originally I was going to have individual posts for these two, but I found myself making so many cross-references and tying everything into Thriller Bark, so it seemed easier to just do a single giant post. While I forgo consistently adding ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ to all of my statements, this is still just all my headcanon, I’m not trying to claim otherwise. Now, onto the analysis~!
Zoro and Sanji are interesting characters in the way that they both respond to the concept of self-sacrifice. Both of them consider themselves as the last line of defence for the crew, which, despite their competitive and contradictory nature, includes each other. The way that these two characters achieve this martyrdom, however, is strikingly different, and is indicative of their past experiences with death and sacrifice as a whole.
For Zoro, he stands between the crew and death not because he would prefer to die, but because he doesn’t want to risk their deaths. Zoro’s views are heavily influenced by the death of Kuina at such a young age, demonstrating the unfair and often random nature of death.
To combat this realisation, Zoro dedicated himself to his swordsmanship, and swore that he would one day be the best. He is not ignorant of the possibility of death, indeed, even as early as the Baratie he indicates that he has given his life to his dream, and that if he dies then so be it.
There is a contingency to this claim, however- he will die /for his dream/. To Zoro, death is a coward, an enemy who strikes the weak and the unaware, looking for any weakness to exploit. For Zoro, working towards being the world’s best swordsman is not only about fulfilling the dream of both himself and Kuina, it is about controlling his life- or rather his death- in full.
Zoro feels guilty that he couldn’t save Kuina all those years ago- that there was nothing that he could do to stop her death. To compensate, he has tried to give himself immortality, and, similar to Luffy, carries a strength of will that even a grim or impending death cannot squash.
For Zoro, he would rather stand between a crewmate and an enemy, because then he is in control of the situation. Zoro refuses to die, and as such, he can act riskily and take on the most dangerous enemies, because he has mentally convinced himself that /he cannot die/. He can die for his dream, but nothing less. When on Little Garden, Zoro attempted to cut his own ankles off in an attempt to escape the wax- in Enies Lobby, he proposed the idea of either he or Usopp cutting off one of their hands to escape the cuffs.
On Skypeia, Zoro reacted strongly to Enel’s attack on Robin [the discussion for his statement about the significance of Robin’s gender is one for another time] prompting him to fight him Enel himself instead. It is not necessarily that Zoro doesn’t believe in his teammates skills, but rather that he feels the need to control the battles himself. If they do not fight, they cannot die, and Zoro could not live with himself if he stood by and watched a crewmate die because of his inactions.
By comparison, Sanji’s self-sacrificing tendencies stem from his acceptance of death. In his backstory we saw the way that Sanji approached the attacking pirates. Immediately he was apprehensive and was convinced the pirates were going to kill everyone. At nine years old, the boy stepped out onto the deck to face the oncoming pirate crew, and even though he was repeatedly knocked down, he fought [even with his teeth] because he had a dream, and he couldn’t die- because of that dream.
The repetition of ‘I want to live!’ through out the flashback indicates the self-centred and immature view that younger Sanji had towards life- much like current Zoro, he was determined to live at any cost.
However, while Zoro’s determination stems from an incident he could not control and a fear of his own mortality, Sanji’s will was tested far more intensely, over the space of three months, when the only thing that kept him from death was the strength of his own spirit.
That strength that didn’t fade, but rather shifted, when he saw the sacrifice Zeff had made. After the rock, Sanji shifted his will to live into his dedication to Zeff and to the Baratie, and by the time the Strawhats arrived at the Baratie in the story line, Sanji was willing to die to save the restaurant, and certainly to save Zeff.
Sanji’s sacrifices are not acts of defiance against death, like Zoro’s, but rather they are acceptance. This can be seen in Drum Island, when he throws Luffy and Nami off the log, knowing that he will probably be killed in the avalanche. Again, on the Maxim in Skypeia, he kicks Usopp out of the way of Enel’s blast, only to take it head on, rather than do anything to counter it. For Sanji, his own life is worth less than the others, because he has already experienced the approach of death, and he is comfortable with the idea of ending his life as a sacrifice for people or places he cares about. To Sanji, he is already on his second life, and he has no qualms about saving other people from having to experience the hell that coming to close to death can bring.
Sanji would rather die, than see any of his crewmates die.
Zoro would rather stand in the face of death, than watch his crewmates do the same.*
The differences are subtle but palpable, and are responsible for the tension to the two rivals feel at the most well-known of these incidents- Thriller Bark.
Zoro initially offers his life to Kuma for Luffy’s, however he does not do it peacefully. It is a challenge- for he knows that Luffy would never die quietly, and therefore, neither will he. His defiant language during this initial stage ‘he is the man that will be pirate king’ represents his intention to push towards the future. When Sanji intervenes, however, the balance shifts. Sanji’s speech, as he offers himself to Kuma, is not one of defiance or challenge, but acceptance. He recognises that he may not objectively be worth as much to the warlord, but he insists on the trade. His language is fatalistic ‘say goodbye to the crew for me. tell them to get another cook’. Sanji has no intention of living through the encounter, no intention of fighting the death that Kuma has planned for either he or Zoro.
Zoro’s stunned reaction, followed by his stand against Sanji, knocking him out, show Zoro regaining control of the situation- he could never stand by and watch Sanji die. He needs to be in control. Zoro will not die except for his dream. Luffy would not die at the hands of this warlord, and therefore neither would he. Against all odds, Zoro is determined to live.
It is this determination that eventually gets him through the absorption of Luffy’s pain- though I do not believe he accepted all of it. Rather, he attempted to, standing resolutely as more and more of the damage rocked his body, yet refused to waver. Kuma, watching, realised how much dedication Zoro had to his captain, and when Zoro was on the verge of death removed the excess of pain that would have ended his life. Their interaction at Sabaody- ‘so you’re still alive’ ‘thanks to you’, supports this theory, and this is part of the reason that Zoro is so torn up with himself after Thriller Bark.
For Zoro, the realisation that he would have died at the time, if not for the interference of Kuma, was earth shattering. His well-known declaration of ‘I’m still far too weak!’ refers not to how much weight he can lift, but how much his body and spirit can take combined. He had believed himself invincible, except for what the road to defeating Mihawk might bring, but after Thriller Bark he was forced to realise that he is still as much a plaything to death as before.
If Sanji had been able to accept Kuma’s offer, I do believe he would have died- but not because of physical or mental weakness. For Sanji, the act of taking Zoro’s place was final- he had no intention of surviving the encounter. If Sanji had been faced with Luffy’s pain, he would have embraced the damage it would have done him, and died knowing that at least this way the rest of the crew escaped unscathed. The way that he reacts to Zoro’s sacrifice after the act, including his conversation with the zombies, reflect his understanding of Zoro’s mentality. Even so, he does not fully accept Zoro’s actions, and keeps a closer watch on him as he heals.
Put simply, to Zoro death is an enemy, to Sanji, an eventuality.
The difference between their experiences in death and sacrifice have created wildly difference reasonings behind their views on themselves in relation to the rest of the crew, and while I have no intention of claiming that either of them is better than the other, it does present an interesting extra dynamic to their relationship, and to the tension that the two of them often have present in their interactions.
*it should be clarified that I do think that Zoro would fight to the death for his crew- as was evident in Thriller Bark. The distinction in the language is indicative of the difference in Sanji and Zoro’s mentalities on the matter, rather than to what degree they would endanger themselves for their crew