FEATURE: Why Big Mom Is The Actual Villain Of One Piece
It has been said that a hero is defined by their villains.
I would go further and say that often an entire series is defined by its villains. Many action-adventure works have rather simple heroes and often find their texture in the supporting cast, world-building, or other factors to make them stand out. One Piece has a similar approach, at least initially ― Luffy is a sunshine lad with a singular mission, a big appetite, and stretchy punchy powers. He goes from island to island making friends and thwarting enemies as any good hero is prone to do.
Luffy’s rogues’ gallery includes many of the most powerful individuals in One Piece’s setting. Their names strike fear into thousands; individuals like Sir Crocodile, Doflamingo, Rob Lucci, Kaido, and Blackbeard to name a few. It’s a veritable “Who’s Who” list of world-renowned criminals. Each reflects an aspect of Luffy’s character in their own distorted way. These characters are Luffy’s own traits but through a glass darkly.
Crocodile shares Luffy’s penchant for toppling island governments. Alabasta (some might call it Alabesta, and who can blame them?) is a legendary arc precisely because it sets the tone for One Piece ’s grander political ambitions. Sir Crocodile is working covertly to overthrow the government for his own ends, and though Luffy is his opposition, he is not so different from our hero. Luffy and the Straw Hats also have a habit of arriving at an island and usurping the existing order. Luffy and friends have no problem overthrowing the status quo at a location if they find injustice. But Crocodile is doing so for his own ends and aggrandizement, replacing one form of control with another. Luffy liberates for liberation’s sake.
Doflamingo is similar to Crocodile in that he is about control and usurpation. This time, however, Doflamingo takes the twist of Luffy’s desire to become king to its villainous conclusion. Doflamingo takes over but rules from behind the scenes, making people dance on the ends of his manipulative strings. Doflamingo’s rule is one of coercion and gleeful cruelty. Luffy overthrows Doflamingo in order to re-establish a former order, and most importantly, bring back a sense of communal good where before only fear reigned.
Blackbeard is seen by many as the ultimate antithesis of Luffy. In a sense, that’s accurate. Perhaps one of Luffy’s most obvious traits is his grand ambition to become King of the Pirates. Blackbeard’s haunting refrain of “A man’s dreams never die!” and his sheer unprecedented double Devil Fruit powers make him a unique oppositional force to Luffy. For a long time, I too held that Blackbeard was the penultimate villain of Luffy’s journey. But as of late, my feelings on that have begun to change.
I firmly believe that Big Mom is the true villain of the series.
In terms of parallels, Big Mom has more than a few connections to our hero. Her enormous appetite is one key similarity, both she and Luffy are known to put away their fair share of food and are even prone to the single-minded pursuit of food on occasion. Of course, Luffy’s appetite has never strayed into cannibalism nor filicide, hence her status as his villainous counterpart. Furthermore, her dogged pursuit of family mirrors Luffy’s own drive to save and protect his own family (found or otherwise). In Big Mom’s case, this is both due to her tragic past but also her desire for political power in the present ― she does everything she can to increase the size of her family in the pursuit of yet further power. Luffy, on the other hand, is one who liberates others, asking them to join his crew because ― even if they can help him ― they are first and foremost his nakama (crewmembers/part of your group), people who he would protect at any cost and against any foe.
Beyond this, there are the textual similarities to Luffy. One Piece is a long series (shocking news I know), and it has a character list that would make your eyes water. Few recurring characters get much screen time beyond the rare callback or brief check-in between arcs. I would argue that many of the Straw Hat pirates themselves struggle to find adequate screen time due to the sheer number of characters Oda introduces, and they are ostensibly the stars of the show.
Yet Big Mom keeps showing up, arc after arc, and when she does ― she gets the limelight baby.
Few characters have anything like Luffy’s narrative gravitational pull. Why should they? After all, Luffy is our protagonist. When Luffy arrives on the scene, the world inevitably, inexorably, turns toward the actions of that silly rubber boy and his antics. Big Mom manages to exist in a similar space. It does not matter whether it is a tense political discussion, light-hearted gag, or bone-shattering fight sequence: any scene Big Mom shows up in will end up being about Big Mom, one way or another. Big Mom is a kaiju in the final minutes of a monster film, a storm that strikes with all the sound and fury of the heavens. Any fight involving Big Mom requires an all-hands-on-deck response combined with all sorts of haphazard solutions to try and keep her at bay. She never really gets defeated, only delayed or avoided. Just like our loveable Monkey, when Big Mom acts, the world adjusts accordingly.
I also think Oda just has a blast writing Big Mom. Eiichiro Oda is a creator known for his almost joyful dedication to the craft, among his many talents is his love of creating new and wondrous characters. Even in the current arc of Wano, which is going on three(!) years now in the manga, in between delivering on decades-old lore drops and revelations about existing characters, Oda still squeezes in new characters with an almost reckless abandon.
But in all that, who does he make time to spotlight? Which villain has as much screen time and importance as anyone else? Why Big Mom of course.
From her thematic similarities to her narrative importance to her consistent presence on the page and the screen, I think Oda has been setting the stage for Big Mom as Luffy’s true defining nemesis for years now. Obviously, all of his former foes have left their mark on the series and our hero (in Akainu’s case quite literally), but few have had the consistent presence Big Mom has. No matter what happens between now and the series finale, I think we will come to realize that Big Mom will end up being the defining villain for the series. In hunger, in ambition, in family, in presence, Big Mom looms larger than Luffy in every regard.
But you know what they say, the bigger they are …