I’ve been making my way through the One Piece anime for the past few months and I just finished the “Thriller Bark” arc. Following the fantastic “Enies Lobby” arc, I was really pumped to see what “Thriller Bark” had in story. It gets off to a good start introducing Brook (how can you not love a talking skeleton who tells corny jokes?) and the idea of the Straw Hats fighting an island of zombies sounds great, but once the crew arrives on Thriller Bark, the first half of the arc is a real slog.
The three weakest members of the gang, Usopp, Nami and Chopper, get separated from the others and and the rest of the Straw Hats have to rescue them. There’s a repeated pattern where Usopp and co. encounter some bad guys and barely get away, then the rest of the crew encounters the same enemies and defeat them easily. It gets old very quickly.
The arc relies heavily on standard horror tropes and it takes a while for the gang wise up to what’s really going on, even though the viewer is sure to be way ahead of them. (Shockingly, the guy that seems like a mad scientist is actually… a mad scientist!) There is also a lot of padding with flashbacks to events that only happened a couple episodes earlier and the subplot about one of the villains trying to marry Nami is completely skippable in my opinion.
But once the final battle against Oars and Gecko Moria gets underway, “Thriller Bark” stands among the best arcs in One Piece so far. Oars (a giant zombie brought to life by Luffy’s shadow and sharing his personality) is hilarious, and the Straw Hats’ fight against him has all the excitement, twists and turns, and great character moments you’d expect from a One Piece battle. My favorite moment has to be when the Straw Hats join together form a Voltron-esque “giant robot” (given the name of my site, that’s probably not a surprise) but Nightmare Luffy’s fight with Oars is a very close second.
The introduction of mysterious Kuma in the middle of the arc perfectly shows why One Piece is a step above most other battle shonen. While most shonen follow the same formula of having one major villain per arc and a new status quo being established before the next villain is introduced, One Piece is far more epic in scope. There’s always a sense that unknown dangers could come after the Straw Hats at any time, and despite their incredible powers, they are still just small fish in the largest sea imaginable.
And speaking of epic scope, “Thriller Bark” contains resolutions to two dangling plot threads, both from more than 200 episodes previous. We learn the meaning behind the blank piece of paper Ace gave Luffy during the Alabasta arc, and we find out that Brook is from the pirate ship that befriended the whale Laboon from way back when Luffy and co. first entered the Grand Line.
Brook’s backstory revealed at the end of the arc is absolutely heartbreaking. Romanticism has always been the central theme of One Piece, but as cliche as it is for a shonen series to focus on the importance of friendship and following your dreams, One Piece handles these ideas with a maturity few other series can match. Sometimes following your dreams can lead to terrible outcomes, as we learn from many of the Straw Hats’ origins. The Rumbar Pirates’ captain dies after contracting a chance disease, filled with regret over the things he never had a chance to accomplish. We never even see the pirates that wiped out the rest of Brook’s friends, adding to the feeling of senselessness and randomness that so often accompany real life tragedy, but is rarely explored in modern popular fiction.
“Thriller Bark” is possibly the most uneven story arc in One Piece thus far. It takes a long time to get going, but once it hits its stride, it has some of the most action-packed and emotional moments in the entire series. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go cry over the story of a singing cartoon skeleton.
Final Rating: 3.5/5