A centering theme prevalent across the whole of Eiichiro Oda’s long-running opus One Piece is families, or more specifically found families. In the framework of early One Piece (the East Blue Saga), this is most strongly seen in the context of the Arlong Park arc with Nami, the Straw Hat pirates’ navigator.
Early on in the Saga, during the time we meet Buggy the Clown and his crew, Nami makes her first appearance (laying in a boat and deceiving some of Buggy’s crew for their boat) and lays the groundwork for the Arlong arc by telling Luffy she’s raising money to buy a village. Her guarded nature is well-founded, considering she has had to pillage over the last 8 years in order to get her agreement with Arlong of 100 million berries for all of Cocoyashi Village. Meeting Luffy and Zoro, self-described pirates, assuredly did nothing to ease her apprehension.
Later, in A pair of arcs later (the Krieg arc), she takes off with the Going Merry, leaving Luffy, Zoro, and new crewmate Usopp behind. While they can seem treacherous at first glance, Nami’s actions and need to separate herself from her new friends(later family) is borne of a desire to keep them safe from dying at the hands of Arlong and his crew.
Then comes the Arlong arc (chapters 69-95) and the whole picture of Nami comes into focus. Oda peels back the story for a moment and reveals Nami’s past, previously only alluded to. Here during this flashback, we meet her parents, Belle-mere and Genzo, and her sister, Nojiko. Their lives are more or less peaceful. Nami, however, stresses over her poverty and blurts out during an argument that she wished she could live with rich parents so that Belle-mere would have more money for herself. This moment, while slightly shaking the familial ties Belle-mere, Nojiko, and Nami have built for themselves, does not collapse them and they are together soon afterward. Arlong’s arrival the next day undoes all of this.
In an act of deep cruelty, Arlong kills Belle-mere in front of Nami and Nojiko; both are unable to keep their mother safe from the malicious pirate captain who has malicious designs. The pain resulting from this, and Nami’s subsequent enslavement by the Arlong pirates leads, to the future navigator’s deep distrust and disgust for of all pirates, even those like Luffy who seek the thrill of adventure above all else in piracy.
The anime version of the Arlong arc (episodes 31-44) adds a touch more pathos to Nami as she reminisces wistfully over the journey she’d had thus far with the Straw Hats. It’s clear from her words and tone she wishes to go back to that life, yet her mission to gain the money needed to free Cocoyashi Village ultimately takes precedence. Just prior to the climax/big fight, we’re given a signature scene which narratively and simultaneously brings together the Straw Hats as both a full-fledged pirate crew and a family. Nami agonizes over the fact that Arlong will never really set her free, keeping her enslaved to draw maps forever. She stabs at the Arlong mark until Luffy stops her. Luffy’s declaration of, “Let’s go,” sheds the last of any apprehensions Nami may have had. Sand she soldifies her friendship with Luffy, Zoro, Usopp, and Sanji for the first time.
By the conclusion of the Arlong arc, if not the moment when Arlong Park collapses, Nami has also come to see the Straw Hats as her new family. The narrative encourages this as she is pushed ever forward to the sea and its many adventures. One such example is when Nami leaves Cocoyashi for the last time. Her eyes are shut as she races toward the Going Merry. Belle-mere, Nojiko, and Genzo are behind her now and to see even a glimpse of any of them would prevent her from being able to do what she wants: be free. Another comes in an anime-only moment: Nami sits at home, having a conversation with Belle-mere. She voices her desire to head to sea. Belle-mere’s last action in the story and moment with her daughter is to give her a gentle push out the door.
Family in One Piece is shown time and again to be something not tied solely to blood. It is something you make for yourself over time.