by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 825 of
One Piece ?
After a long, long time, we can finally put a neat little bow on the whole Luffy-Sanji breakup. To do some math, it's been 42 episodes since the start of the arc, 17 episodes since Luffy and Sanji had their fight (it feels like it's been much longer), and it's been 194 episodes since Luffy and Sanji last saw each other face-to-face as friends, going all the way back to when the crew initially split up back in Dressrosa.
There's a lot going on to highlight this episode as the halfway point of the Whole Cake Island arc. The last of the Straw Hats' goals has been met with Luffy and Sanji making up, the opening is now presented as a re-cut music video telling the story of the arc up until this moment, we get a brief tease of Big Mom's strongest child (soon-to-be fan favorite, Charlotte Katakuri), and we see a massive shift in priorities for our main characters. The show's intention is to make this episode a massive bundle of emotions, all pouring out of our heroes as we reflect on the adventure that brought us here. However, it sadly suffers from the usual pacing issues, since the episode is stretched incredibly thin for the amount of plot we're given, and we've already dedicated enough episodes in the past few months to that "look how far we've come" feeling. The anime is in desperate need of filler material so that it doesn't have to stretch the canon story out this much, but we've still got the entire second half of this arc before Toei has a chance to organically work anything new into the story.
It's hard not to sympathize with the challenge that the anime staff faces, where they have to figure out how to adapt 80% of a manga chapter or less into a twenty-minute episode every week. Past arcs have been bold enough to just force filler, little asides or clip shows that have nothing to do with the main story, but those must be considered disastrous decisions by somebody because they haven't done that in a while. Remember when Enies Lobby paused to do five weeks straight of clip shows? We've definitely seen more than our fair share of Sanji recaps lately, and I think the harder they try to make it feel like a natural part of the story, the weaker it gets. Every line this week is made so emotional and dramatic in an attempt to kill as much time as possible, but that patchwork can't be hidden at all. What we really have is two people standing in the rain, delivering a couple pages worth of dialogue at best with long pauses between each line, and then the characters take a chance to ruminate on what they've just said after every sentence. They try real hard to make it work, but it just doesn't.
Okay, so critiquing an episode like this is going to require looking past this issue to the best of my ability, because there's still a lot to break down. Stories about Straw Hats leaving the crew are a huge deal in One Piece, with Luffy and Usopp's fight and reconciliation still being one of the most emotionally intense and rewarding ventures the series has ever delivered. This is nowhere in that ballpark, but I'm of two minds as to whether or not it needs to be. I still think of Strong World as a definitive statement about how the crew has grown so much that stories about them breaking up can no longer work the way that they used to. They've been around this block so many times, and Whole Cake Island never challenged Sanji in a way that made me feel like it was worth the exception.
That being said, while Strong World was a movie about validating how close-knit the Straw Hats have become, nothing like it has existed in the canon story, and seeing where the Whole Cake Island arc goes in the manga, I've found myself amazed at how well the Straw Hats working as a unified front ties the story together. It's a cosmic reward for Luffy and Sanji managing to get through this first half of the arc together, and in that context it strikes a chord for me. Taking the Luffy-Sanji journey for what it is, there's a lot that I still like in the execution, even if it's not world-shattering by the standards of this story trope for One Piece.
So Luffy and Sanji have met face-to-face for the first time since their fight, but despite the plot's extremely thorough attempt to set Sanji free from his prior responsibilities, there's still too much emotional baggage for things to be that simple. Sanji gives his picnic basket—muddy and wet from the journey through the rain—to Luffy, who's finally willing to eat something, since Luffy promised Sanji that his cooking would be the only food he'd accept after the fight. So there's one thematic element that gets to come full circle. However, despite wanting to make sure Luffy doesn't starve, Sanji still insists that he can't return to the crew for a few clear reasons.
- He insulted and hurt his captain, and Sanji believes he shouldn't be easily forgiven for that. This one is especially interesting in the context of Luffy vs. Usopp, where Zoro made a big deal about making sure Usopp apologized of his own volition before being let back into the crew. Sanji seems to believe this should apply to him too, and he's unwilling to apologize because he still intends to stay for the wedding. Instead of demanding an apology, Luffy hits him and demands Sanji be honest with his feelings. Atonement is just an unnecessary wall between friends at this point. Since the arc is still going on in the manga, I'm going to take this chance to predict that we'll see Sanji offer a proper apology after the climactic battle is over.
- Zeff's life is still being threatened by his father. This one's the most debatable, since Reiju already mentioned that soon the Vinsmokes will be too dead to kill anybody and Big Mom probably doesn't care, but it does tie in with Sanji's original plan to die with his family, just so that Big Mom doesn't get mad and hunt down the Straw Hats (though even that logic doesn't work because Luffy and Big Mom already have unrelated beef over Fishman Island.)
- Despite how awful they are, he doesn't want to let his family die. This one is the most interesting to me, because it becomes the most significant pivot of the arc. It's also one of the elements that's made some people genuinely uncomfortable, since the Vinsmokes' abuse of Sanji is all too real and the story is playing the "do the right thing" card on saving their lives. The balancing act that the arc plays with the Vinsmokes, who are simultaneously heinous while having significant history within the One Piece world, is one of many things still left to be resolved in the manga, but the ambition of this arc and how it aims to handle the level of sympathy assigned to its villains has me on the edge of my seat.
And that's what leaves me walking away from this episode feeling enthralled. This episode ends with Luffy and Sanji as friends again. The rain stops. The clouds part and the sun shines. We look at a massive landscape shot of Whole Cake Island and the mess that the Straw Hats have made of it. We've been through so much, and if our main characters wanted to, we'd be out of here. But now we look at that landscape and we don't see a place to run away from, we see one more fight ahead of us instead. Sanji no longer has to see this wedding through, but now he wants to be there alongside a group of friends who will go through any battle with him. Luffy's final line is a declaration: "Let's crash this wedding!" But this comes after 40 episodes of learning exactly why you wouldn't want to do that.
There's a lot about Sanji's sacrificial complex that I think I've taken for granted. It helps that Hiroaki Hirata's performance is extraordinary this week, but there's a lot of emphasis on Sanji's personal sense of weakness. He thinks that wanting to save his family, as terrible as they've been to him, is the thing that makes him weak. He's tormented by the fact that he can't just walk away. It reminds me of Sanji's relationship with the Baratie restaurant, where he talked himself into feeling obligated to Zeff instead of going out to sea and following his dream. But all that's irrelevant to Luffy, who'll help Sanji out no matter what he wants to do. It makes sense that Sanji would make this decision. He's the kind of guy who would feed a filthy pirate just because he was hungry, after all.
For an episode with such scarce content, I'm shocked by how much mileage I've been able to get out of writing about it. As a whole episode, I can't say I found it to be the most effective way to deliver this story, and yet just thinking about how the big Luffy/Sanji scene makes me feel has unearthed a lot. The episode drags painfully until it finally reaches the point, and Sanji's journey of leaving the Straw Hats and coming back is not the strongest example of such a story in the series, but the poetry it offers the arc in the big picture goes much further than that. The story is so familiar and it unfolds so slowly, yet the feelings that it inspires are so massive and complicated.
But hey, that's One Piece for ya.
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