping extravaganza on display. I never felt as bothered by it as in Dressrosa and for the third time it's harder to point out specifics (maybe after a 3rd full reread I'll have some), but I'm confident in saying that Oda could still get a lot better at structuring up these giant bloated arcs.
WHEW. That's already getting too long and it's getting too late here. But I couldn't stop myself from getting some of these thoughts out. I'm very glad this arc is finally over and I'm also glad that my first reread made me appreciate it more than I have weekly. There are still lingering disappointments and a total absence of that feeling the great arcs of One Piece used to give me (and I won't buy anyone trying to tell me that I'm just getting older and more critical or whatever, because that feeling was present in full force during the humble little arc called Zou; I know for a fact Oda hasn't "lost it", he's simply not managing to pull it all together during these massive arcs). It's been good to read the thoughts of other people and I'm hoping to see some more things that increase my appreciation of the arc further.