In our last couple of articles analyzing One Piece arcs, we covered how the East Blue and Baroque Works sagas set up the themes and story structure that One Piece would go onto to explore in more detail over the progression of the series. We get familiar with the corruption of the world government, the drives and goals of the characters, and how the system is set up can affect everyone that inhabits its world.
So, naturally, the following story arc, Skypeia, would have absolutely nothing to do with any of that. Instead, the Straw Hats have an entirely unrelated adventure up in the sky. Funny how that works.
Diverging from the Main Story
Considering how passionately One Piece tackles government corruption and abusive power structures, it’s easy to forget that One Piece is, first and foremost, an adventure story. It’s not that Luffy is a fiercely devoted revolutionary whose mission in life is to undermine the World Government at all costs; it just kind of happens along the way while he and his friends are out exploring. However, after Baroque Works changed One Piece from a promising up-and-coming shounen battle series into the new hotness, this is exactly what people were wanting out of One Piece.
So maybe that’s why Skypeia lost about half the reader base it built up with Alabasta. Supposedly, author Eiichiro Oda had not actually intended to write Skypiea, and his original intent was to instead immediately move onto fan-favorite Enies Lobby. However, because so much of that arc depends on Robin being an established member of the crew, it wouldn’t have made much sense if we didn’t see Robin’s bond grow with the Straw Hats before pretending to betray them. This meant that a new arc would have to be inserted in between Baroque Works and Enies Lobby that wouldn’t disrupt the flow and direction of the narrative.
This makes it a rather unique arc within One Piece, as there’s very little to connect Skypiea with the overall narrative. The World Government didn’t have anything to do with hiding Skypiea’s existence from the rest of the world nor is there a secret organization that’s affiliated with a Shichibukai that’s been hiding up in the clouds. It is a singular world onto itself, with its own culture, currency, government, and history that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that’s going on down on the ground. There’s a quick reveal of a poneglyph and that Gold Roger was there, Usopp and Nami get minor power-boosts thanks to dials, and there’s a callback later on that explains Skypieans’ “mantra” technique is a form of Haki. That’s it. While reading or watching Skypiea for the first time, it can put a halt to the momentum built up by Baroque Works. However, when viewed as part of One Piece as a whole, it only makes the world-building more impressive. It’s like Oda is showing off just how big the world of One Piece truly is, acknowledging that there are parts of the world so disconnected from one each other that some don’t even know the other is there.
Figuring out the Formula
In spite of some of the negative reaction to the arc, there’s quite a bit that does work about Skypiea. Enel, with his kingly disposition and genuine faith in his own godhood, is as classic as a One Piece villain as Crocodile and Doflamingo. His presence also serves an extremely important function to build up elemental Logia-type Devil Fruit powers as some of the most threatening powers in the entire series, as the only reason Luffy wins is that the Gum Gum Fruit happens to be the exact counter of Enel’s. Even then, Luffy barely gets the win. The mini-arc that sets up Skypiea, Mocktown, effectively sets up the growing cynicism that’s encroaching on society, foreshadowing the end of the pirate era. And, likewise, the backstory between Noland and Kalgara is a beautiful tale of how helpless humanity truly is in the face of the forces of nature.
It’s just that there’s so much you have to work through in order to get to those great bits. Who remembers Zoro’s fight against Ohm and his dog Holy, and who didn’t have to look up Ohm when trying to remember that? Or how about that Chopper, Robin, and Nami each had a fight against named characters? Oda was still figuring how important having fights was to the appeal of One Piece at the time and, unfortunately, since the fights in One Piece are more about the stakes than the actual choreography, spending several chapters/episodes on everyone’s individual battles drags the pacing down to a snail’s crawl. It’s difficult to stay invested because the power levels of One Piece are rooted in the world building. When you take characters out of that world, suddenly you don’t have any point of reference to compare them to anyone else. Even if Skypiea has one of Robin’s two real fights against a named character, you don’t remember or care about it because it says nothing about how she’s growing as a force in the world.
If we were to compare Skypiea to something, it’d be what Chamber of Secrets is to the Harry Potter franchise: a story that was written as its author was still figuring out the direction of the series and becomes more interesting after the fact than when it was written. It can be difficult to revisit, though, due to just how slowly it moves until you hit the final fight with Enel.
Next time, we’ll be looking at Enies Lobby and how finally, after several years, we start seeing some payoff.