It's a storyline that's just as good as everyone says it is
The combo of the Water 7 and Enies Lobby arcs in One Piece is one of those storylines, the kind of thing you champion as the pinnacle that other anime should attempt to reach. It's a narrative that achieves the very rare goal of being just as good as everyone says it is, representing not only all of the thematic and action heights One Piece can attain but showing off just how strong they are when they are tested at their core. It's everything One Piece was building to beforehand and every standard that it's had to live up to since.
The most renowned part of this particular story is what happens to the characters, namely the ones who are given the extra spotlight, Robin and Usopp. Robin, whose whole life has centered around fleeing from the World Government, has finally been able to broach the level of acceptance and kindness that were promised to her by her dying mentor, Jaguar D. Saul. Only now, with the entrance of CP9 and an execution awaiting her, she's forced to either reach for the kind of hope she never allowed herself or fall back into the acceptance that perhaps it would be easier to simply die like the World Government wants her to.
Meanwhile, Usopp, now comfortable in the role of the crew's marksman and a loyal friend to the future Pirate King, contends with the idea that his position might be all but useless in the face of continuously advancing danger. He must recognize his own self-worth among a crew that loves him or let his sense of inadequacy overtake him and leave them behind out of a mix of fear and shame.
Of course, many other characters get big, defining conflicts — declaring war on the World Government tests Luffy's mantra of ultimate freedom and the arrival of the Straw Hats and the bond he begins to feel with them challenges Franky's outlook and willingness to once again dream grandly after life events that have been no less than traumatic. But no matter how big or small, they all press to see how durable the characters are and are given time to breathe and to angst. Franky and Robin get wonderfully realized, tragic backstories, while Luffy and Usopp have a duel that neither of them ever previously wished for. When it's over, Luffy admonishes Usopp for even trying to beat him, but the melancholy he feels is not just one of betrayal but of personal failure. What good of a captain is he when his crew is in such depressing disarray?
Their antagonists, CP9, a group of assassins working for the World Government, also fit into this theme of pushing issues to see which ones break. They've hidden in plain sight for so long, the reveal of their existence shatters the illusion of brotherhood and loyalty many felt with them as part of the Galley-La Company. Even the use of the Sea Train to pursue CP9 brings up the conflict between overwhelming forces like the Aqua Laguna storm and the desperation the Straw Hats feel in their quest to reunite with Robin. Many series, One Piece included, are about having the faith in yourself necessary to beat impenetrable odds. But few series incorporate that motif into every strain of an arc like Water 7 and Enies Lobby do.
This "faith vs obstacle" theme usually comes in the form of battle in anime like this. You've trained and fought so hard to get somewhere and you know you have what it takes to overcome whatever warlord or general jerk stands in your way. Doing so often comes in the form of a power-up, an upgrade in your established skillset that allows you to punch harder, run faster, laser more laser-ey, etc. The big ones in Enies Lobby are the reveal of Luffy's Second and Third Gears, with anything less than a perfectly realized debut, these boosts could seem like an almost mandated portion of the arc. Of course, Luffy would advance in the pantheon of robust Weekly Shonen Jump protagonists. It's what this kind of story calls for at this particular moment.
The framing of it, though, renders it not as Luffy's particular drive to become stronger, but as an obligation to his crew. He is doing this because it will allow him to protect them better. After losing both Robin and Usopp, it is his own version of the "I want to live!" moment, the refutation of his crew ever experiencing such hardship again. Luffy will not despair any longer, and neither will his crew members, past, current, and future.
On the other side of this, you have the Straw Hats' ship, Going Merry, a doomed vessel that has been through too much to withstand the ravages of the sea any longer. A lesser series would likely reveal that, surprise, with some new fixes, the Merry can keep going. One Piece abstains from this kind of stale sentimentality, instead giving Merry one last moment of glory saving its crew before receiving a Viking funeral. It's sad, but it isn't tragic, and it reminds the crew that the bond they have is more than just people who happened to gather on a ship. They're family.
Finally, "I want to live!" A declaration of not just defiance against those that wish to subjugate her, but Robin's acceptance of her own acceptance by the Straw Hats. Living, as filtered through Luffy's romantic mantra, is much more than survival. It is the ability to express one's self and one's dreams, unencumbered by the things the World Government stands for. Paired with Usopp's destruction of the flag, "I want to live!" extends farther than being a simple counterpoint to CP9 and the Navy's plans for Robin, but a full disintegration of them. They aren't just rules. They are not living.
Water 7 and Enies Lobby have become famous as a rallying cry for many One Piece fans. It's the reason why they love One Piece, not just because it's a particularly good story, but because it stands for what makes it special. It encapsulates its driving themes, forces every character and situation to question them, and then, in the end, presents them as stronger than ever.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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