So, Skypiea has come and gone, the Strawhats are back on good ol’ terra firma (you know… relatively). They arrive on Long Ring Island and it looks like One Piece is beginning to settle into a formula: the Strawhats travel from island to island having fun adventures as pirates while occasionally standing up to injustice, but that’ll mostly be a backdrop to the greater adventure at hand. It’s about a grand world tour with wondrous sights while partying your best friends.
Then the Straw Hats decide to head out to Enies Lobby and everything changes. This time we’ll be covering how Enies Lobby is the first example of long-term payoff in One Piece, as well as how it completely shifted the public image of the series.
The Image Defied
The first story of the Enies Lobby Saga, the Davy Back Fight, is written to clown on the reader. Sure, it’s a bit of a cooldown from the grand adventure of Skypiea, but it plays out like a completely unintentional self-parody of the image of One Piece. The Strawhats are goaded into playing games against the Foxy Pirates or else they’ll be known as chickens! Doing this means they might have to lose one of their friends! And that dastardly Foxy! He keeps obviously cheating when the Straw Hats are doing everything by the book! But no worries! Luffy cares so much about his friends that through sheer determination, he’s finally able to punch out that mean ol’ Foxy in a one-on-one match and save the day! All of this just so Luffy could take Foxy’s flag and use it to bandage a horse that Foxy shot earlier. Gag. The fact that the Foxy Pirates become the anime team’s go-to crew to bring back any time there’s filler is perhaps one of the least shocking developments in the entire series.
That happy tone is immediately killed off right at the very end where admiral Aokiji shows up for the sole purpose of murdering Robin and ends up almost breaking apart the entire Straw Hat crew singlehandedly. Both Robin and Luffy barely survive the attack and only do because Aokiji didn’t really feel like confirming the kills. This sudden shift in tone is meant to undercut exactly what One Piece was becoming known for at the time: safe, vapid entertainment. Even if the crew made it out okay, the point was made: the stakes were about to get very real.
And real did they get. In what has to be one of the most baffling moments in all of Shounen battle anime, One Piece shifts away from a corporate-friendly, light-hearted adventure story into advocating for the complete destruction of the government. This is very different from a story like, say, Naruto or Bleach that have governmental systems that, while flawed, are ultimately a righteous system that simply has a few bad eggs. One Piece instead takes a drastically different shift, with the Straw Hats actively declaring war against the oppressive nature of the World Government. After all, a system that so actively seeks to make Robin feel as if she should die for the sake of the public good because said government is afraid of her being able to undermine them is not one that is actually working towards public welfare. It’s a subject that speaks very directly about the issues One Piece’s target audience quietly resent about the Japanese government that have no outlet to speak out against it. To put it in music terms, One Piece made a transition from pop dance jams into punk rock practically overnight. And the shocking thing is people bought it because...
The Strawhats Tested
Amidst all the anti-government messaging, the core reason why people latched onto Enies Lobby was because it provided the series’ biggest challenge to the Strawhat pirates to date. Of course Rob Lucci was as tough an opponent as Luffy had gone up against, but what really made Enies Lobby work was that it was more about testing the group dynamic. Luffy had foolishly allowed Robin into the crew without knowing anything about her, and now she betrayed them. Usopp defied Luffy’s orders to forget about the Merry Go, and now he had been kicked out of the crew. The Merry was on the verge of breaking and the Franky Gang stole all their money that they could have used to replace it. The crew was separated, distrustful of each other, and didn’t even have a ship. It could have ended right here, and it had nothing to do with getting outmatched. The very philosophy of the Straw Hat Pirates was getting called into question.
This sort of human drama is the other way in which One Piece rebelled against its own image in order to contextualize the character stakes. The tension was much greater because we could no longer lean on how we imagined the relationship of the crew. Before they had arrived at Water 7, there was precisely one core tenet that the reader or viewer could fall back on: the crew’s loyalty to one another was unshakeable. Whenever a character faltered to do the right thing, they would always remember their responsibility within the crew and how their role affected their friends. That all falls apart when Robin is taken away by CP0 and Usopp and Luffy have their big fight. During the final climax with Luffy vs Rob Lucci, we’re not just rooting for a righteous victory of right or wrong, but also for the crew to come out stronger than they were before. These added personal strength resonate more for the reader/viewer and add much more emotional weight to the victory than any arc before.
While there are many arcs that people will call their favorite, Enies Lobby is perhaps the most universally beloved arc due to how it redefines our expectations of One Piece. It’s also the arc where the plot of One Piece truly begins, and from here on out, the story never leaves behind its focus on the corrupt power structures of the world.
Sort of, anyway. Thriller Bark takes an odd turn…