(Scanlations used in picture done by Binktopia. Image made from me screwing around in Paint.net. Argh the blog cuts it off. Please click it to see the whole thing because I am not good at the image manipulating and it took me awhile...)
The common rumor for Impel Down is that it was going to last a year. I can't remember where I first heard it or where it was said, but the source was the mouth of Oda himself and it was being taken as fact by some highly credible people. Now, I may be mistaken, but I thought the common interpretation of the statement is that we'd be into 2010 before Luffy finally made it out of the gaol. This seemed a bit excessive, but really, I don't think it would have been much of a stretch to get another six months of chapters out of the environment. When you consider it, this is an arc set in one of the most ominous places in the world of One Piece, at least on this side of the new world. Momonga said it best - "This is truly the lowest place in the world" - and he had been inside a sea king! It seems odd, then, that Oda would only spend 24 chapters inside the prison, less time than he had spent on Baratie or Drum Island, but there is a reason for this.
I have seen a lot of criticism lately over the pacing of the story lately. While the complaints started as early as the Thriller Bark fights, they have reached a fever pitch in the latter portions of Impel Down. The sentiment is that Oda is simply moving too fast. It's an opinion that is not shared by many who don't count themselves as One Piece fans - most people who dislike it or are indifferent to it often state its massive length as their primary complaint - but those loyal to the manga know that Oda is at his best when he explains things at his leisure. Impel Down has arguably more history, more eccentricities and more untold mysteries than any location shown so far in the series, but the feeling as the story leaves it is that the surface was barely scratched on these treasures. The workings of Water 7's economy and climate cycle were explained. The history of Enies Lobby was detailed and it seemed like every notable character on the island had his moment in the spotlight. Thriller Bark, too, had plenty of time devoted to exploration and explanation before the fighting started.
Impel Down seemed like it was to have a similar feel with Luffy exploring each level and learning about the prison, but Oda's usually slow-but-exciting pacing was injected by some sort of amphetamine in this case. Luffy rushed through each Hell in a chapter or less on the way down, and covered multiple ones at once on the way up. We got a sense for what was going on in each level, but never really a full picture. It seems a bit like wasted potential; in Impel Down, Oda has more freedom to throw things in than he has in any arc before. Thriller Bark had all sorts of wackiness, but was bound, albeit loosely, by a horror motif. Other arcs had environments that limited the characters to certain categories or themes, but not Impel Down. Oda could throw any creature he wanted into the Gaol and it wouldn't have seemed out of place. Anyone or anything could be a guard, and if they were a little too evil for that, they could be a prisoner. And Oda knew this, obviously, introducing scores of excellent new characters. But couldn't there have been more? If he had slowed down a little, couldn't some of those crazy Newkama residents outside of Ivakanov and Inazuma gotten a chance to shine? By the end of the escape, they had scores of level 4 and 5 prisoners - those apparently even more threatening than Mr 2 or 1 - why didn't any of them do anything notable?
Maybe they will in the anime - that's been a reassuring cry from many a defender of the recent turbo mode. The anime producers would probably delight in the idea of stretching twenty-four weeks of manga into a year of shows (that is, if they've finally stopped wetting themselves over the thought of eight Straw Hat sidestories to flesh out - more on that later) and it wouldn't be too hard to do. Intentionally or not, Oda has left loads of blank spaces in the Impel Down narrative that can be filled with anything without ruining the canon. Like, think about the waves and waves of grunts taken out on during the final escape? Would it be too unreasonable to throw in some more of Impel Down's famed-but-rarely-seen torture devices and the prisoner's equally notoriously implied ruthlessness, livening up the struggle on both sides? It's looking like it will be an incredibly exciting series of episodes, but does that forgive the manga?
Or does it need defending? The theories for Oda's pacing of late are as varied as they are dubious - he wants to retire within five years and is rushing the story to completion; he's being pressured by advertisers to speed up so he can reunite the Straw Hats/start the Whitebeard fight/get to a more family friendly location; he doesn't actually enjoy such a depressing environment and wants to get the story on the sea again - all fairly reasonable excuses, more so than is common for a mangaka to need. One that's rarely argued for, though, is because it actually makes the story better, and that's what I'm going to try to argue now.
If there has been one consistent element of the story from Thriller Bark until now, it has been that time has been an issue. First they had to defeat Moria by dawn. Then the whole crisis of Camie being under attack/kidnapped began. Then they had to survive until the ship was coated - although that plan didn't last long at all. Most recently and pressingly has been Ace's execution, a deadline that is mentioned again and again with heightening drama. The ticking clock is an excellent literary device that brings more drama to any event. The idea of Mr 2 and Luffy being passed out in Level 5 would be slightly distressing on it's own, but with the execution looming, it takes on new importance. So, really, all the rushing makes sense - otherwise, Oda trying to make the execution's immediacy would seem pointless.
That still doesn't mean that it's OK that the arc ended without seeing all the prison had to offer - it doesn't excuse the shameless demoting of every prisoner into a no-name striped-shirt, it doesn't excuse mentioning or hinting at some cool Level 6 prisoners without showing them, nor does it excuse leaving Saldeath to do something of no consequence without explaining him or the Blugori at all! But that's all OK, because I'm beginning to think that we're not seeing the last of Impel Down. Don't get me wrong, I'm still saying the arc is over. They're out of the prison, and although Ace hasn't been rescued or killed, the step has been taken. As soon as they left the Gates of Justice again, Luffy's adventure in Impel Down was over.
But, like Thriller Bark and the Florian Triangle at large, there is still another story to be told there, that much is obvious. Blackbeard's still up to something, Shiryuu is still rampaging, and now Mr 2 has been injected into the mix. Thing is, Impel Down isn't Luffy's fight. He went in there for his brother, everything else was a complication. Luffy has no real quarrel with Magellan, Hannybal, or any of the guards or prisoners. After Ace was out of there, he had no reason to spend any more time. There's a good reason for not keeping him there, too, even if there was still more adventures to be had: moral conflicts. Luffy is a character of pure good, and although the idea of questioning the legitimacy of his actions is fascinating, I feel it would ultimately be bad for the manga. With Hannybal's speech, One Piece delved deeper into the greyness of the protagonists' actions than it ever had before. And it's a justified inspection, too - Luffy allied with former enemies and freed terrible rouges all for the sake of his brother, but the moral ramifications of these actions are deservedly sidelined by the story ramifications and the sheer awesomeness of said actions. Luffy's allowed to be a one-track character, so why try to force him in between the tracks?
Impel Down is a story to be told a man who is on the other side of said tracks. Buggy and Mr 3 hinted at this element early on in the arc, rioting and deceiving without a care in the world. But their motivations were too simple and too easily fulfilled. What Impel Down really needs is a guy who's motivated like Luffy - eager to explore every inch, interact with every crazy creature and find the kitchen without the time limit or conscious that Luffy had. Is any character leaping to mind? Yes, Impel Down should be a Blackbeard story. It isn't too far-fetched. Magellan, Hannybal and the rest still haven't been given their full glory as antagonists yet, and now, faced by truly villainous pirates, they can take the side of good and unleash all of their potential. Throw in Shiryuu, the remaining notable pirates and Mr 2, and you've got a recipe for many chapters of adventure and intense action that finally uncovers all the mysteries of the gaol. It probably won't happen - Oda has too much stuff on his plate with just the regular protagonists at the moment, and he seems eager to make Blackbeard's crew and their motives as mysterious as possible as long as possible. But a man can dream, no? Maybe down the line, or maybe as a coverstory arc or a anime filler arc.
That is, if Mr 2 lives at all. This could lead me into an entire other tangent about death and One Piece and how Oda uses different levels of "death" that usually just mean the character will be out of action for a varying number of chapters, but I feel like I've gone on long enough as is without actually talking about the chapter. It might seem like Mr 2 will actually die to the new reader, but I am fairly confident we just won't be seeing him for awhile. You might say that belittles his death, but I still think it was a very powerful scene. Mr 2 has been, if not one of the most powerful figures in the arc, one of the main facilitators of many major actions. He had already gotten one simply stunning moment - his rescue of Luffy from Level 5 and subsequent wolf battle - but this simply goes above and beyond. Likewise, his once heroic and inspirational saving of the Straw Hats from Hina now seems ancient and worthless. That's no knock to either of these scenes, both were amazingly well done and very moving, but it just shows how powerful this latest chapter was.
I think one of the things that struck me most about the aforementioned scene in Level 5 was his explanation to the prisoners of who he was. Now, I always feel weird about talking about linguistic choices in One Piece when I know the wording I've seen is just how the translators here interpreted, but here I think they made a very good choice. The word he uses in the scans I've read is "Pal", and that just seems perfect. It smacks a bit of a childlike naivety and a lack of understanding of the situation he's in, but it also has that simplistic understatement that makes it so much more powerful. Mr 2 has finally understood the relationship between him and Luffy; in a manga where blood runs deep, family connections start wars and shipmates stick together until death, he is nothing of significance to Luffy. In fact, their entire relationship was based around goofing around on the deck of the Merry. Later he became an enemy, but his fight was with Sanji, not someone who he had paled around with, to re-use the term, that day. His impersonation of the king and other acts in the war were truly deplorable, and there's good evidence that he's actually not that righteous of a person in general, but for his pal, he would do anything. That is truly the Okama Way, and it makes him one of the most interesting characters in the series in my opinion.
The message from the ship to him is all the more powerful due to the same understatement. The simple "THANK YOU!" resonates so well with the attitude of Mr 2 - flamboyant and up-front, but simple, naked emotion. Too polite for a "Thanks!", too pure for any sort of modifiers - one gets the sense that in this thank you, Mr 2 has finally closed the bracket opened when he first thanked Luffy for fishing him out of the water some 392 chapters ago. Even if he doesn't die, even if he ends up having another Impel Down adventure within the year, this is still a fitting conclusion to his character, at least for awhile. And I'll be a liar if I said I wasn't choking back some manly tears as Oda so sweetly described the flower of friendship bobbing away in the waves.
So, as a conclusion to both Mr 2 and Impel Down, this chapter has greatly exceeded all expectations. It leaves Impel Down with the same intensity the story had throughout while leaving some very interesting open ends. Rather than dragging out a lengthy battle between Magellan and Luffy, Oda has wisely kept the tempo up while shifting the focus of the story. And, as just another chapter, it was great as well, albeit somewhat flawed. Buggy and Crocodile's interaction were fun as always. The rear admiral chasing them got a bit of screen time - just enough, really, to confirm that there wasn't too much interesting happening with him. Most interesting I think are the lines of the pirates who vowed to now live peaceful lives. This goes back to the whole idea of the moral gray area that is Impel Down, and I think it's Oda's way of being able to justify having no ramifications of the story. It's not going to make me sure of it, but until I saw those lines, I was sure that a villain in a future arc would be a prisoner released by Luffy.
All that said, I didn't really like the fights between the ships. It seemed like the threat of the rest of the fleet had been neutralized last chapter, and although we did need some sort of immediate threat to increase the drama of getting through the Gate, "We fixed the cannons that Jinbei had wrecked" is really out of character for the series. Franky's adventure was sort of a disappointment, too. Given how little time is spent on each Straw Hat, I would've liked a little more progress than just "animals are attacking Franky". Great, we knew that, that was happening when we first saw him land there. Actually, it had stopped happening at that point. What gives? I just think Oda wanted to draw a cyborg gorilla.
It's hard to find fault with a chapter as moving as this, though. Mr 2 may not be dead, but the fact remains that One Piece can deliver a "death scene" just as good as any despite that.