Pudding has been one of the foci of this arc, not only due to it being her wedding, but also by how interesting her character is constructed. Oda has always been great at creating characters that have unique personalities. Not only is he amazing at telling the stories of even the most unlikely characters in amazing ways, but also that he does it at all with certain minor characters like Mr. Pink. But is Pudding really one of those characters? Is she not simply a plot device? I'll try to debate this topic a bit while going through the arc as chronologically as I possibly can, and relate her to us (the audience), Sanji and herself.
From her initial meeting with the Straw Hats, Pudding was what felt like an amazing girl for Sanji to marry, especially when you know absolutely nothing of her. Quite too amazing if we are to reflect back on it. However, this type of behaviour did leave plenty of people to not trust her - Oda is renowned after all to deceive us with complex, hidden narrative lines. Pudding was kind, humble, understanding - the epitome of | Femininity. When was the last time we actually had such a female character in One Piece? Makino comes to mind, but representing a different nuance. However, she is one of the oldest created characters in the entire series and I would argue is quite generic (although to being so old in the series, she gains personality simply through "heritage").
The Vinsmoke brothers mentioned a few times how every one of Linlin's children is somewhere, somehow mentally deranged - the reason why Sanji was chosen to marry one of them. But those are merely hints at this point (they mentioned it on the Cat-rriage before Sanji met her the second time, I believe). Additionally, a girl that is alright with Sanji exactly the way he is and with anything he does - although sweet, lacks... a backbone. From her descriptions of Sanji, she seemed really head-over-heels for him, without there having actually been a chance for them to develop a significant bond. Surprisingly, she hit the nail with all of Sanji's good characteristics when praising him to his crew, but as we found out later (and we should get to learn from this stuff for real life too) - there is a striking difference between producing an image of how a relationship functions and an organically-developed relationship between two people. We might have gotten to that point where we can see how narratives/stories evolve in real life as well as fiction, however if something is not grounded deeply in reality (actual events, moments of truth, moments of connection, small interactions, etc.), then it will be fake. The same is with love, simulating how being in love is like is different from actually being in love.
Now, imagine if Pudding had truly been a simple girl with a feminine nature. That would be extremely generic and flat (and would gain depth only if this was a love story). But, it's One Piece we're talking about and not a romcon. Pudding appears perfect, however there are cracks to her character, and if we all agreed that her impression of Sanji was too rushed, it would have been easy to unanimously call out her fakeness. But we give people the benefit of the doubt many times; the world is too complex for us to risk being too certain about behaviours.
So, at this point, Pudding is at most a flat character that is driven by the story. She is the first pillar which maintains the dramatic tension low. Sanji after all, could just run away when there's such a darling he's about to marry. She's the backdoor to him choosing to get out of there.
Then, the tension rises. We see Sanji's childhood happen before our eyes and I, for one, consider Judge's actions as repugnant. The whole focus of the arc drops bang up on Sanji as we discover the shit life he lead and into which will have to delve deeper for the purpose of the discussion.
Sanji had distinctively different values than what Judge wished him to have: empathy, compassion, curiosity. He loved to cook (i.e. to serve others), he loved to read about stuff and he cared about other people and beings. He was nowhere near the discplined, ruthless soldier-type he wished him to be that will carry out his "revenge". In just a few chapters we discover that Sanji is surrounded almost entirely by people who do not share and actually oppose his values, and who have humiliated and continue to humiliate him. Sanji is trapped between a rock and a hard place and his very hands, which he was thaught were one of his greatest treasures, as well as the people whom he loves, who love him back and share his values - ALL are being held hostage.
What price does he have to pay:
He must give up his dream, but also marry this amazing girl.
The weight of the choice is much smaller when Pudding is so 'perfect'. After all, she shares his values, respects him and offers him her support in what he wishes to do. At this point, when Sanji gets closer and closer to the bottom of what a man can face in terms of humiliation (not to mention that at his point he knocked out one of his captain's teeth out), Pudding is pretty much the only ray of light that shines on his deplorable and swollen face.
Well, it all comes crashing down on him. Pudding is the exact opposite of all I described above: she's wretched, treacherous, arrogant and above all - she humiliates him when she satirizes him in front of his sister. The only ray of light - the only tiny fire that could light Sanji's path out of this mess gets extinguished in the rain.
All of Pudding's actions until this point were meant to mislead us as an audience and to keep the tension low. She was meant to keep the secret underlying narrative from sight - that the wedding is a farce through which Big Mom will obtain a very important asset for her crew and through which everyone (including the Vinsmokes who have mistreated Sanji so much) will be massacred.
She was simply a plot device through which this sort of emotional roller-coaster can happen, through which we can join Sanji in feeling how it is to hit literal rock bottom. There is no escape... there is nothing that will makes this work out.
ANd Well.... Luffy saves the situation (and I gotta say that this arc Luffy has been very mature about many things) by keeping to his word and meeting with Sanji at the promised spot. Sanji decided to sacrifice himself for his loved ones, but still had the benefit of a 'Perfect Pudding'. When that stopped, Sanji decided to return to his crew for guidance. Pudding's evil actions made Sanji simply realize where he belonged.
Now, you could ask some questions about how Pudding is not simply a plot device... why did Pudding show some "character" by 'handling' Reiju?
Well, so that Sanji could find out about the whole ordeal and experience despair.
But why did she go to Nami and Luffy... Just To Tell Them How Evil She Is? She's definitely sadistic in character, not to mention the repetition of an action! That's a sign of identity!!
Well... it was to raise the tension on both Luffy's and Sanji's side. After all, she was what guided both of them into meeting at the promised location (Also, because Oda had to make Luffy despair and try to rip his hands off instead of waiting to be casually rescued by Jinbe). So, therefore, Pudding's growing character is merely incidental. She appears to be more like a plot device.
Pudding has been at this point just another actor in Big Mom's plot to fake marry Sanji, kill the Vinsmokes and just by coincidence, also eliminate the Straw Hats. She has had no underlying individual motivations except for being a bit sadistic and revealing to both Straw Hats and the audience how ugly the world is and how very cruel a Yonkou can be.
So - Pudding is just a cruel arrogant bitch who is going to betray the Year-of-you-know-who's main protagonist on what people call 'the happiest day in a man's life' (or prison).
But what about her flashbacks?
Where it all breaks down
What if I were to tell you that Oda pulled a double on us. Not only did he create a character that was in the first half of this arc a plot device to drive the story forward, and make Sanji feel despair... Not only did he create a bi-dimensional character plot device who's first personality turned out to be fake, Oda turned the table again. Pudding's actually a complex character and not just a plot device. She's not just faked her initial appearance, her second appearance is also not her real self.
- Wut? Weren't you arguing for the opposite?
Of course I was, but any debate is meant to get us closer to some sort of truth. While Pudding in standalone first half of Whole Cake Island Arc is a plot device, she grows into a real multi-dimensional character - well to some extent... Her gags are definitely a type of humour device, but underlying them is a genuine personality - kun~
Let me analyse the 4 panels that comprise the first glimpse of Pudding's personality and motivations. In the first panel there's a memory of Big Mom calling her a "puppet". This accurately reflects how Pudding is still being viewed by her mother as well as her current actions. It was always about Pudding following the script of some pre-written movie. She's just an actor, not a director to her own life.
She stands and reminisces of that moment, but also of Lola. Why Lola? Lola the only one who ruined all of Big Mom's plans on her wedding just to seek freedom and love of her own. Lola the actor and director of her own life on the seas, rather than another puppet in an overgrown baby's living toy collection. The fact that Pudding remembers this so vividly alongside the other traumatic memory accentuates all her future dual behaviours as well as highlights how salient this memory about Lola is for her. It basically is part of her identity, although locked deep inside. The way in which she is spatially positioned to her big sister as well as the age hierarchy make it clear that she holds Lola in high regard and that Lola is a model for Pudding. This will be further emphasized as Pudding interacts with Lola's twin, Chiffon, and Sanji
Oda briliantly fits all of these themes together and in those 4 panels builds a clear and distinct association between love and freedom. It also could be a prophecy of what will happen. Pudding will also end up not following her mother's plan and be swayed by her heart on the most critical moment.
The moment when everything breaks down is in chapter 862. The scene of the "kiss".
Pudding's motivations are not her own yet (as she still follows the script), but her personality becomes vivid just the second before the kiss: She is self-loathing.
The fact that she has a personality makes that scene one of the most memorable in the whole arc, because had she been a simple plot device or a unidimensional character, she would have tried to shoot Sanji, Sanji would have dodged, and the plan would have proceeded as before. But Oda pulls another goddamn twist on us and makes it clear that she is more than just that.
For the rest of the arc she becomes completely enamored with Sanji in a very uniquely evil-ultra-tsundere way that switches between personalities at an alarming rate - kun~. That's certainly quite far away from the original almost-Makino character we saw. She's a One Piece goddamn character alright! Of course she'd have to be weird! Her dual and quick-switching nature is surfaced after Sanji kickstarts in her heart the love engine to full throttle. Her default bitch mode from having had to adapt to living in Big Mom's environment is constantly being overridden by her underlying motivations and personality (her love and desire to help Sanji and his crew).
On the symbolic front, Oda's signified how in this instance, compassion and principles won over treachery and cruelty. This is a victory for good, incarnated in Pudding's very... weird behaviour. We, as humans, are prosocial animals and we're built to act for the greater good of our community - we're compassionate and we work on principle (that there's something greater than ourselves). Linlin grew some of her children in a very toxic environment where there was little compassion and people were much more individualistic (which is highlighted by how Opera lied about Luffy escaping for fear of consequences). [Remember everyone, educate yourself before you raise a child.] I still don't know how to resolve this paradox when seeing how many of the children actually do care for one another and will punish 'others' simply for having done something to done, while also doing nothing when they themselves do shit to each other.
So Pudding is actually a complex character that has a personality and her own underlying motivatins - so what now?
Well, I could try and argue that she's quite ironically a great fit for Sanji (since he is patient and will tolerate her dual nature regardless, they both love cooking, and they're both so goddamn amusing when it comes to romance). But I won't. I'll tell you something even more interesting - Pudding could have been so much more than what she was actually shown as and Oda had to be careful when treading on a minefield:
This is a shounen battle manga, not a romcon. Pudding's real depth, in terms of storywriting, would only grow out of her relationship with Sanji, and because of the difference in genres, Oda was limited in what he could cultivate. I'm surprised he actually navigated the romance theme so carefully within a One Piece arc and even had an actual kiss scene O_O.
For one, her flashback was very short. It's just two pages... Katakuri's was much longer while Linlin's was three full chapters. You can see the hierarchy of who Oda had to focus on, because of the nature of his series. He could not risk us liking Pudding too much.
Her intaractions with Sanji were extremely limited to comical devices for us as the audience. It was the only way to mask the strong love that was driving Pudding's actions. She reverted to her first appearance's personality - kind, humble, understanding - but in a very quirky and trying-not-to-show-it way. I, without a doubt, love that Oda built her character in this more authentic and extravagant way. But beyond all that weird and funny, Pudding's a nice girl.
But all those behaviours were too exaggerated and they acted as a clear limiter in terms of how Sanji can interract with Pudding. If the girl who you kind of like and who likes you back either flips you off or falls in bed with a fever everytime you compliment her or do something meagerly cool, would it be considered functional. Oda, quite literally built a wall between the characters so that there would be no romantic development.
Had this wall not been there, Pudding's respect for Sanji's skills, her contradictive thoughts and feelings would have been shown more introspectively than through over-the-top interractions. Oda said he simply feels what his characters are going to say or do. Which is why, I would say inevitable to see him finally relax the wall, but only at the very very final chapter of this arc - with that kiss scene.
A beautiful moment
We've seen Pudding grow because of Sanji in unexpected ways. She was a flat character turned plot device turned unexpected over-the-top weird ally of the Straw Hats which at the very end had shown:
- an internal conflict - following her wishes vs being mama's puppet
- understanding - as she lets Sanji go back to his crew
- "selfishness" - as she kisses Sanji
- kindness - as she steals memories that would hold him back
- self-loathing - as she cries her eyes out in front of Sanji and (this is implicit from the whole discussion) does not leave with the Strawhats and remains with her mother
- and the one word that would describe the complexity of holding a burden on your own so that the one you care about does not have to share it with you - kidness? love? Maybe you people know a more fitting term
This arc was mostly about Sanji, but Pudding complemented it very well. I can say that everything fits in one single page - Chapter 899 Page 12 (on Jaimini's Box): Judge 'judges' Sanji as not being a soldier (disciplined, militaristic), he cooks (serves others), he is humble, he protects the weak (uses the ethics of care rather than utilitarianism - or rather is compassionate than selfish), and has a weak mind (again on the discipline, militaristic side) - Luffy is then confused as to why Judge is listing all of Sanji's good points.
The whole conflict revolved simply around Sanji being valued in two different ways for who he is. The same way happened to Pudding. She has also been valued in two different ways by her mother (+others) and by Sanji. She managed to get a glimpse into how someone who has gone through exactly the same thing she's going through right now (and also the perosn that caused it) looks like. It's quite something for a 16-17 years-old girl. This is why she showed that kindness and caring nature which Sanji is renowned for erased his memories after kissing him - Sanji always does this. His actions are oriented towards the crew's benefit (whether it be fighting Jabra or going to get marrier with Big Mom's daughter), but are done in such a way that he does not get much recognition for what he did (sneaking around Enies Lobby and sorting stuff out strategically, or hitting Luffy in order to try to get him to leave and let Sanji sacrifice himself). In this case, Pudding kissed him for herself, rather than for his sake in order to balance the unequal outcomes of how everything concluded.
Sanji was given the chance to still follow his dreams and achieve happiness. His goodbye with the crew was denied by Luffy and his nakama. Pudding on the other hand truly had to give up on any hopes of achieving happiness with the only person who sincerely complimented her third eye and who cared for her, even after all she did. Both had to be left with "something" after the event. I believe that because of these unequal outcomes there is a "gap" that needs to be filled or a "problem" that needs to be solved. For this single reason, I believe that within the series, we will see Pudding again, and when that time will come, I will happily await to further see how the relationship between these two will evolve.
I've written this blog, because I feel this thing deserved a bit more of an in-depth look. After all, Pudding crying alone in a corner without having Sanji ever getting to know that she fell in love with him and that everything after the "kiss the bride" scene was her genuinely being unable to properly express her feelings was heartbreaking. I shed tears in chapter 902 and believe that, if there are still people out there who dislike her, this might persuade them otherwise.
Do you think I'm talking crap or that there's some valuable insight in there? I definitely feel like some things would require a second opinion and would love to read it in the comments.
Even though fictional, why do some characters feel so genuine? And why do we get so attached to them?
Is Pudding after all of this still just a plot device OR was she not one from the very beginning?