They're more than just weapons he refuses to use
Sanji, the lady-obsessed chef of the Straw Hat Crew, doesn't use his hands in battle. He uses his feet, kicking his way through the Grand Line while naming all of his attacks after food or cooking methods. His reasoning for this is pretty simple: He needs his hands for his job. If he were to mess them up (or even dirty them up) he wouldn't be able to cook. So when it's time for Sanji to rumble, foes spend most of the fight looking at the heels of his shoes.
But that's not all. See, as established in One Piece arcs like Baratie and Whole Cake Island — both relatively dedicated to Sanji's character — Sanji has a deep-seated need to serve others by cooking for them. It's how he relates to the world, having experienced deep hunger himself when stranded with his mentor Zeff on an island. In his mind, no matter how villainous someone is, they don't deserve to go hungry. No one does. What began as a way to connect to his mother became a personal mission, one he now carries out for the ever-starving Luffy and the members of his crew.
We gain a new perspective on Sanji when we learn about his original family, the Vinsmokes. A gang of genetically altered, abusive super-criminals, the Vinsmokes berate and beat Sanji, treating him like a disgrace for his refusal to join in with them. His father refuses to accept him, seeing him as too weak and eventually has him locked up in a cell, the cell where Sanji eventually learns about the glory of cooking. That Sanji escapes them to become a chef is a rejection of their unforgiving methods. For what better way is there to distance yourself from a self-centered pack of sociopaths than to try and feed the world?
From what we can interpret, this bit of backstory changes the themes behind Sanji's hands. He reviles his family to such an extent that he'll distance himself in any way from their cruelty. To Sanji, his hands represent the kindness his family rejected. They seem to represent his sense of humanity. He needs to keep them clean and un-tarnished. He needs them because, in his darkest moments, they're his way out.
So it's fitting that Sanji and Nico Robin both got "retrieval arcs," the former from his family and Big Mom on Whole Cake Island, the latter from the clutches of CP9 on Enies Lobby. They're the Straw Hat members with the most complicated relationships to violence, both eagerly trying to escape the shadow of the acts inflicted upon them. Both characters need to understand their self-worth, a quality that is often muddled in their minds due to the domination, control, and brutality that shaped their childhoods.
They're also characters with specific brands of kindness to offer. As Sanji cooks, Robin explores the history and culture of the world, which is also an altruistic act. In the Grand Line, where history is so often threatened by antagonists like evil pirates and the World Government who wish to erase or rewrite it, Robin is gifting it back to her and her crew.
Watching Whole Cake Island and the way Sanji's past created the man he is now gives added depth to One Piece rewatches. When Usopp, nervous that his physical weakness is somehow tied to the crumbling Going Merry, lashes out at Luffy over the captain's plans for the ship, Sanji kicks Luffy before he can say anything rash about Usopp leaving the crew. Sanji knows what it's like to leave a family. He's acutely aware of what can be saved and what can't, and he knows that this found family is one worth fixing. They still have the chance to forgive one another.
Sanji's desperate need to show kindness to the world seemingly also manifests itself in constant attempts at self-sacrifice. In Skypiea, he takes the brunt of an attack from the borderline omnipotent Enel. In Thriller Bark, he offers to have Kuma take his life instead of Zoro's. In Whole Cake Island, he plans to give up his dreams in order to ensure that Zeff, the Baratie, and the Straw Hats are safe (before Luffy talks/punches some sense into him). Sanji is a violent character (which is kind of a necessity in the rough world of One Piece piracy) but he craves the stability that generosity provides. In his eyes, it is the equalizer.
Sanji's hands are more than just a combat tool he refuses to use. They are indicative of all of the things he has overcome and wishes to overcome. And when he uses them to cook for others, they are reminders to him that he lives in a world worth giving to.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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