I actually think that Gear 5 being so controversial among the fanbase is pretty cool. The fact that this far into the series Oda is still throwing curveballs that ignite such passion from the readers is just objectively impressive. I also personally love the development. I think it goes deeper than “One Piece has always been goofy” too, although that’s also certainly a part of it.
Luffy has always been the thing about One Piece I couldn’t find anywhere else. At first I couldn’t really explain why. On the surface he’s a pretty stereotypical protagonist. A friendly, determined, happy-go-lucky adventurer who gets stronger and stronger until he saves the world and accomplishes his dreams. Even his simplemindedness and love of food are pretty common protagonist traits. But it’s the subtle details to Luffy’s friendliness and how he engages with others that touches me: the way he silently listens to Nami’s pleas before helping her in Cocoyashi, the visceral way he collapsed after his failure to protect his friends in Sabaody, and the way Ace’s death completely and utterly broke him rather than empowering him with rage like it would most protagonists. Luffy’s moral compass and the way he connects with others is truly unique.
Luffy’s entire life path is genuinely paved by his desire to make and maintain friends. That supersedes being strong, being cool, doing the right thing, and even accomplishing his dreams. His love of his friends’ smiles in particular has always been emphasized. When he first struck Arlong it was explicitly for making Nami cry without Luffy even knowing the details of her abuse. When he took down Crocodile, he declared that it would be so that Vivi would smile again. During the crew’s many parties, Luffy is often going out of his way to entertain others. Luffy was never a hero, just a pirate who liked seeing people smile. And I really love the purity of that being the reason he saves people. Not because he’s righteous, serving a greater purpose, or fulfilling an emotional promise. He just wants to see people happy.
To me, the connection to Nika, a god of laughter and liberation, is a beautiful one. The idea of freedom and liberation coming from a love of laughter and joy rather than some sort of fearsome military power is delightful. Getting stronger is part of Luffy’s character arc, but making others smile is a more important part.
One of the main criticisms that has resonated with me is that Luffy’s behavior is out of character compared to his previous fights. Strictly speaking, this is accurate. Luffy is having the time of his life fighting Kaido, letting out big belly laughs the whole time. For every single opponent before this, Luffy’s demeanor has been serious. Even though water Luffy, airheaded Luffy, using Arlong’s teeth, etc. were goofy in the context of the narrative, Luffy himself didn’t enjoy any of those moments. Now he is clearly deriving joy from his fight with Kaido. This has understandably rubbed some people the wrong way. After all, shouldn’t Luffy be taking this seriously? Isn’t this disrespectful to the people who suffered under Kaido’s cruelty? The most telling takeaway I’ve seen so far has been: “I can’t imagine Gear 5 Luffy fighting Sakazuki without it completely undermining the emotional impact of Marineford.” And honestly? I can’t wait for that fight.
There’s this idea that Luffy’s righteous anger is a fundamental part of him because it preserves the dignity of the cause he’s fighting for. There’s a satisfaction in seeing a furious Luffy take down a cruel oppressor for that reason. But I feel like it’s important to consider that in the context of Luffy himself, that anger isn’t objectively a good thing. It’s painful to feel that kind of rage and, as we saw with Doflamingo, it can even be used as power over Luffy. Gear 5 takes away that power. Yes it’s a deviation from Luffy’s past behavior, but sometimes that’s what character growth looks like.
The Wano arc isn’t just about dethroning Kaido. Kaido didn’t just take over Wano, he emotionally tormented the country’s people. Under his enforcement, they were starved and literally forced to laugh clownishly to hide their pain. Kaido’s power over Wano isn’t just his military might but an emotional subjugation as well. He took away their smiles and plastered fake ones on top of them. Nika doesn’t just free slaves of their physical chains, he liberates them from their emotional sentence too. He puts real smiles on their faces. With Nika’s arrival, Kaido is no longer something to be feared. He’s something to be laughed at. And that’s amazing.