Let Them Eat Cake: One Piece’s Study of Narcissism

Today’s guest post from an old and familiar friend, Matthew, who in addition to writing many articles for us during his time on staff, hosted the Team Anchester portion of the TangleCast. I hope you enjoy his brief return to the blog as he tackles the classic and still popular One Piece.

This is the story of when I finally learned how good One Piece can be. 

I’m not your average One Piece fan and, compared to the fanaticism of others, sometimes I wonder if I fit the bill. I started watching because I thought, being one of The Big Three, it was practically mandatory viewing. I was told it might take some getting into. Some said it takes off in Arlong Park. Others said you have to wait until Alabasta; that’s when it gets good. I noticed most of the arcs in the series had at least some coalition who claimed it as their personal turning point, while others said that it’s been good from the jump and just keeps getting better. While it’s true that each arc has its moments, I wasn’t having the same experience. 

You may or may not realize it but One Piece tackles deep themes like racism, the mistreatment of native peoples, caste systems, punitive vs restorative justice in a broken prison system, and political corruption. Punk Hazard takes on drug addiction, pharmaceutical corruption, and unethical practices in science and medicine. Dressrosa had more themes and take-aways than I can fit in a sentence (partly because of how stinkin’ drawn-out the arc was). But then, nearly 800 episodes in, I had MY turning point moment.

800 episodes is a long time to hear One Piece fangirls and boys swear by Eiichiro Oda’s genius but never feel like you’ve seen it for yourself. I’m not even sure why I held out through eight-tenths of the series, but I’m glad I did.

Whole Cake Island was my turning point. It spoke to my childhood experience. That experience isn’t one that I hope any of you have had or have the current displeasure of experiencing for yourself. But, if my explanation of how I saw this arc can provide a little bit of hope to those of you who know where I’m coming from, I’m glad to lay it all out for you. 

Unsuspectingly Grimm

Like those arcs with deep themes before it, Whole Cake Island is One Piece’s study of Narcissistic Family Environments. And like those preceding arcs, the setup almost makes it seem like it could never take on such a serious topic:

Luffy and the crew stumble upon a colony of islands beneath the rule of the Pirate Emperor, Big Mom. Big Mom is a giant woman who loves sweets, to the point where everything within her Candy-Land-like domain is not only edible but also, in some cases, animate and smiley, singing childishly happy songs. The islands are populated with nearly every kind of people group and it is Big Mom’s hope that her kingdom will be one of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But, in true One Piece fashion, things are not as they seem, and from beneath that veneer, something wicked this way comes.

“Ma-ma! Ma-ma!”

Every narcissistic family structure requires at least one narcissist. “Big Mom” Lin Lin Charlotte is ours. And the reasons why she fits this bill can range from minor to overt and disturbing:

  • Oftentimes, One Piece characters have a distinguishing verbal tic. Big Mom’s is to say her own name when she is pleased or feeling superior and in control.
  • She grew up in a terrible home situation, but had one parental figure who resolutely told her she was a good girl and made excuses for her even when Big Mom would hurt the other kids or act selfishly without restraint. 
  • Big Mom has “cravings” where she wants something so badly, and her impulse control is so low, that she loses her reason and is unable to distinguish friend from foe, or even family from enemy. She will destroy everything in her path until she’s consumed what she wants.
  • When someone is finally able to appease her ravenous desires and she comes to her senses, she finds a wake of destruction behind her that she does not recognize and is confused as to why everyone is upset and acting hurt. 
  • Big Mom’s Devil Fruit power allows her to quite literally take parts of a person’s soul and life force and then distribute it where she pleases. In fact, a requirement of her country’s citizenship is a monthly tax on your lifespan. It’s why most inanimate things in Big Mom’s kingdom are animate: they’ve been imbued with life taken from her citizens. 
  • Big Mom has separation anxiety that presents itself as a need for control. She becomes vindictive whenever someone leaves her service, requiring them to spin a wheel that will determine what part of their body, how much of their lifespan, or (in the case of allegiant pirates) how many of their crew will die as the price of severing their ties with her.
  • Big Mom is obsessed with novelty. As it turns out, her desire for a diverse country isn’t because she is an idealist, so much as she is a hoarder. She collects not only unique things, but unique animals and even people as well. She isn’t interested in people for who they are, but for bragging rights; hers is not pride in the people she loves but pride over the diversity and abundance of people she effectively owns. 
  • This thinking applies not just to possessions but also to family. Or rather, she considers her family to be her possessions: they exist to fulfill her ambitions. Big Mom (true to her name in more ways than one) has 46 sons and 39 daughters and not because she loves children. She married and had all of those kids with 43 consecutive husbands. And each marriage was an attempt to bear children with different qualities and powers in an effort to create a powerful army for her country.
  • In easily the most disturbing scene of the whole arc, it’s revealed that as a child, Big Mom cannibalized her family. It wasn’t even the savage, headhunter image you may have in your head. She was simply so caught up in enjoying the birthday food they’d prepared for her and the attention she was receiving that she just kept eating, enraptured, only to look up and find herself alone. Her selfish habits of consumption destroyed the very people she was relying on to affirm that she was accepted and not alone. 

          If you know a narcissist, you know this kind of thinking and attitude, even if it was never stated quite this clearly

I could go on and state other examples of how Big Mom behaves and thinks, but the brilliant thing about Oda’s weaving of this theme through the Whole Cake arc is that we see just as many examples of narcissistic family environments by looking at the people in proximity to our narcissist, Big Mom.

Is it Dark in Here for Anybody Else?

First, you can consider the citizens of her country. These people choose to live here because when it’s good, it’s really good. Big Mom is strong and defends the country. The trains run on time and things are productive. Oh and also, EVERYTHING IS MADE OF CANDY! It’s like a child’s dream!

And of course every now and then, Big Mom turns into an unreasoning, unstoppable force transcending nature itself, drops out of the sky, and wrecks everything in your life until you give her exactly what she wants. Then she will move on without apology or remorse, as though nothing ever happened, while you are left to start over and rebuild your life, never knowing when the next destruction-inducing craving might hit her. And leaving this situation could cost you an arm, a leg, or your very life, while remaining there just means giving a little piece of your soul whenever it’s asked for. But, you know, once you get over that, it’s really a fun time….

Second, we can look in a direction you probably weren’t expecting: incarnate foods. As I said, inanimate objects in Mama’s Kingdom are made animate by her power. They can speak, sing, move, and even carry out Big Mom’s will.

Now, anyone who’s read my content before knows I am a massive fan of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk. So, please understand the gravity with which I say that I was utterly disturbed while watching Big Mom eat handfuls of animated food. She didn’t have animate food for singing and ambiance then inanimate food reserved for eating. No. She distractedly takes a hamburger, which was singing only a moment before through the power of a human soul, and throws it, screaming, into her open mouth. And the most disturbing part—which rustled even my Berserk fanboy heart—was to hear the food screaming in its final moments, “Am I delicious?!” To watch someone being abused and consumed only to seek validation from their abuser—that was tough to watch and even tougher to see oneself reflected in.

The Sins of the Father

You might wonder, “43 husbands is a lot. Why aren’t they standing up for their kids? Why aren’t they protecting their children from Big Mom?” While I can’t speak for all of those men because Oda never really introduces them, there is one husband we get to know. And from him, we can draw some inferences for our third example of the way that the people around Big Mom feed into the narcissistic family environment she establishes. 

When Luffy and the crew reach the island, they come to a forest where all the trees are animate. Each time Luffy and the others try advancing through the forest, the trees reconfigure so that the crew never makes any progress past the center of the forest. At the center of the forest is a giant head and hands sticking out of the ground, as though a man had been buried alive up to the neck. Each time Luffy and the gang circle back to the center of the forest, the big man asks them if, while they’re there, they could get some apple juice for him from the fountain nearby. He ends up trying to barter information for the fulfillment of these minor desires. We find out that this man’s name is Pound. He is a former husband of Big Mom whom she married in hopes of having Giant children for her army. And from his place in the center of the forest, he knows everything about the true goings-on of Big Mom’s kingdom. But why is he here, like this?

This is where I realized that Oda is brilliant. Seeing this kind of thing in One Piece is not unusual because the series is itself unusual. But that fact can cause you to skim right over what he’s doing here:

Narcissists feed on enablers.

They look the other way and bury their heads in the sand at their narcissistic spouse’s abuses. They’re cowards. But rather than have a character depicted with their head in the sand, Oda draws one with everything but his head in the sand.

Pound’s head is completely above ground and that allows him to see and know everything that is going on. His hands are also free so that he is perfectly capable of digging himself out. But when the Straw Hats attempt to free him, he shoos them away. We learn that Pound wasn’t buried by others, but rather buried himself to protect himself from Big Mom by looking as helpless and unimposing as possible. He sees and knows everything but has disqualified himself from doing anything about it because he fears his wife. However, though he refuses to be helped out of the situation he’s placed himself in, he does ask people for minor conveniences and help in removing minor inconveniences so that he can be comfortable living his cowardly life in an untenable situation. 

When Pound is finally removed from his spot by force, we see that he was never as big as his head and hands would make you think. While large, he’s still a shorter, fatter guy in comparison to other characters, and he’s dressed like a soft dandy of a man. He’s not built for confrontation. And yet, the good news is that courage leads to Pound’s redemption. Unfortunately, though it does cost him his life, Pound summons the courage to protect his daughter from step-siblings who are bent on carrying out Big Mom’s will. He becomes a heroic and respectable character when his desire to be a father supersedes his desire to ensure his own safety.

Like Mother, Like Step-Siblings

The last and largest example of narcissism in this arc is in Big Mom’s children. She has 85 children from 43 husbands. I’m not about to examine each of those kids individually, and the anime doesn’t even introduce them all, but there are several key players worth noting. Especially the last two, both of whom seem to start turning the ship around and out of their toxic circumstances, unlike their other siblings.

Each of these children not only shows the consequences you’d expect from growing up under a narcissist like Big Mom, but also serve as an extension of Big Mom’s narcissism. It’s almost as though Oda had more to say on the subject and created other characters as a floodplain for his ideas.

Brulee Charlotte presents as your typical witch of the woods trope. She also has the Mirror Mirror Fruit power which allows her to create and manipulate mirrors, project and duplicate images, and even access a pocket world where she can use existing mirrors as portals.

Her backstory shows that she has a beautiful twin sister named Broyé but that her own face was scarred when she was beaten up as a child. When she first runs across the crew, she remarks on the beauty of Nami and Carrot and how she would like to mar their faces too. And, as we see later with her sister, Pudding Charlotte, Big Mom is not loving toward anything ugly or displeasing to her—and that includes her children. So you can imagine why Brulee might project a lot of anger, bitterness, and hatred onto others. Her mirror power is reflective of a narcissist’s tactic of projecting their emotions and qualities they dislike about themselves onto others. 

Cracker Charlotte has the Bis-Bis Fruit power which allows him to create biscuits whenever he claps, as well as the power to manipulate their shape, size, and strength. He can create enormous armies of biscuit soldiers just by clapping his hands. When he first walks into the forest, animate trees and foods freeze in fear before perishing in fright. Without doing anything, Cracker’s presence carries a threat of violence and anger which quite literally scares the life out of the environment around him. This is likely why his appearance shows part of his hair constantly sparking and burning like the fuse of a bomb.

A lot of his power of intimidation flows from the appearance of his infinite resources, overwhelming options, and opportunities to get at you, as well as the ease of his superiority and the fact that he can summon armies without needing to engage you personally. All of these qualities in a narcissist can easily cause a victim to freeze in terror or despair, especially as a dependent child facing an independent and self-sufficient parent.

Mont-d’Or Charlotte has the Book-Book Fruit which allows him to create and manipulate books, even allowing him to trap people and things inside them. He plays a part in capturing Nami and Luffy by shutting them inside a book in Big Mom’s library. He shows the two Straw Hats that all the books around them contain pages and pages of live animals and people in Mama’s collection, making the library more like a prison.

Being locked inside one of his books means you will be preserved in the exact state in which you were first captured, never aging, never dying, like pressing a flower between the pages of a book. Mont-d’Or’s power facilitates Mama’s greedy desire to collect resources and people as trophies to impress others and raise her esteem. This power also demonstrates how a narcissist breeds codependency in a child so that they never fully mature to independence

Pudding Charlotte, when she’s not trying to Make Yanderes Great Again (MYGA© – trademark pending), is one of the more sympathetic of the Charlotte children. Pudding has the power of the Memo-Memo Fruit, which allows her to access and edit a person’s memory, deleting information or stitching in entirely new things. She is also known, or rather “not known,” for her deception. She is known to the public as this delicate, benevolent daughter but all of it is an act to cover a conniving ill will that despises everyone.

In her backstory, we learn that she has always had this third eye and Big Mom demanded she grow out her hair to cover it because it disgusted her. Pudding not only grew her hair out to accommodate her mother but internalized a lot of the other things she said. 

Her mother gives backhanded compliments about how useful and how skilled Pudding is at acting sweet despite how hideous she is. Moreover, her arranged marriage to Sanji has nothing to do with what Pudding herself wants and everything to do with Big Mom’s ambition. Pudding is convinced that she is only good insofar as she is useful, but she hates this reality even as she leans into it for validation. She develops a sick delight in the deceptions she carries out over others because there’s a certain thrill in feeling like she used others instead of being used herself. She hates and derides everyone because she feels loved by no one. 

When Sanji finally sees her third eye as they stand at the altar, and when he calls her beautiful anyway, Charlotte loses all her composure because it’s clear he means it. The entire plan to kill Sanji and his family flies out the window in that moment. Pudding proceeds to help Sanji and the crew for the rest of the arc because she finds that she really does love Sanji. The hilarious part (and tragic part if you think about it) is that she switches back and forth between being head over heels for Sanji and her instinctual old self, which derides him and makes threats all because she doesn’t know what to do with these new feelings of affection or how to receive sincere affection from someone else. Pudding Charlotte is the embodiment of narcissistic gaslighting in her wicked persona but also an image of the self-hatred that can be projected outward when traumatized by a narcissist. But she also shows signs of no longer wanting to live as she did under her narcissist’s thumb and all because someone showed her sincere love.

Katakuri Charlotte is the second-born child of his numerous step-siblings. He has the power of the Mochi-Mochi Fruit, which means Katakuri is made of mochi and can create and manipulate mochi as well. If you’ve ever had mochi, you know how springy and chewy it is, which makes Katakuri very much like Luffy in his rubbery and stretchy qualities. He also has control over Armament Haki and Observation Haki, which, respectively, allow him to harden his body and also see several seconds into the future. 

At first, it isn’t clear how all of Katakuri’s abilities work together. It seems as though he’s physically invulnerable to attacks because his body, being mochi, can just absorb the force or reform if damaged. Eventually, Luffy realizes that Katakuri isn’t absorbing the damage at all but rather using his foresight to anticipate an attack, break himself down at the point of impact, and then rebuild his body in that place once Luffy’s fist withdraws. Although he looks like an incredibly tough and imposing character, Katakuri’s strategy is not to withstand damage but to avoid it altogether. No one can hurt him because he is the first to break himself down.

This fact would be a surprise to his siblings who idolize him as their unbeatable older brother. They lionize him, saying that he’s never been put on his back in a fight; they’ve never seen him lying down— he was even always standing as a child. He never rests, largely because he is always relied upon to use his Observation Haki and make sure everyone around him is protected from danger.

But the reality is that Katakuri rests in private in order to maintain his stoic public image. He acts as though he has uncontrollable cravings like Big Mom, when really he just demands that everyone leave him alone at a certain time of day so that he can lounge around and indulge himself with donuts, his favorite treat. It’s a funny diversion from the fight between Katakuri and Luffy, but in reality, these behaviors are side effects of growing up in an abusive home. Katakuri’s power and behavior demonstrate hyper vigilance, a use of self-deprecation to tear oneself down before anyone else can,  and the way in which trauma sometimes forces the eldest sibling to become a stoic protector

It’s also worth noting that, like Pudding, Katakuri’s mind is a good deal changed by his interaction with Luffy and the Strawhats. He asks Luffy if he really plans to come back and make good on his promise of beating Big Mom. When Luffy answers resolutely in the affirmative, rather than feel as though he’ll have to continue his efforts as the hyper-vigilant older brother who defends his family, Katakuri seems relieved. He’s finally met someone who is stronger than him and who promises to confront the problem of his mother in a way that Katakuri never could. And, to prove that he’s at peace with Luffy’s answer, we see Katakuri pass out from exhaustion, lying on his back because he trusts Luffy’s word. Instead of feeling he has to predict what someone’s actually going to do through his hyper-vigilance, Katakuri finds there’s at least one person he can trust to do what he says he will.

So what now?

The fact is, Whole Cake Island doesn’t wrap things up neatly with a bow. This isn’t a classic comedy where there is a wedding (there almost was), everything works out, and everyone lives happily.
Instead, the two people who see the most change aren’t completely cured of their situation. Pudding is left behind by Sanji with her love still unconfessed and Katakuri is beaten with the promise that Luffy will defeat Big Mom, but he doesn’t get to see it in this arc. Big Mom gets the wedding cake that she nearly destroyed her country for and she’s clearly still going to be a villain in the next arc, Wano.

So, what exactly CAN we hang our hats on here?

I mentioned before that I know about these things from experience. I feel like the best I can do given the conclusion of the arc and my own journey is to say that I sympathize with the way it concludes. I have a lot of unresolved issues. Things aren’t tied up perfectly and neatly in a bow and my own Big Mom figure is a character still present in my next arc. At times, I still slip back into the old ways of thinking that were trained into me as a child, and I’m still working out solutions for that. However, there are bright spots and promises to remember.

Christ promised that He would make things right too and, like Katakuri, I’m waiting for that day. And, like Pudding, when moments of real sincerity come, when people show that they’re trustworthy and committed, it means all the more to me because it subverts my expectations.

There will still be a struggle; we’re promised that much by a savior who would know (John 16:33b ; John 15:18-25). But we’re also promised that we aren’t alone in all of this (John 16:33a ; Galatians 6:1-10 ; John 14:26-27) or at least, that we don’t have to be. So, if you are feeling trapped like just another one of the Charlotte children, reach out. You don’t have to say “gum-o gum-o” when you do it, but do reach out. As corny as it may sound, find a Luffy who will partner with you in bearing your burden, someone who isn’t afraid of facing down what’s holding you back.

One Piece: Whole Cake Island can be streamed on Crunchyroll.

Matthew G

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