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Sanji’s Greatest Strength Comes From ‘One Piece’s Weakest Moment

Sanji with a foot on fire in 'One Piece'

Have you ever gotten so angry that you burst into flames?

Maybe it was because you found out that Luffy still hasn’t found the One Piece? Or maybe it was because your favorite character got merc’d. Or maybe it’s because you have some severe trauma that causes you to lash out in a hot and spicy rage that incinerates everyone in your path?

If you belong to that last category, you’re not alone.

Meet Sanji

Sanji has a rough go of things in the One Piece series. For one, his dad is a total dick. His entire family are pretty much assholes, honestly. They are so insufferable, in fact, that young Sanji actually abandoned his family in order to seek out a life on his own. This is significant because he doesn’t come from a line of poop-deck swabbers; Sanji is royal blood. He is a Vinsmoke, and a former prince of the Germa Kingdom.

Sanji doesn’t want to be a prince, however; he wants to be a chef. And not just any chef, but the greatest chef of them all. The Chef King! That’s the reason why Sanji agreed to become a part of Luffy’s crew! Somewhere in the wide, wet world is a mythical ocean called the All Blue, where it is said that fish from all four of the world’s seas swim. Such a bounty of resources—or shall we say ingredients—make the All Blue a chef’s paradise! Why sit on a boring throne all day getting hand-fed macaroons when you could be gutting barrels full of weird and exotic fishes? It’s a no-brainer!

Aside from being a formidable chef, Sanji is also a formidable combatant. He was trained from a young age by his family to be a fierce warrior, and was even given a series of genetic modifications in order to make him even more powerful. However, because his mother took a certain drug during her pregnancy, Sanji’s superhuman genetics were suppressed. They laid dormant until his battle with the villain Queen, when his latent abilities began to awaken. After his battle, Sanji realizes that his genetic modifications have given him a nigh-invulnerable exoskeleton, along with a superhuman healing ability. Coupled with his brute strength, speed, and endurance, Sanji is a culinary killing machine.

So where do Sanji’s fire powers come from?

So here’s the thing: Sanji doesn’t have fire powers, per se. He is an advanced practitioner of the martial art known as Diable Jambe, which allows him to spin at high speeds and generate enough heat to set his legs on fire. He developed his fighting style during his two-year training on the island of Kamabakka, where he learned the martial arts style of the Okama. The Diable Jambe technique is a combination of Sanji’s killer leg strength and his mastery of the Okama’s “Newkama Kenpo” martial arts. However, Sanji is not able to control this fire telekinetically, you know, like a fire bender. Nor is he able to control fire, especially fires that he didn’t create. He does however possess a strong resistance to the effects of fire, likely due to his superhuman constitution. He can play with fire without getting burned.

But his Hell Memories technique changes everything.

Related: The 10 Best One Piece Characters on Attack of the Fanboy

What exactly is the Hell Memories technique?

As an extension of his Black Leg fighting style, Sanji is able to use the Hell Memories technique to devastate powerful enemies. And he does it by making his emotional trauma work for him! During the two-year time skip, Sanji has a really bad time. He ends up on Momoiro Island, which is occupied by trans women. And this is honestly where the series gets ugly. There’s a scene where Sanji is fleeing in horror from a group of trans women, depicted as caricatures, who are asking him if he is “one of them.” Eventually, they catch up with Sanji and put him in a dress and a wig, evidently against his will. Sanji, now apparently a transphobe, is so upset by these memories that when he thinks about his time one Momoiro island his body bursts into flames. This is the source of the Hell Memories technique, which he used to defeat giant pufferfish fish-man Wadatsumi.

So Sanji gained power, but at what cost? He can light himself on fire, but now he’s a bigot. Was it worth it? Definitely not.

Oh. This feels icky now.

You’re telling me. It’s always a sad surprise to realize that not even whimsical anime fantasy worlds are safe from transphobic ideas. It’s like thinking back on all the funny bits from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and then realizing that the climax of the film centers on a horrifically transphobic joke. After all, the movie was made in 1994, an ugly time for LGBTQ+ representation in general.

The One Piece episode featuring Momoiro island aired over 10 years later, in 2009, but attitudes toward transgender people had changed little. Let me be clear, the problem with Momoiro island isn’t that it’s populated by trans/gender queer people. The problem is the main character’s response to the island’s inhabitants. Whenever Sanji refers to the island, he calls it “Hell.” And we’re to understand that the rage responsible for one of Sanji’s most powerful techniques does not come from something deserving, like the horrific treatment by his family, but from his exposure to queer people. It’s as if One Piece is saying that Sanji’s exposure to the inhabitants of Momoiro Island was somehow worse than the abuse he received from his father and the rest of the Vinsmoke family.

It’s a disheartening stain on what is otherwise an uplifting series about the power of friendship and determination. For a series overflowing with love between characters, it is disappointing to see that that love is not extended to queer characters during this era of the show. However, I will say that One Piece has made up for past mistakes with the introduction of the trans characters Yamato and Kiku in recent episodes. They are beautiful, badass, and beloved. Credit where credit is due.

(featured image: Toei Animation)

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Jack Doyle (they/them) is actually nine choirs of biblically accurate angels in crammed into one pair of $10 overalls. They have been writing articles for nerds on the internet for less than a year now. They really like anime. Like... REALLY like it. Like you know those annoying little kids that will only eat hotdogs and chicken fingers? They're like that... but with anime. It's starting to get sad.