[Warning: Contains spoilers for One Piece volume 44]
It’s hard to lose a character you love in a series. It’s even harder when you don’t realize how much you’ll miss that character until you see them go. Creators kill off characters all the time, sometimes it’s because they don’t know what to do with them anymore, sometimes it’s just for the shock it creates in readers, and sometimes, though rarely, it’s even to move the story along.
In volume 44 of One Piece, a very important character is lost. A companion and shipmate that has been with the crew since the 3rd volume; the Merry Go. That’s right, the Straw Pirate’s ship is lost forever. You normally wouldn’t think of a ship as a character. There didn’t seem to be anything special about the Merry Go. It was a small ship compared to many of the other pirate and marine ships. Its figurehead looks like a smiling ram. There’s nothing magical about it except that it kept surviving all the punishment the Luffy and his crew put it through. It was just a ship, right? Not in the hands of Eiichiro Oda.
At the start of the “Water Seven Arc”, the Straw Hats take the Merry Go to the Shipwrights of Water Seven to have her repaired. There they find out the Merry Go is no longer seaworthy, and it is thought lost in the Aqua Laguna. But before the crew can do anything about her, they are distracted by having to save Robin from CP9. It’s an epic battle that levels Enies Lobby, and by the end, Luffy is unable to move after his battle with Lucci, the leader of CP9, and the rest of the crew is surrounded by Marines with no way out.
And then the Straw Hats seem to hear a voice that calls out to them. A voice from the sea that beacons to them. It is their way out, with their last shipmate. It is the Merry Go. She has appeared, as if out of nowhere to help with the rescue. And with Nami navigating, their escape is complete. But all is not well, as the front of the Merry Go breaks away just as they meet up with a ship from Galley-La. It is here that we learn how the Merry Go was able to reach and help her shipmates on her final voyage.
All of this happens in only the last few chapters at the end of the volume. But what’s really amazing about the whole thing is the range of emotions that Oda-sensei is able to evoke throughout them. There’s the joy the whole crew feels when they are not just rescued from certain doom, but rescued by the Merry Go. Then there’s relief and comfort after they are safe from the navy and Luffy takes his “seat” on the Merry Go’s figurehead. Then it is shock and finally acceptance that it’s time to let her go. And then there are the final heart-breaking moments of the Merry Go before she is sent to her final rest.
Oda-sensei uses the visuals to great effect to really bring these emotions home. He interjects panels showing the Merry Go’s figurehead, essentially the face of the ship, in the scenes where it’s prominent or when someone is talking about the ship. It’s amazing how a single expression, a gentle smile, can be used to inspire hope, joy and sadness. It really hits you at the end, as the ship is burning, and the panels alternate between memories from the crew of their time with her and the ship in flames. If you don’t have at least a tear in your eye during these last pages, you ARE NOT HUMAN!
Another thing that really makes these scenes believable is how sparingly Oda-sensei uses the Merry Go talking. The ship doesn’t come alive, it’s more of a disembodied voice that speaks only when she needs to be heard. Before the crew realizes the Merry Go has come for them, they all hear a voice calling to them, telling them to look down, but it’s not shown. Only the crew’s reactions to the voice is shown. She was only shown speaking when she begged Iceberg to fix her, once during the rescue and at the end when she said her final farewell to the crew, her shipmates, her friends.
The final chapter of this volume is heart-breaking, but not in a melodramatic way. You don’t expect to have cared so much for the Merry Go. It was just the Straw Hat Pirate’s ship. It’s after you see her going that you realize how much she really meant to both them and the reader. As Usopp says, “We must all part someday,” but there’s nothing unnatural or forced about this parting. The Merry Go had a good life with shipmates who cared about her. And she was able to get her final wish, to sail the seas one last time with them. It was a fitting end to a well-lived life.
As sad as it is to see The Merry Go go, it is a satisfying closure to a character’s story. How do you say goodbye? Just like this.