One Piece Third Season has the show reaching for the sky, which was a relief for both myself and you, the dear reader; with any luck it will save you from another One Piece review filled with the usual load of half-baked sea-faring puns. This time you've got half-baked sky puns instead. How lucky are you?
Before I begin, I must clarify this review was mildly hindered by what I would call a pirate of the Post Office, and the first screener was lost to some m'hearty ho-ho-ho and a bottle of rum bastard. But I have since managed to watch the episodes on the boxset, which in the case of the Skypiea arc is more than necessary.
Third Season Voyages One, Two, Three and Four take the crew of the Going Merry into and through the giant Skypiea arc. As such, I'd say if you're new to One Piece, you really need to get all four box sets to enjoy the full depth of this tale. As I mentioned, the first screener was lost to me, and I did try to start on the Third Season Second Voyage box set, but it was very hard to get into the story from that opening episode. Not impossible, but this is a story that really requires you purchases all four segments.
"So what the hell is the story?" I hear you cry, waving that plastic cutlass and pinging your false eye-patch. Well let me divulge, m'hearties.
After suffering one of the Straw-hats usual rum encounters, in this case, a large ship falling on top of them from the clouds, Luffy gets it into his head that he wants to find Sky Island, a place of legend, a place – unsurprisingly – set high in the clouds. Much to Nami's disgust, the crew seem to go along with this lunacy, and the first box set is very much the prelude to their discovery of this world above the blue sea.
The second box set, contrary to the opinion of those suffering narrative blindness, opens with the crew having reached Skypiea and branded criminals. From here they find themselves thrust into trails and sacrifices in the name of god Eneru.
The third boxset sees the Straw-Hats battling the trials of the priests of Eneru and an all out civil war in the clouds. The Straw-hats go searching for a fabled gold city while having to face off both sides of the civil conflict as well as the god Eneru himself. Finally the forth boxset takes the war onto a new level of epic as the civil unrest gives way to Eneru's sky armageddon resulting in a spectacular conclusion and heart-felt slither of backstory.
It's a rather incredible tale that doesn't tip-toe around theological icons, but neither does it particularly acknowledge any in great depth. The question of whether the people of the sky are angels, or whether Eneru is God, is adeptly handled, used solely as an early narrative mystery rather than explored in any really profound way.
That is not to say the story is superficial nor shallow, nor that the question of whether the crew are up against God is passed by. These questions are neither milked or danced around, leaving One Piece to explore a story arc that Western cartoons might be a little uncomfortable with, but without feeling out of sorts. This is One Piece through and through.
After quite a few light simple stories and story arcs, the return to the epic adventure is welcome. I enjoyed the smaller tales of the later Second Season, particularly after the dense and colourful action of Alabasta, but now it felt like the time to enjoy something deeper. The story of the Sky isn't as politically real nor as emotionally driven as Alabasta, nor does it explore such a rich and complex society, but One Piece's talent is to take the show into different modes without feeling inconsistent. Yes, this story erupts into civil war like Alabasta; yes, it carries the usual mix of absurd adversaries, each a milestone towards the final battle. But beyond that it doesn't follow the same rules.
Simply said, well over one hundred episodes in, closer to two hundred, and One Piece still feels fresh.
How so? It plays with character dynamics for a start, splitting the characters off into less usual groupings: several times we see the groups split into different teams, letting the heroes bounce off each other in different ways. Robin, of course, is the latest crew member and has really had little time devoted to her. This arc gives Robin scope to push on in her own personal tale and get her squarely into some action.
Do we see any real changes to the group? Well, Nami feels a lot more isolated in this arc, fighting against her captain and fate with equal futility. Chopper is depicted as being far more cowardly than before, making even Ussop seem a hero in comparison, despite Chopper's devil fruit powers. If there is any criticism in this story it's perhaps the overly desperate need to keep Luffy out of the action. Alabasta de-powered Luffy by playing him in an environment he had no experience over, and in this story he tends to spend most of it in the wrong place, lost or trapped. One could argue that this all adds to the tension, while others might suggest it creates a feeling of contrivance. This is particularly prevalant in box sets three and four. We're talking large segments of Luffy being kept out of the story. In fact, it was particularly interesting to see Luffy's frustrating vine entrapment on box set four given the forewarning voice actress Clinkenbeard gave us on one of the second season's commentaries. Yes Colleen, now that I've seen it, I share your pain.
Which leads us to the commentaries and the box sets themselves. As always, each box set is neatly presented with one episode commentary and a "marathon" feature for those who like to take their episodes in one gulp. The presentation is simple and effective, though I wish the disk numbers were a little less teeny!
As for the commentaries themselves, they remain lightweight fun. Commentaries by dub teams can be a hit-and-miss affair. The US staff aren't involved in the creation of the show, which limits a great deal of the insight they can offer into characters and backgrounds. But that's not to say these aren't worth listening to, simply that if you've been following the One Piece commentaries you'll be familiar with some of the questions being asked. That being said, with the Skypiea arc being the first One Piece story the US crew worked on, there is some fresh material here for veteran commentary listeners. However, subject matter isn't really the meat of any of these commentaries. It's fortunate One Piece has such a vibrant and candid cast and crew to keep the commentaries entertaining regardless of the topic. I very much enjoyed hearing the perspective of relative Straw-Hat newbie Stephanie Young (Robin) on the Second Voyage set, and the Fourth Voyage set has a great, funny slice of banter between ADR Director Michael McFarland, John Michael Tatum (Eneru) and Colleen Clinkenbeard (Luffy).
So again, One Piece does good. I have to say I never noticed any massive changes in quality between this new arc, given it was the US voice crew's first go at One Piece. It all feels consistent, which is testament to their skills. I listened to one box set on the Japanese dub, and as I've said before, One Piece is one of the few exceptions where I think the dub surpasses the original VA crew. The US team do a fantastic job at bringing these characters to life.
Third Season Voyages 1–4 are a fantastically addictive affair. Buying all four will give you the complete Skypiea story, and in my experience it's watchable for all. If there is one anime that you can probably get friends, lovers and family into, it's One Piece. I have an 84-year-old grandmother who actually watches these screeners! If you ever feel a need to explain your love for Japanese animation to any of those who mildly concerned with your addiction, One Piece is good material to defend your honour! You certainly couldn't go wrong with the Skypiea arc! Humourous, poignant, creative and filled with cliffhangers that have you craving for more. Give in to your reservations. They say every cloud has a silver lining, but the story of Skypiea suggests otherwise. Both figuratively and literally, the clouds of One Piece are pure gold.