Welcome back to my One Piece Journey! By now, One Piece has reached its 1000th chapter (Congratulations!) and I’m only 30.2% of the way there! I need to step up my game if I’m going to catch up before the 100th volume comes out in the USA. So let us dive in, or should I say blast off, to the next big saga, Skypiea!
We last left our heroes sailing away from the island of Alabasta, just after saving the country from King Crocodile and his agents like —
Miss All Sunday! I mean, Nico Robin! That’s right, the once (maybe is?) villainess from Baroque Works wants to join the Straw Hat crew. Now I already know most of who is going to become a Straw Hat through pop culture osmosis, but I think the flashback showing why Robin wanted to join helped this sudden turn make sense. Even if winning over the Straw Hats was a bit too easy.
But the biggest surprise happens moments later, as the Skypiea Saga begins with a literal splash. An ancient shipwreck falls from the sky, and Nami’s log pose is acting very strangely; it’s pointing up toward the clouds. After the pirates salvage the shipwreck and discover a map for a place called Sky Island, Luffy only has one goal in mind: to reach the kingdom in the clouds. But how the heck does one get there?
This is the set up for the Jaya Arc, one with a simple message and a simple means of expressing it, in great contrast with what will come after. It’s certainly not an arc I appreciated when I first read it. It felt more like a transitory arc a la Loguetown, but that arc was entertaining and brought in interesting characters that brought immediate impact to the story. In Jaya, we are introduced to characters that may impact the story later. The characters that do have an immediate impact aren't compelling. Take Bellamy, Jaya’s antagonist.
In any other manga, he would be fine, but this is One Piece we’re talking about. In a manga where Buggy, Crocodile, and Kuro exist, Bellamy may as well be a slice of toast. His way of thinking is “Dreams are for kids, grow up and be practical” which would be a cool contradicting philosophy if this wasn’t One Piece. In a manga all about discovering new lands and fighting exotic enemies, Bellamy’s criticism doesn’t have much ground to stand on. So when Cricket, the ancestor of children’s book villain Noland The Liar, says “You must follow your dreams!” I’m like, “Yeah, we’ve known that since chapter 1.” At least seeing Luffy pummeling Bellamy was satisfying.
Not that this arc was all boring. In my “important things'' notes, I have chapters 233 and 234 written down as “everything!” because so much happens. At least 14 important new characters were properly introduced, the Marines Admirals showed up, Kuma and Donflamingo have a meeting of the Warlords of the Sea, then some guy that looks like he walked off the set of a silent movie wants to introduce Blackbeard, Ace finds Buggy, then this totally Big Bad Whitebeard is all like, “If Shanks wants to see me, he can do so himself,” and… let my fingers take a break here. What impact do they have on the Skypiea saga? Basically zero. Am I excited for future sagas? Heck yeah!
SKY ISLAND ARC
Thanks to some help from Cricket, the Straw Hats use the Knock Up Stream to get into the sky and arrive at Skypiea. It’s like Paradise with people looking like angels and the flora reminding you of the tropics. But then you have to pay a crazy toll, and the threat of being smote by the Kami, the spiritual leader of Skypiea, is not so cool. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with the Straw hats and they are soon on the run from the law and have to fight the Kami, this god son-of-a-gun.
This is an arc that gets better the more I reflect back on it. This is because the story has a break-neck pace. I’ve seen a lot of anime fans complain that this arc is too long (and at about 40 episodes, they’re probably right) but reading the manga it felt like it went super fast. Everything was introduced at once, and so it was hard to become attached to any one thing. But when you get to Luffy’s epic fight with Eneru and close the last chapter, you get to relax and see how it tackles subjects you don’t see much in Weekly Shonen Jump.
The strife between Shandians and Skypieans take obvious inspiration from American Westerns, with Shandians taking visual cues from Native Americans. Instead of tackling something so specific, Oda decides to use these visuals to talk about the broader challenges of racism and its effects. The obvious racism that initially spurred the conflict shows great change needs to be made. But when centuries past, the status quo can be so deeply rooted in that hatred that the necessary reconciliation can be very difficult. Oda isn’t charting new ground, but he is able to make it tangible and easily understood.
Then you have the Kami, Eneru, one of my favorite One Piece villains. His cool arrogance awes you, and his thunderous power shocks you. This coolness comes from his design, pulling various symbols from thunder-related gods and spirits to make a single man. There are two moments that define his character and tie into the best parts of the arc. One, his prophecy for the survival game. The other… I’ll show you later.
The Survival Game is so much fun! Saying five will be standing at the ended when there are seven Straw Hats makes things so exciting. It has all the intensity of a battle royale arc, but since there are more than one survivors, you have more characters you can root for, making it more suspenseful. There are many twists and turns, and by the end the number stands at six. It was a fun way to thin out such a large conflict, and show that Eneru is not all-knowing. But it does look like Eneru is all-powerful… until Luffy gets puked out by a giant serpent.
But before Luffy can have an emotionally-satisfying fight this side of Arlong Park, we have to pause for a backstory. This time, we get to learn about Noland the Liar and the Shandians. As you probably know, Noland is not in fact a liar. He’s a great botanist, explorer, and man. When he discovers the Shandians, it’s his immediate impulse to help them. Noland’s friendship with Shandian Hero Kalgara cemented my love for this arc. They don’t start off as trustworthy (Kalagara literally stabs Noland in the back when they first meet) but Noland’s tenacity and kindness wins Kalgara over. How many can survive being caught in a fault line? It shows with an open-minded and a true moral compass, you can cross any divide. Then the Knock Out Stream shoots half of Jaya into the sky, and history changes for the worse.
On top of religion and racism, the Skypiea Saga also takes a hard look at history. When Noland returns to Jaya with the king, the half of the island with the Shandians and Shandora is gone. Out of anger, the “Noland the Liar” story was concocted by the government to save face and justify Noland’s execution. I should note that Noland’s death is visually reminiscent of Gol D. Roger’s death. Is this perhaps a reference that Roger’s death was also to cover up for the government's deeds? We learn the government was also able to erase a one-hundred years worth of history, leading to what is called the Void Century. Then we learn about the Poneglyphs, ancient stone that has stories from the Void Century inscribed onto them, as well as clues that point to Ancient Weapons. Then we learn that Gol D. Roger also came to Skypiea and saw the poneglyph. So what the heck was Gol D. Roger actually up to, and how does this relate back to the One Piece? Theorizing more will make this blog super long, so let us instead talk about that dang bell.
The Shandians rang that bell more than out of tradition. It was a way to show the world “We are here.” But then the Shandians were shot up into Skypiea, Noland is executed, and the bell goes silent, lost at the top of a beanstalk. Until one rubbery boy gets an idea in his head to ring it.
Luffy proves time and time again his friends mean everything to him. Cricket, Noland’s ancestor, has been searching for that bell almost his whole life. This bell is more than just saying “We are Here.” It’s also saying “Your dreams are true,” “History is wrong,” “There is hope.” So even though Eneru is set to destroy all of Skypiea, Luffy just wants that bell rung. Luckily for the reader and all of Skypiea, Eneru is standing between Luffy and the bell. Which leads to my other favorite Eneru moment (see right image).
What’s more, this is a great development for Luffy. He’s been shown as a hero for friends in East Blue, the savior for countries in Alabasta, and now he steps into the pantheon of legends in Skypiea. The Shandians casting Brocken spectres strikes awe in many who sail near Jaya. Ringing The bell strikes awe in all of Skypiea. Now who is the man who connects both? Luffy.
That’s the good stuff. While things may go by fast, Skypiea is not breezy. Mixing difficult themes like racism, spirituality, and history into one story is no easy task, much less making it easily comprehensible and entertaining. Many pieces of media have tried and failed. Heck, I’m struggling to fit them all into this blog post. That this can succeed is a miracle, and is another great entry for One Piece. Now, time to fall back to the Grand Line and onto Water Seven!
My updated One Piece arcs rankings
- Arlong Park
- Sky Island
- Orange Town
- Drum Island
- Syrup Village
- Whiskey Peak
- Reverse Mountain
- Little Garden
- Romance Dawn