Last year I wrote a series on building good villains. You can read the parts in order using the links at the end of this post but it’s not necessary to read all that to appreciate what I’ve got to share over the next two weeks. It may make some of the terminology easier to understand as I fully explain the concepts I’m talking about there.
So, since I did a lot of talk about villains and the purposes they serve previously I thought it might be fun to go through the rise and fall of a story’s villains and see how all the aspects were employed. After some debate back and forth I settled on the villainous organization Cipher Pol 9, from the Water Seven arc of One Piece.
Some background. One Piece is a manga – or Japanese comic – written and illustrated by Echiro Oda. It is the best selling manga in Japan and has been for years. The premise is simple: Ever since legendary pirate Gold Rogers announced his treasure was out there for the taking if only anyone could find it to the crowd at his execution thousands have set sail to seek the One Piece and claim Rogers’ legacy. Captain Luffy D. Monkey is one such pirate, seeking the ultimate prize and the title King of Pirates that goes with it.
Luffy and his Straw Hat Pirates have faced many dastardly villains in their journey around the world. Many of them have been other pirates but every once and a while they cross paths with representatives of the World Government. One such group of government enforcers is Cipher Pol 9, the off-the-books, ultra secret arm of the World Government’s intelligence agency. Whenever the Government needs something done, no matter who must die or what cost be payed, CP 9 is sent. The Water Seven saga is my personal favorite One Piece saga, although there are many strong arcs in the story, and the strength of CP 9 as villains is a big part of why I liked it.
Before we dig too deep into the arc of CP 9 here’s a quick look at the six most important characters we’ll be discussing. These aren’t the only people in the story but they’re the most important for our purposes – other names will be brought up but aren’t people you’ll have to remember.
From the Straw Hat Pirates:
Luffy D. Monkey, Captain of the Straw Hat Pirates – Luffy is a ball of energy and optimism, the crew’s strongest fighter and a total idiot. The crew sticks with him because he is endlessly loyal to them and anyone else he extends friendship to. He’s also very stubborn which, when combined with a lack of common sense and poor general knowledge of the world, can easily get him stuck in bad situations. Thanks to eating a magic fruit when he was young his body can stretch like rubber. He’s worth 100,000,000, dead or alive.
Usopp, the Sniper King – Usopp is one of the crew’s founding members. Remarkable for his long nose, incredible accuracy with any kind of ranged weapon and unbelievable cowardice, Usopp is Luffy’s opposite in many ways. He’s pretty smart and calls himself a Captain but almost always hides behind others when he thinks he can get away with it. He’s still loyal to the crew and a skilled inventor and he has risked his life for his friends. He’s just not very good at the whole adventuring thing.
Robin Nico – Robin is a woman of mystery. She joined the Straw Hats after Luffy defeated her last employer and has always been viewed with some degree of suspicion by the crew. Except for Luffy, who lacks any sense of danger. By profession she’s an archaeologist and speaks a number of languages, including a dead language. At the start of the Water Seven arc the crew doesn’t know much beyond the fact that she used to work for a very dangerous pirate and her head is worth 79,000,000, dead or alive.
From CP 9:
Rob Lucchi – Rob Lucchi is the top operative in CP 9. In many ways he’s Luffy’s opposite; quiet, restrained and unambitious. But when there’s a job to be done he does it with a single minded focus and grim brutality that has made him a legend in the World Government. The kind of legend spoke of in hushed voices and careful whispers. But he is like Luffy in one way – his unshakable faith in his own power and that of his comrades.
Commissioner Spandam – The leash for CP 9, Spandam is the man who points Rob Lucchi and company in a direction and lets them go. He’s vain, self centered and ambitious. He’s more interested in what he gets out of catching the Straw Hat Pirates than in how it will make the world a better place.
From Water Seven:
Franky the Shipbreaker – A professional scrapper and part time bounty hunter, Franky lives on the outskirts of Water Seven, occasionally capturing pirates with the help of a gang of small time muscle. He’s also a cyborg that runs on cola. Best not to ask, the technology level of the One Piece world is pretty inconsistent.
Our story dawns with the Straw Hat pirates headed to the great city of Water Seven, a place roughly analogous to Venice, down to the city’s having canals for streets and slowly sinking down under the water. Water Seven is best known for it’s shipyards and Luffy hopes to have the crew’s ship, the Merry Go, repaired by a reliable group and possibly hire a carpenter to keep the ship afloat. While the Straw Hats have made a name for themselves in many perilous battles, coming through each encounter stronger, their ship has grown leakier and less reliable with each encounter.
On making anchor at Water Seven the Straw Hats split up and head in different directions, Luffy and Usopp heading off with the ship’s navigator, Nami, to turn some gold into cash so they can pay for repairs then heading off to the shipyards to hire some contractors.
Meanwhile, Robin takes Tony Tony Chopper, ship’s doctor, to buy some medical reference books. Along the way they pass people in masks, another call back to Venice’s culture and an important plot device. Chopper gets ahead of Robin when she’s stopped by one of these masked people. This masked figure is a member of CP 9 and our first glimpse of them establishes a few things in a single image. It tells us they’re vaguely sinister, cut an imposing figure and have some kind of leverage over Robin, as the masked figure manages to lure her away from Chopper of her own volition. This is the beginning of the group’s ascendance.
Our next glimpse of CP 9 comes very quickly, although we don’t know it yet. When Luffy and his group arrives at the docks they head to the offices of the Galley-la company, a united shipwrights guild forged by the best shipwright on the island, Iceberg. We’re introduced to Galley-la as they kick a bunch of rowdy pirates off their drydocks for refusal to pay. At first this just serves to prove that the shipwrights are a tough bunch but one foreman in particular makes a good showing of himself. It’s Rob Lucci, part of a deep cover mission by CP 9.
In fact, along with Rob two other Cipher Pol agents are hidden in Galley-la, another foreman named Kaku and Iceburg’s secretary Kalifa. Both Rob and Kaku make a good showing against the pirates, impressing Luffy and the audience with skills that will soon be turned against our heroes. But for the moment the wily agents stay under cover and Kaku goes to inspect the Straw Hats’ ship to see what can be done about it.
What happens next is very important, yet very few authors think of doing it when writing a villain. The CP 9 agents in Water Seven get lucky. The Merry Go has suffered so much punishment it’s no longer seaworthy and no ammount of work will make it sail again. The Straw Hats will need a new ship. Luffy resists the notion at first but eventually gives in.
A number of smaller misadventurs take place, introducing the audience to Franky, then Usopp, who missed the pronouncment of Merry’s fate due to Franky’s goons, learns of the ship’s fate. Merry Go was a gift to the Straw Hats from a wealthy girl on Usopp’s home island and he’s been in charge of keeping it afloat since they set out. All of the Straw Hats have an attachment to the ship but Usopp’s is particularly strong. He can’t bring himself to let go.
Worse, he got beaten to a pulp by the Franky family earlier that afternoon and he’s a low point, emotionally speaking. He doesn’t feel like he can measure up to the level of the other Straw Hat pirates and so, when Luffy gets heated and says Usopp can accept his decision to get a new ship or leave, Usopp takes the route that makes the most sense. He quits the crew.
As soon as he does so he challenges Luffy to a single combat, stating if he wins he’ll take the Merry Go with him. The two fight and Luffy wins, but not before Usopp’s cunning lets him run circles around Luffy for a few minutes. Unlike many fights in One Piece the fight isn’t an exhilirating battle of grit and strategy, although those things are there, it’s more of a painful rending of the fabric of the story. The heroes of One Piece are all unique and lovable, but their ability to look after and care for one another makes them particularly lovable. Luffy vs. Usopp strains that relationship past the breaking point, going to a place where the story never has before (or since).
This split in the crew leaves the Straw Hats even weaker than they were before. Usopp and Robin were the closest things the crew had to strategists. Usopp is excellent at finding and exploiting weaknesses, Robin excells at reading between the lines. Both abilities are now gone from the Straw Hat crew, leaving them particularly crippled against an enemy like CP 9 that excells in cunning.
Most authors would have tried to make this another cunning play on the part of the Cipher Pol agents, like the one they used against Robin (more on that next week). But by making this weakness of the Straw Hats come from the incredible punishment the ship took – and that the audience has seen build up for years – Oda manages to cripple the Straw Hats in the face of their villains without said villains having to run gambits that require comical omniscience (as many spy type villains wind up with) or otherwise overextend themselves. Or worse, making the Straw Hats behave out of character for the express purpose of putting them in a worse situation.
The next morning, still reeling from the fight with Usopp, the Straw Hats wake up to learn that Mayor Iceberg was shot the night before. As they hurry to the Galley-la docks to learn more they learn that a seasonal high tide called Aqua Laguna is coming that evening and will flood most of the lower city, making travel almost impossible. Once they reach Galley-la they’re forced to run when it turns out Iceberg told the locals he was attacked by Robin and a man in a mask. The pirates go to ground to dodge patrols and vow to figure out who’s framing them and why.
After an afternoon of shenanigans the assassins finally come for Iceberg again that night. Not only do the Galley-la crew try to foil the assassins the Straw Hats take advantage of the confusion to see what’s really going on.
Matters come to a head when CP 9’s deep cover agents reveal themselves to their old employers and demand Iceberg turn the blueprints of a superweapon from a bygon era over to them. They were tasked to steal it but haven’t been able to locate it. With this revelation clearing his crew Luffy could leave at this point except Robin is with the Cipher Pol agents and Luffy isn’t ready to walk away from a second crewman in as many days.
For his part Iceberg refuses to tell CP 9 anything. The blueprints in his hands came from his teacher who warned him that the superweapon was too powerful to be trusted to anyone except as a deterent against a similar weapon. Other such weapons existed but only in a long forgotten language only one living person can understand. With Robin Nico apparently on their side CP 9 already held the key to one allpowerful superweapon. Iceberg won’t give them a second.
Unfortunately Cipher Pol already has a clue where he might have left the blueprints so they tie up Iceberg and his employees who know their true identities, fight the Straw Hats until they’re thrown out or flee, and set fire to Galley-la headquarters. There’s a striking image of Rob Lucci and his agents watching the building burn that pretty definitively marks the moment CP 9 reaches apotheosis. The Straw Hats are defeated or captured, nothing stands between CP 9 and what they want and the lives of dozens of innocents lie in shambles as the agents of Cipher Pol fade into the shadows without a care for those they’ve hurt.
It’s time for CP 9 to find Franky and secure the blueprints that will give them a monopoly on world ending superweapons once and for all. They need to move fast. Aqua Laguna is coming and once they’re away and the tides come in there will be nothing left to stop them.
The ascendancy of Cipher Pol 9 is excellent for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, it manages to put the Straw Hats in a terrible position without requiring the villains to do all the work. Overworking your characters, villain or not, can tire your audience so avoiding it in this way is a good move and one more authors should look in to. Second, it drives a knife in the wound by revealing Robin’s betrayal not long after Usopp and Luffy tore the crew apart. Third, it establishes CP 9 as both masterful actors and horrific traitors by showing them working well with Galley-la then remorselessly turning on them when the time came. Finally, it leaves the Straw Hats exactly where heroes should be when the villains are at their peak: Scattered, lonely, hurting inside and out, but not quite beaten yet.
Come back next week and we’ll break down the apotheosis and eventual downfall of Cipher Pol 9 and the fate of the Straw Hat pirates and their brave little ship.
Further reading on the art of the villain:
- Ten Villains to Know and Loathe (Part One, Part Two)
- For What Purpose?
- Anything You Want
- The Silence and the Horror
- Ascendancy and Apotheosis
- The Moment of Defeat
- Bad to the Bone
- Double X
- Evil Never Dies