Before he was a legendary undead swordsman in One Piece’s Thriller Bark arc, Ryuma was very much alive – and the star of mangaka Eiichiro Oda’s “Monsters” one-shot released way back in 1994. Now, an animated adaptation finally brings this forgotten gem out of the vaults.
In the 25-minute runtime of Monsters: 103 Mercies Dragon Damnation, we meet a young, headstrong Ryuma who hasn’t achieved his famed reputation yet. But his dedication to the way of the sword is clear, even as he ends up penniless and starving in a remote town after ticking off some unsavory folks.
There he crosses paths with Flare, a kind barkeeper harboring a tragic past connection to a mysterious swordsman named Shirano. And when a scheming creep named D.R. literally unleashes a dragon on the town, fiery chaos and clashing blades ensue.
It’s a classic shonen setup bursting with drama, action and hidden secrets. And while connections to One Piece end up sparse, it offers just enough swashbuckling adventure to entertain.
A Dragon, A Frame-Up and An Epic Clash
After wandering into town half-starved, Ryuma’s just looking for a good meal. But trouble has a way of finding master swordsmen. A run-in with the arrogant bastard Shirano leaves the whole tavern on edge. Then a creep called D.R. starts running his mouth – and ends up “stabbed” in the chaos.
With his literal dying breath, D.R. blows a haunting horn that summons an ancient dragon of legend to lay waste to the city. As buildings burn and claws slash, the townsfolk blame the outsider Ryuma. But Flare, the kind tavernkeeper who fed him, refuses to condemn him without proof.
Yet even the legendary Shirano shakes in his boots at the sight of the raging beast now circling above. He’s the only one capable of facing down the dragon…as long as the charade holds.
Because Shirano and D.R. have some history with this monster. And they intend Ryuma to take the fall for its carnage just like before. Their tricks may have worked on Flare years ago, but Ryuma sees through the deception.
When Shirano flees from his heroic persona, Ryuma erupts with rage. He lifts his blade and calls out Shirano, D.R. and the rampaging dragon all at once. What happens next goes down in fireside legend…
Fidelity Versus Flair
As a meticulous adaptation of Oda’s original manga, Monsters checks off nearly every story beat and plot point along the way. Every comedic gag to teary monologue makes the transition intact. Ryuma sports the exact same cocky grin, Flare harbors the same hidden trauma. For hardcore fans of the one-shot, this proves a faithful companion piece for sure.
And that slavish attention shows throughout, for better and sometimes worse. The breakneck pace works fine when pushing emotional moments, but not for action scenes. Epic confrontations get relegated to split-second still frames rather than fluid animation because time’s up. Similarly, major plot reveals and twists lack any chance to properly land before it’s on to the next scene.
Visually, the sheer talent behind this special often glimmers through. Director Sunghoo Park encapsulates entire pivotal seconds in gorgeous black-and-white stills conveying raw power and emotion. Key animator Takashi Kojima updates old designs like Ryuma’s with signature One Piece style. And the crescent moon backdrops and psychedelic laughs straight up dazzle.
But more often, the visuals stick to a workmanlike simplicity to get through the checklist efficiently. Compositions remain static, side characters blend together, and action unfolds through static speedlines instead of fluid motion. For all its strengths adapting scenes faithfully, the special lacks much sense of flair or distinct visual identity of its own. It gets the job done, but rarely dazzles your eyes.
In the end, this faithful companion remains forever handicapped to its frantic pace. The precise panel adaptation approach prohibits much needed breathing room for these compelling characters and conflicts to shine. Like Ryuma himself, it gets blinded by its narrow devotion without flexibility. Maybe one day we’ll see this story fully unleash without creative handcuffs.
Complexity Beyond Archetypes
On the surface, Monsters traffics in familiar archetypes – the headstrong hero, the manipulative villain, the damsel with a past. But glimmers of depth manage to peek through the brisk pace at times.
We meet Ryuma as a wanderer hungry for a good fight and a good meal, with cocky ambition outweighing his actual skill. He’s endlessly watchable thanks to his roguish charm – no surprise given his lineage as Zoro’s ancestor in One Piece. Yet when pushed into action for others, like Flare, his sincere ideals reveal a nobility underneath the arrogance.
As the sole woman in this tale, Flare first appears as merely a plot device and emotional centerpiece. But we soon learn of her grim history with Shirano, and how she persevered through trauma to lead the town. While she occasionally slips into questionable decisions, that strength shines through.
On the flip side we have D.R. – a sniveling and forgettable villain who cowardly hides behind tricks rather than face threats head on. He’s not compelling in the least. Meanwhile, Shirano menaces with his devilish charisma, but ultimately flees from actual confrontation much the same. He’s all intimidating talk without proper walk to back it up.
Most characters hew closely to classic tropes, with occasional delightful subversions. But that’s often the nature of one-shot stories – broad archetypes painted in quick strokes. To really mine hidden depths, we’d likely need a longer running series expanding all these compelling seeds. There’s certainly enough here to warrant that potential.
Loose Ties To A Legend
Given release hype playing up the ties to Oda’s monumental franchise, One Piece connections prove surprisingly superficial in the final product. Sure, we get confirmation that this same Ryuma appears in corpse form during Thriller Bark. Design updates like the character’s outfit and sword visualize that link.
And bookending the special itself, brief scenes show Zoro cleaning up after his own intense battle on Thriller Bark and remarking upon legends of his ancestor Ryuma’s exploits. It places Monsters neatly into the One Piece canon timeline.
Yet beyond those scant references, the story itself functions perfectly fine without any prior One Piece knowledge. In fact, with zero context you’d likely never make the connection at all. A couple visual Easter eggs for fans to spot hardly constitute real crossover content or lore.
In that sense, Monsters distinguishes itself as less of full-fledged franchise spinoff compared to self-contained Oda creation. It pays homage through subtle references rather than overt story ties or character crossovers. And given the jam-packed runtime, there isn’t time to dive deeper into Ryuma’s past bearing on his Thriller Bark fate. Not that viewers necessarily need that to enjoy this adventure on its own charms.
Some hype set unrealistic expectations about Monsters expanding One Piece lore in crucial ways. But in truth this adaptation takes Ryuma’s existing backstory and runs with it independently to weave this specific standalone tale. Nothing about this spinoff hinders or enhances canon events we’ve seen play out. And taken solely on its own merits, this delightful little one-shot easily entertains.
A Spark Of Potential
At just over 20 minutes, Monsters: 103 Mercies Dragon Damnation tells a surprisingly complete hero’s tale – with beginning, middle and end acts all covered. As a meticulous adaptation of Oda’s original manga vision, this special succeeds as intended by hitting every key story beat in brisk succession. Fans wanting a faithful recreation will find one here.
Yet limitations imposed by that precise structure hinder Monsters as well. Trying to cram so much content into such a short runtime forces corners to get cut across the board. Characters merely establish brash personalities rather than reveal layered complexities. Conflicts and plots get introduced and resolved so fast they cannot fully resonate. Promised action fizzles out via static speedlines in order to check another story box.
As a production, Monsters effectively spotlights the potential of E&H Productions as an emerging animation house. Visually spectacular moments showcase artistry within constraints, even if conventions otherwise rule the day. It’s a promising calling card crying out for a bigger canvas to unleash on.
And that unfulfilled promise extends to leading man Ryuma too. Bursting with charismatic appeal, he anchors this adventure with style to spare. Yet we only glimpse shreds of hidden depth and mystique begging for so much more exploration. The breakout chance appears ripe to build out his legend properly through an ongoing spinoff saga.
As a self-contained entity, this brisk adaptation can’t help but feel disposable despite its charms – a trifle unlikely to linger long in memory once the credits hit. But if viewed more as a launching pad for grander things, Monsters delivers enough flare to spark hope of seeing its full narrative and visual potential unleashed at last in the future.
Monsters: 103 Mercies Dragon Damnation
A lovingly faithful adaptation in many respects, Monsters: 103 Mercies Dragon Damnation falls short of fully realizing the potential of its source material due to a breathless pace. Compelling characters and conflicts get shortchanged scene to scene. Yet as an opening statement of intent for E&H Productions, this tight one-shot shows artistic promise worth monitoring. Ryuma himself dazzles just enough to support a spinoff. Call this brisk effort flashes of fun underserved by the runtime.
- Faithful adaptation of the manga
- Ryuma is a charismatic lead
- Some visually impressive moments
- Works fine as standalone story
- Breathless pace rushes story
- Plot points and action not given room to land
- Characters feel underdeveloped
- Lacks flair and visual distinctiveness
- Minimal connections to One Piece lore