They're a tale as old as time and a song as old as rhyme. Of course, I'm talking about anime power-ups, a battle trope that's been used and re-used so frequently it's almost expected at this point. When you go into a multi-episode duel between anime combatants, it's hard not to expect one of them to get a different hair color or additional muscles or a brand new laser attack at some point in order to turn the tide of battle. And that's what they usually do — the hero is on the ropes, exhausted and brutalized and, in a last-ditch effort, they reveal the Kamehameha up their sleeve and pull out something the villain couldn't possibly expect.
But in the case of Luffy vs Katakuri from One Piece, the antagonist does expect it. In fact, expecting things to happen before they do is pretty much his whole deal.
And that's just one of the reasons why, episode after episode, Luffy just can't seem to gain a consistent upper-hand on Katakuri. Sure, he can momentarily overwhelm Katakuri with the sheer force of his Fourth Gear transformation, but it doesn't take too long for the strong, quick, and cunning Katakuri to counter that and eventually outlast the Straw Hat. But Katakuri's best trait is his Observation Haki, something that allows him to see a little into the future. It's a kind of Haki that Luffy is still trying to master, and despite his best efforts, he just can't match Katakuri's expertise. He needs to be faster, so fast that he can get the jump on a man who knows where every attack is coming from and when.
And so Luffy reveals a new version of Fourth Gear: Snakeman. It's not as powerful as Bounceman, nor is it as impenetrable as Tankman, but through its quick strikes and many, many punches named after cool snakes, Luffy is finally able to land a hit on Katakuri ... which he blocks. He then lands more hits on Katakuri and pushes the leading fighter of the Big Mom Pirates backward, but he doesn't manage to nail a really good blow for a while. Unlike Doflamingo — who was only able to outlast Luffy's assault momentarily — and Cracker — who, when all of his soldiers were defeated was shot away effortlessly — Luffy's new power-up didn't put him above Katakuri. It might not have even put him on par with him.
Luffy's new form does eventually give him the opening to punch Katakuri, but in the end, the best it allows for is them hitting one another at the same time. Luffy falls into unconsciousness and Katakuri falls forward, and when Luffy comes to, Katakuri is back to standing. It's unclear whether, when Katakuri does fall backward, it's due to Luffy's assault or Katakuri giving Luffy the symbolic victory. But one thing remains for certain: Snakeman wasn't Luffy's new, ultimate form. Rather, it was just something that bought him enough time to not be totally slaughtered by Katakuri.
As for the fight itself, the animation is never a slouch and you can really feel Luffy's desperation build through the impact of the constant, constant beatings he takes. And the episode where he does achieve his Snakeman form (870) is one of the best One Piece episodes in recent memory, along with being, in my opinion, one of the best anime episodes of 2019. It's dynamic, visually gorgeous, and even funny at times. When Luffy finds himself blasted into the bottom of a pit, his frustration makes him super relatable. I would react the same way if I showed off my cool new power-up and it was barely getting me anywhere.
Finally, the fight reveals the limits of Luffy's training during the time skip. With his new strength and skills, he was able to KO Hody Jones, take down Caesar Clown, and overturn the reign of Donquixote Doflamingo. But now he's facing Emperors of the Sea and their various generals and lieutenants. His path to getting strong enough to compete in the New World is just beginning thanks to the display by Katakuri. The Straw Hats are more notorious than ever now, but in the grand scheme of the New World, they're still small fish in a big pond. And they'll be devoured by much bigger fish unless they can somehow take it to the next level.
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Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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