Character death is pretty much a joke in shonen shows. A legitimate criticism of the genre is that whenever somebody dies they usually aren't or they find some way to come from the dead. Sure, there are characters that die, but those that do go are either villains or older, father-type figures that are meant to inspire everybody else to keep up the good fight. Off the top of my head I cannot think of a protagonist in any shonen story that is killed off for more than a couple of chapters or episodes.
Oh, and I'm well aware that I'm covering three episodes here, but the themes that I wish to write about carry across these episodes and not mentioning them as one does my point a disservice. They also haven't been written up in Fighting Friday, so if you haven't seen these episodes and wish to know what happens, click through the jump and get those tissues ready.
Alright, if you've gone beyond the jump you obviously don't care about spoilers, okay?
So, just in case you aren't up to date with the One Piece anime, this happened three episodes ago.
Ace, the adopted brother of the main character, was killed when Admiral Sakazuki, aka Akainu, punched through his body with a magma punch. Typically, a punch would just sail through Ace because of his Logia-type Devil Fruit power, but the heat of Akainu's magma was too much for even Ace's fire to withstand. When Ace stepped in-between Akainu's fist and his brother, he knew that he would die. This is your typical sacrifice that any number of characters have done in fiction.
However, in long-running shonen series like One Piece, the death of Ace is quite an abnormality. Ace would be considered a secondary character, yes, but one that is vital to the lead. Although he is three years Luffy's senior, Ace still is in the same age group and would thus have an "age protection" barrier. By this I mean that in nearly every shonen show all characters that are or are nearly the same age as the protagonist will likely stay alive no matter what happens to them. Hell, Ace just being one of the heroes should give him enough plot armor to stay alive.
Unfortunately, the task for pushing Luffy to a new level rested in the hands and body of Ace. Most shows have a death that shakes their main character to the core and that will typically force them to do better and get stronger. Usually, this means the death of a parental figure or teacher, typically a significantly older person. That's what was interesting for me in One Piece, was that those character types were few and far between, leaving Luffy to be the force of his own evolution. It's only in the last hundred or so chapters that Luffy gets a master of sorts to teach him what he needs to know.
There's also the sheer emotional trauma that Luffy has just had happen to him. There are plenty of deeply moving moments in One Piece. Every character has had some pretty awful things happen to them, with Robin and Brooke topping the list. However, the deaths that they went through are in the past and involved adults, not peers. Yes, Brooke watched his entire crew die and Robin lost her mother and the archeologists that brought her up, but the view didn't have the expectation of survival. You know those people have to die to get those characters to meet up with Luffy, but Ace's death isn't entirely necessary.
Considering the show's past, Ace had every right and expectation to live. Luffy has nearly always gotten his goal, whether it took the defeat of a Shichibukai or a lightning god. There's the expectation that when Luffy springs Ace and the two fight side by side that they'll be able to gallivant off. The only death that might happen in that case is Whitebeard and that's because it's usually the job of the father figure to die in order to save his son/protegee. The old should die before the young.
Looking at other shonen shows, the past shows that the captured character should live. Characters like Gaara in Naruto were similarly captured and they managed to survive. The only people to die in that case was an older lady. Using Naruto as a further example, Pain does manage to kill many named characters. However, he brings them back to live with a technique that kills him. As for Bleach, no main characters have ever been seriously put at death's door, so I'm not going to bother. When there is no expectation for his death within the genre, an actual lasting death has a bigger impact not only on the characters in the show, but on the audience as a whole. Now whenever a secondary character is put in mortal peril, it's entirely possible that they could die.
I'll end this little diatribe with the sheer violence of the whole thing. One Piece has always had some pretty crazy fights and buckets of claret. Characters are getting slashed and shot all the time. I mean, any fight Zoro gets in always leads to him bleeding out of dozens of cuts afterward, with his Mihawk encounter being the worst of the bunch. The Whitebeard war has only gotten worse, with all the no-name pirates and marines killing each other in the field. Yet, all that craziness happens off screen or in silhouette. As far as I remember, there hasn't been serious changes from manga to anime in terms of violent acts, only changes in the amount of blood spilled. They even kept in Akainu's killing blow, which isn't necessarily overtly violent, but just kinda disturbing.
For crazy violence, take a look at the following picture taking in the episode following Ace's death.
In the anime, Akainu nails Whitebeard with a flaming punch to the gut, similar to Ace's final strike. However, that blow is MUCH worse in print, as the blow was to THE SIDE OF WHITEBEARD'S HEAD. That's right, Akainu tore off a piece of Whitebeard's head and the old man STILL stood and fought. You can see in the pic on the left that Whitebeard is missing his left eye and part of his mustache where Akainu's lava strike connected. That is of course right after Whitebeard earthquake-punches Akainu into the stone and right before he delivers an island-shattering earthquake to Akainu's ribs. Think about how brutal that is. It isn't Fist of the North Star-style "I hit you a bunch of times and watch you blow up" violence, but it feels way more personal and visceral.
So really, this is one of the reasons that I love One Piece so much. It already had really entertaining characters that never failed to make me smile and sometimes shed a tear. However, with this climactic moment in the Whitebeard War I was blown away by how ballsy Oda was in killing off a beloved character for the sake of making his lead grow. I don't know how long he's been planning this, but by timing it just so he's bucked many trends that make his genre stale and made a show that could be predictable, not. As for what happens next, there are still a couple of surprises left before things get resolved in Marineford, but be sure that nobody will leave that plaza the same. Photo Gallery: (4 images)
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