One thing we often forget while following the adventures of the Straw Hat Pirates is that the world of One Piece is a very dark place. A government oozing with corruption, a class of nobles that is above all laws, and political conspiracies at every turn are just a few of the harsh elements that bring Oda’s world to life. Although definitely a major aspect of the central narrative, these world-building elements most often flourish in character backstory flashbacks. This in turn, makes them one of my favorite elements of the series.
With this in mind, you can understand my immense excitement when arriving at the cliffhanger that would begin Big Mom’s backstory sub-arc. Due to a combination of a suddenly busy schedule and the newfound knowledge that this story would only last two chapters, I decided to hold off for a double review. Since these chapters are so dense, I will only be addressing important details, as opposed to the typical complete breakdown.
Enough dilly dallying, let’s dive right into Big Mom’s backstory.
An immediately noticeable element of intrigue regarding Big Mom is that she is, contrary to popular theory, not a giant. Linlin may be unique in size and strength, but through her parental abandonment, we learn she is human. Although this abnormality may lead to some speculation in the theory community, I doubt it will be addressed by Oda any further. In a world with fishmen, various long-limb tribes, and anthropomorphic animal people, it isn’t too farfetched that an outrageously large, non-giant human would be born.
Just because Big Mom is confirmed not to be a giant doesn’t mean the giant race isn’t major importance in this sub-arc. We learn Mother Caramel, a woman supposedly dedicated to her religion, plays a direct role in the modern history of Elbaf. You see, after Brogy and Dorry began the battle that would come to serve as the catalyst for the Little Garden Arc, the Giant Warrior pirates were left without a captain. This void led to reckless pirating, which, in turn, led to their capture by the Marines. As the crew was about to be executed at Marineford, Mother Caramel arrived, stepping in to their defense. Long story short, she became a hero amongst the giants, and was given refuge in Elbaf. There, she began her orphanage, The Lamb’s House (named with clever foreshadowing from Oda *COUGH COUGH* LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER *COUGH COUGH*).
Oda didn’t just simply use Elbaf as the setting for this arc for the sake of reader familiarity. He took full advantage of this location by integrating every single giant character we’ve met thus far (aside from the hands-down best, Jaguar D. Saul) into this sub-arc. Our favorite giants from Little Garden, Enies Lobby, and Marineford either make cameos, or are referenced in dialogue. Even Hajrudin, who, as a reminder, is currently a division captain in the Straw Hat Grand Fleet, shows up as a child.
The last essential point of discussion for this particular chapter is the variety of the orphans. It seems almost all of children living in the Lamb’s House represent victims of different dark corners of the One Piece world. Political chaos and poverty induced slavery are just two emphasized examples. This only adds to the unsettling nature of this sub-arc, and sets the tone for the chapter to come.
Before moving forward, I have some very strong general opinions on Chapter 867 that need to be addressed. This was by far the most disturbing chapter of One Piece in recent memory. After my initial, edge-of-my-seat readthrough, I was left with a gnawing lump in my chest for the remainder of the day. The sheer potency of this chapter is not something to be downplayed; Oda deserves a damn medal. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took inspiration from Junji Ito when sitting down to write. His genius textual attack comes in two waves- the Mother Caramel reveal and the shocking ending.
Mother Caramel, the kind religious woman who takes in orphaned children, is not what she seems. Bringing a dark truth of the One Piece world back into the limelight, we learn that she is in fact an infamous child slaver. Every two years, she sells one of the orphans to the Celestial Dragons or the Marines. This practice doesn’t raise any suspicion, as she publicly pretends that these children were “finally adopted!” This explains the unconditional love she showed Linlin; the child was set to be her biggest sale yet.
The only confusing aspect of this reveal is who she was speaking to when it took place. In direct conversation with a CP agent, she has to defend her slaver actions. I am very confused by this dynamic, as one of the main objectives of the CP units are to cater to the whims of the Celestial Dragons (who make up the majority of slave masters in the One Piece world).
Regardless of this minor contradiction, Oda does a flawless job of writing Mother Caramel as an absolutely despicable character. Spending months building her up as a figure of kindness and compassion in Big Mom’s life, only to reveal her as a pure evil, real-world monster makes the punch all the more devastating. She reminds me of a more two-faced version of Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The dramatic irony of this situation is that, to this day, Big Mom still has no idea about Mother Caramel’s true nature. She continues to base the model of her entire pirate empire after the facade Caramel displayed. This helps us to develop a bit more sympathy towards Big Mom, which was probably one of Oda’s main intents when writing this backstory.
As if the chapter wasn’t perturbing enough, the closure of this sub-arc was downright nauseating. Big Mom’s days as a free child are numbered as her sixth birthday arrives. Keeping up the facade, Mother Caramel holds a birthday party for Linlin. All of the orphans are gathered to celebrate with a croquembouche feast (a clever throwback to the early chapters of this arc). Big Mom’s love for the food brings her into an eating frenzy. She loses all awareness of her surroundings as she monstrously devours the massive platter. After she finishes eating and confesses to getting overexcited, she finds Mother Caramel and the rest of the orphans are gone. Big Mom looks around for a while, but all of her friends are nowhere to be found.
That’s right, she committed accidental cannibalism and ate all of her companions. Despite disturbing plot elements being commonly sprinkled throughout the series, this is a new level for Oda. This is the first time One Piece has made me outright scared. This fear is welcomed; we finally understand the true threat that Big Mom poses. When she loses control, there is no telling the atrocities she is capable of committing. If the members of her massive crew know this, it adds a whole new eerie contextualization to the entire arc. All of her subordinates that we’ve met, including commanders, must be living in constant fear.
With that, we are brought back into the current plot, as Big Mom completely loses composure in the face of the shattered Mother Caramel photo. Now that we understand Big Mom’s viscous potential, there is absolutely no way the assassination plan will succeed. There is no doubt in my mind that the Straw Hat/Fire Tank alliance will fail. This is actually great for the plot; their escape now becomes abundantly more interesting.
Overall, the Big Mom flashback sub-arc was immensely satisfying. It stands strong in the company of the tragic backstories that play a pivotal part in making One Piece the series it is. Its brevity, disturbingness, and high level of fan service all work together to produce two masterful chapters. Successfully re-contextualizing the Whole Cake Island arc, this backstory added even more intensity to an already gripping climax.