Unforgiven, One Piece, and Suspended Expectations

March 16th, 2010 by | Tags: , , , ,

William Munny, as played by Clint Eastwood, spends most of Unforgiven stumbling around, missing shots, and falling off horses. Eastwood, the prototypical Western hero and a guy who has starred in a majority of the good ones, is used to disassemble the myth of the gunfighter. He’s old, he’s slow, he’s tired, and he makes you wonder if he was ever really all that. He’s washed up and broken, shaken in body and in spirit.

The rest of the movie works similarly. The violence is ugly and awkward, with none of the style and swagger of Fistful of Dollars. There’s no “My mistake: four coffins,” to be found here, just a man bleeding out on the sand and desperate for a drink of water to quench his thirst. There is only an old man who has outreached his grasp and outlived his own usefulness.

And then Morgan Freeman, his friend, dies because of what Munny did and is trussed up in the town square as a warning. After that, Munny takes his first drink of liquor in years, and then he goes and proves that gunfighters do exist, but they are cruel, evil men, and God help you if you get in their way.

“Well he should have armed himself if he’s gonna decorate his saloon with my friend.”

Another good example is in The Bourne Ultimatum, or possibly The Bourne Supremacy. At one point, Jason Bourne is arrested and taken to an embassy. He’s meek and silent throughout the scene, despite having displayed the ability to mow through trained soldiers with ease. However, he waits, and when an agent gets too close, he explodes into the action we expected to see.

I don’t know the term for this sequence of events. It’s different from the normal action movie move, where the hero is beaten down before getting a second win or new motivation. The best way to describe it is to describe a boiling pot. It is the conscious avoidance of explosive action on the part of a character who, by all rights, should be knee deep in it until the anticipation reaches a certain level, critical or not, and then the pot boils over and we’re in the thick of it. It’s always done for a specific storytelling reason.

Call it “suspended expectations,” maybe?

(An aside: Mark Millar and Steve McNiven bit the plot for their Old Man Logan, but never even came close to stepping out of Unforgiven‘s shadow, nor approaching the subtlety to be found in the film. When Eastwood starts gulping whiskey, there’s no clever callback to when his wife made him stop. It just happens and it is up to you to connect the dots. In Old Man Logan, Millar and McNiven pull the trigger on the violence too soon, save the turning point until after the violence, and then spend an entire issue bathing in blood. It doesn’t work because it has none of the pointed menace of Munny shooting an unarmed man and listing his sins, and hinges on excess, rather than precision and context. Millar, as ever, is derivative to the point that he cannot escape his influences.)

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is in Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. OP is dumb boy’s comics, like Naruto or Bleach, but consistently maintains a higher level of quality over its several hundred issue run. This is due in large part to the fact that Oda often focuses on characterization over action, building a fairly tight cast who are funny, engaging, and most of all, fun to read about. We want to know about their quirks and their tragedies.

Luffy spends much of volume 9 (or the latter part of East Blue 7-8-9 for you omnibus readers) doing nothing. When he arrives on the island, Nami, the woman he came to rescue, rejects him, ordering him to leave and explaining that they were never really friends at all. She only tagged along to betray them. She wants him gone, and gone yesterday.

After their encounter, Luffy just aimlessly walks around the island. When given a chance to discover Nami’s past, he replies that he doesn’t care and eventually walks away. He simply observes as everything goes on around him. There are a few action scenes featuring the crew, but Luffy, the glue of the series, is notably absent.

It’s not really like how when Superman is taken off the stage by some brand new enemy so that the fight isn’t over in thirty seconds. Luffy is here, and we expect him to take part, but he’s intentionally avoiding conflict. But, since this is shonen manga, we know that it has to come. He’s going to get off his butt and beat up the bad guy. It’s just a matter of when.

Nami’s secret is revealed partway through the book. As a child, she witnessed the death of her mother when the fishman pirates invaded her village. Shortly after, Nami allied herself with the fishman pirates. She turned herself into a money-grubbing master thief and welcomed the scorn of her village in an attempt to rescue the village from the pirates. She got Arlong’s mark tattooed on her shoulder, forever marking her as an outlaw and traitor. All she has to do is raise one hundred million berries to purchase her village from Arlong.

When Arlong tips off a corrupt Marine captain to her loot, setting her back to zero and keeping her services for the foreseeable future, her entire plan falls apart. When the villagers reveal that they knew what she was doing all along, and simply played along to protect her, her heart basically breaks. And then this:

Of course, this isn’t exactly the same as Unforgiven. What follows isn’t cruelty so much as a typical shonen fight. But, in the context of the series, it’s a big deal. Nami plays her cards close to her chest, and has shown herself to be self sufficient. When she finally comes up against something bigger than herself, she’s got to ask for help. And of course, there was never any doubt that her friends, the people who refuse to desert her, have her back.

This is part of what makes One Piece so enjoyable. While some fights are simply of the “Wouldn’t it be funny if a dude with three swords fought the greatest swordsman in the world?” or “What if a cook fought an angel?”, the majority of the fights have some emotional component that makes them click along. Usually, it’s for a good cause. Sometimes, it’s in support of a friendship that has been built and nurtured over several volumes or chapters.

One Piece is a typical shonen manga in a lot of ways. The hero fights because it’s the right thing to do and to protect his friends. While it’s relatively low on the Enemies Turned Into Friends scale (there is one definite, and a couple who feigned friendship to escape from somewhere), all of the fights are carefully positioned so that the hero is completely in the right, and will overcome at the end by displaying better spirit or developing a new move on the fly.

At the same time, though, One Piece has a lot of heart, and that’s what makes it work. Oda uses bits like this, interspersed with the regular comedic antics of the cast, to fill fights with importance and up the stakes without going for the cheap or gratuitous scare.

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18 comments to “Unforgiven, One Piece, and Suspended Expectations”

  1. I know you dislike Millar but I think it’s not totally like Unforgiven is because it’s also influenced by Easy Rider, very much so. So far I’ve liked all of Millar’s Wolverine stories. Also I love One Piece thanks to you, but I still think Naruto has a more complex character motivations.

  2. @Julian Lytle: … compare the Summit War from OP (when it gets legally distributed of course) and compare with current Naruto

  3. also like how no villain is truly EVIL, simply lost their way at a certain point.

    Recent developments also explain a lot why Arlong was so cruel. Doesn’t excuse him, but the set up is there and not shoved in our faces

  4. @Julian Lytle: Complexity of motivations doesn’t equate to quality, though. Chris Claremont turned the X-Men franchise into a quagmire of relationships (and the ’90s made it worse), Batman had very complex relationships with his subordinates back during No Man’s Land/War Games/Murderer/etc, but neither of those were truly good. OP has complexity, but not to the point where it feeds upon itself and kills the series.

  5. Enjoying those SA Avengers templates I see…

  6. Glad to see the “I am an Avenger” Meme hasn’t entirely died off yet. 😛

  7. Ah, One Piece. Such an amazing manga. I got tired of manga and anime, save for it. I still follow it reiligiously every week, and it never fails to surprise and entertain me. Eiichiro Oda clearly loves his characters and puts so much effort into their emotions and personalities, we can feel them as friends. His villains are not “just evil” villains. His plots are not just tournaments of strength. And the series has a balance of emotions, from sadness to happyness, from campyness to badassness, it feels like a hell of a rollercoaster ride!

  8. The difference between One Piece and other battle comics is like the difference between Yotsuba and other Japanese comics about little girls.

  9. David curious, have you caught up with the Summit War yet? If so, how fucking blown away were you by all the shit Oda throws in our lap?

    Oda truly Never fails to disappoint

    @david brothers: Not to mention that Sasuke and Sakura have all the complexity of a mossy rock

  10. @Nathan: I’m not David, but IMO the Summit War has been amazing, but it’s also slowly deconstructing the Strawhats and Luffy, taking everything they won over the series from them. I can’t wait for the war to end and to see the Strawhats rebuild themselves.

  11. […] Brothers discusses suspended expectations in One Piece at […]

  12. @david brothers:

    Ah but Marvel comics are a different beast. What Claremont did with X-Men was make them a soap opera with action and some themes. That is one of the hearts of Marvel way of comics, since romance comics were in their past. So it works with the X-men and alot of others (i.e. Spider-man).

    To tell the truth with Batman, I don’t buy him that often. But I’d take the Animated Batman’s personal relaltionships over most of the comic ones. I enjoy the hell out of Morrison’s run so far.

    As much I like One Piece, it feels a certain need in me called “punching to the face” it has all of that. It is the best action comic on earth. It’s just bananas. But still enjoy Naruto more, even though it had a rough patch for a little bit (too much Sasuke). Some characters are so tough-Kakashi, Shikimaru, Raikage. I just think some characters in it have to make tougher dramatic choices. I like the politics of the village and how it pushed the all the characters to different places. I like the generational aspect to it all, each generation makes a sin that the next has to fix and in so makes a new sin.

    Sakura is the worst character in the story, and really his weak point in storytelling is how he handles most of the young female characters. They are all lame. Sasuke may not be complex but his clan is, his back story is what makes him interesting. Where One Piece shines over naruto is all the women in it are dope and tough and have heart.

    By the way I’m up to date on both ( I ski mask and don’t really hide it) The current stuff in One Piece is epic, like a total jump in quality. He has the glow like bruce leeroy right now. Naruto I think is starting to get back on track. It has Kakashi back in it.

  13. @Deicide.UH: In-fucking-deed. I was sold the moment the arc began then with every single chapter that follows Oda just kept adding more and more to the fire until it reaches the Planck temperature. Akainu and Whitebeard best characters ever

    Yeah agree about the SH, after their major victory in Ennies Lobby, the events of the Shandoby arc came as a huge surprise to me.

    @Julian Lytle: But he’s not doing anything

  14. @Space Jawa: Robert Kirkman is sure keeping it alive

  15. […] Michael Pinto shares some vintage shojo spreads by Eico Hanamura… David Brothers explains what Unforgiven, The Bourne Ultimatum, and One Piece have in common… Melinda Beasi explains why hatin’ on Twilight fans is so 2009… and the Good […]

  16. What a great analysis of what makes One Piece so special. That page with Nami’s boys going “Let’s go” quite literally made tears spring to my eyes to see it again.

  17. @Michelle Smith: I love that you call them “Nami’s boys”– it’s so apt.

    Nami’s got the saddest bit here, but she’s also got one of the funniest bits overall in OP, I think. I don’t want to ruin it entirely, but it’s during the Alabasta arc (which is on Hulu, but not the bit I want) and the first time she uses her Clima-tact. I seriously laughed until I cried.

  18. […] I talked about the shared storytelling in Unforgiven and Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece last month. I was kinda bummed out, because the animated version of that chapter wasn’t online at the time, but Hulu recently put a whole bunch of episodes online, dubbed and subbed. So, re-read that essay and then come back here and watch this fantastic episode of One Piece. […]