Well, we're about halfway through volume 102 and… am I dreaming? Is this... actually compelling character development for Sanji? That addresses the issues his women problems have created? Oda must think it's my birthday or something. Anyway, the colour spread is a little bit of a miss for me. Love seeing more character variety in these things, but I'd rather have the usual style of them all hanging out or doing something rather than all these separate panels. Bepo goes a long way to salvage it though. And it is nice seeing a greater variety of characters than just the Strawhats in these things. But how mean is it to put a Zoro colour spread on what is essentially a Sanji chapter? The guy really can't catch a break.
Big Mom is looking like a true monster in this chapter. People have been quick to say the Emperors don't feel threatening enough in this arc, but I think Oda's figured that feeling out. Law and Kid have both pulled out the kind of upgrade that would be a fight ender in most other arcs and used them together, at great cost to their own stamina, only for Big Mom to decide they're worth her getting serious about and powering herself up. It's true that the alliance didn't struggle as much as expected with the flunkies and officers of the Beasts Pirates at the start of the battle, but in this late stage we're seeing how that conflict sapped their energy and expended their new tricks, meanwhile the two big bosses have come through to the final round with strength spare. Big Mom is finally selling that "how can they possibly win this" energy readers were looking for, and we can only hope Kaido brings the same force to bear against Luffy when we cut back to the roof.
Just goes to show how well planned out all of this is. People were agreeing with Hyogoro when he said he couldn't imagine losing and complaining it was too easy for the heroes back in the third chapter after the battle was officially kicked off by the attack on Kaido. We're now on chapter 45 after the raid commenced and there are now comments saying Big Mom still seems too strong to believably take down here, and that it feels too likely CP0 will actually be able to capture Robin, and that any win could only feel like an asspull. It's not unlike how most of Luffy's fights, be especially the Katakuri one, have gone. He took more hits, sure, but he kept getting back up. It's safe to say now we were feeling exactly what Oda wanted when it felt too easy in the opening chapters; the crew hit the ground running, but the battle of Onigashima is a marathon, not a sprint.
It's hard to see that kind of pacing reading week by week. It's the kind of thing that only reveals itself when you look back later on.
Oh, despite seeming resolved last chapter, it seems Drake and Apoo's fight is back on. Sure, why not. It seems like Drake has the upper hand he needs for a quick win, but I do wonder what the purpose of their truce was, given it's lasted less than 20 pages. In the volume readthrough, the idea of Drake and Apoo teaming up will be literally blink-and-you-miss-it. An even shorter shelf life than Marco and Perospero's alliance, somehow. With this, we've got a surprising number of characters heading for the armoury. Yamato, Drake, Apoo, Inbi, Fuga, Zanki and Kanjuro's Kazenbo. Presumably Kin'emon will find a way down there to cut fire one more time, possibly needing to be carried by Usopp to make it. Oda's got a plan for that arsenal, but I have no idea what it could be at this point.
Cipher Pol's move gives us nice moment between Robin and Brook and some interesting lore, though I have to wonder how this new conflict is going to fit into the already-strained pacing of the battle.
But the meat of this chapter is Sanji's transformation. This is exactly the kind of Sanji arc I've been hoping for since Ennies Lobby. Whole Cake Island gave us a lot of Sanji backstory, but it didn't force him to grow as a character at all - it turned out his natural kindness was the best thing for him all along and the skills he needed were the culinary ones he already had - leaving his post-timeskip exaggerated flaws untouched. After all of that, I wasn't expecting Sanji to ever be confronted by the possibility he had hurt a women, or pick up some self-doubt about his humanity and heritage, or have to honestly ask himself if his inability to face a female opponent makes him a liability. While the conclusions he comes to about these points are far from surprising, I'm so glad Oda finally brought them up.
Obviously Oda's given himself a lot of plausible deniability for Sanji apparently hurting an innocent woman, what with no one witnessing the deer directly. I'd say it's fairly likely the scene will be walked back later, but I'm not bothered by that. Sanji just believing he'd done it was enough to get the ball rolling, and that's all the story needed.
What I wouldn't have ever guessed is the request to Zoro to kill him if he goes off the rails. Despite all the bickering, the trust there is real. I'm looking forward to seeing how this interaction plays out after the battle, if we'll really get a dark Sanji who needs to be talked or beaten down (of course he won't actually die) or if Zoro just humorously looks for an excuse to follow through on the request despite Sanji remaining in his right mind.
I love that Sanji's change is reflected in his eyebrows. From his very first appearance, with one brow covered, to the reveal that they both go the same way with his timeskip design, to his siblings having theirs in the opposite direction, Sanji's eyebrows are one of the series' best long-con gags. And admirable restraint from Oda that their use has never been lampshaded in universe beyond calling them "swirly."
It's also not lost on me that Sanji has ended up on the opposite side of the dome to where Zoro's fighting. The left and right wings doing battle on their respective sides and pirate king fighting on the roof in the middle. Poetic, Oda, very poetic.
Basically the chapter was a banger. The main character I've felt has been most mishandled over the past decade is being pulled in an exciting new direction and the tension is really amping up. I have a bad feeling every break from here until the end of the battle is going to be painful, which is a bad point to reach right before the end of year dearth of chapters. But we'll make it through somehow.