Simple, yet complex.
The most memorable characters walk a fine line. On the surface, they are simple and easy to understand. But beneath that layer of simplicity is hidden a depth that gives the character more life. Think of it like a pie. On the top, you’ve got a layer of crust that you understand at a glance. And right beneath that, there’s a more colorful and flavorful filling.
One Piece excels in that regard. Each member of the crew is exceptionally simple and easy to understand when first introduced. But as the story progresses, each one unveils cavernous depths that add complexity to them. They’re all easy to understand yet complex enough to analyze extremely thoroughly.
That’s why the relationships between each member is so fun and compelling. They each work together in fun and interesting ways. Usopp and Nami have a strong brother-sister relationship. Franky and Robin have parental wisdom that the younger members of the crew lack. So on and so forth.
One relationship that I always thought was strange was Zoro and Sanji’s. Their rivalry always seemed like a simple gag. The two second-strongest members of the crew, who didn’t get along because… they’re competitive, I guess. It’s a consistently funny gag, but it always seemed kind of strange to me.
But then I went back and re-read some early One Piece. Then the pieces started to fall into place.
In order to understand their rivalry, we need to do consider where each character starts in the series, what their motivations are, and how they’ve each pursued them. We’ll start with Zoro.
Zoro’s goal is simple: become the greatest swordsman in the world. That’s been his dream for all his life, one that he’s pursued relentlessly. That one goal is literally his sole purpose in life, at least at the beginning of One Piece. He says it himself to Sanji in the Baratie:
When I decided to become the greatest swordsman in the world, I decided to dedicate my entire life to it.
Now, let’s look at Sanji. He was raised in an abusive household and ran away to be a cook because that was his passion. The ship he fled on was attacked by pirates during a storm, in which he and the pirate who saved him, Red Foot Zeff, were left stranded and starving. When Zeff saved his life and lost his leg to do it, Sanji dedicated himself to helping the old man in fulfilling his dream of opening a restaurant on the sea. Even if it meant leaving his own dream of finding the All Blue behind. It’s a legend, after all; surely it’s impossible to find.
Can you see the difference?
Zoro is dedicated entirely to his dream. To him, life is only worth living if he is #1. He’d literally rather die than give up on his dream. Meanwhile, Sanji gave up on his dream for years, letting it remain a dream in order to fulfill his imagined obligations to Zeff. He has the determination necessary to make that dream a reality, but he holds it back.
Sanji is confronted by this fact when Zoro duels Mihawk for the first time. He can see the writing on the wall as clearly as Zoro did: the world’s strongest was completely out of his reach. Seeing that, Sanji wonders why Zoro doesn’t just give up. Why pursue a goal that is so obviously impossible? Which is why he asks this:
It should be easy, right? To give up on your ambitions!
If Sanji were in Zoro’s shoes, he’d have given up. But Zoro’s will isn’t broken. It’s made stronger. Rather than quitting, Zoro declares that he’ll just get back up and never lose again. Not until he’s the greatest swordsman in the world.
Sanji is the man who spent his life running away. He ran from his home and ran from his dream. Meanwhile, Zoro is the man who confronts everything that comes his way. He fights for his goals even when it seems completely impossible for him to achieve. Sanji would rather fail than die. But Zoro would rather die than fail.
And then there’s the more obvious point on which they disagree: women.
Zoro learned as a child not to treat women as weaker than him. His rival, Kuina, was the only person that Zoro never managed to defeat. She was frustrated by the fact that her gender handicapped her, which in turn frustrated Zoro. Out of respect for her, he refuses to treat women as weak and helpless. Or at least he tries to.
Meanwhile, Sanji is… well, Sanji. The crew’s resident white-knight simp. Of course he would clash with Zoro in that aspect.
The rivalry between Zoro and Sanji seems like a gag on the surface. It’s certainly funny enough to be one. But when you actually sit down and look at it, it does make sense. There are more than enough reasons for these two to compete. Sanji to prove that he can pursue his dreams as fiercely as Zoro. Zoro because Sanji is in opposition to his experiences and ideals.
Who knows where this rivalry will go? Or if it will go anywhere at all. It could very well be a simple gag that runs throughout the series. Or it could play into the end of each of their arcs. Only time will tell.
But at least it’ll be entertaining.