by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 868 of
One Piece ?
Sit back, ladies and gentlemen, and let me tell you about the time Katakuri got #Canceled.
"Big Bro" Katakuri, the perfect man who's never lost a fight, is basically a superhero—an alter ego that he assumes in front of his family. I think Katakuri and Pudding are in a unique situation compared to many of their siblings, because they have ways to "pass" as normal-looking or aspirational people. The rest of the Charlottes come in all shapes and sizes but don't treat each other well, so it falls on people like Katakuri to defend the family's pride, whatever that even means anymore. Katakuri's true self is quite different from expectations, so if he had any devotees who were unhealthily invested in the "character" that he plays, well...
Enter Flampe, the fan.
I know fans! I am one! This episode's decision to transparently prop itself up as a metaphor about the creator/fan relationship forces you to see Katakuri as an autobiographical stand-in for Eiichiro Oda to some degree or another. After all, how can you be the highest-selling manga author of all time, hold responsibility for one of the most massive pieces of popular fiction in history, cultivate and maintain an audience of millions over several decades, and not gradually become alienated to the expectations of others? As Luffy inches his way to the end of the Grand Line, I've become fascinated by the ways that Oda portrays the people who sit at the coveted "top of the world." Kaido's a depressed drunk who's so bored of winning all the time that he's made a hobby out of trying to kill himself. Big Mom seems to be having fun, but it's only possible through sheer delusion and thoughtless consumption. Katakuri's a much more respectable lad than those two, but over the years he's become trapped—sandwiched between the brutish and violent young child he once was and the shining pinnacle of perfection everyone in his life demands that he be.
As Flampe and her cronies interfere with the fight, they can't help but laugh at Luffy's struggles. It's not just him getting hurt that's amusing, it's the fact that he has the audacity to keep getting back up. Luffy lost his shot at perfection a long time ago, so what could he possibly have to gain from this? This is what sets Katakuri off, motivating him to stab himself with his trident to re-level the playing field and finally pull his scarf off in a fit of rage. "If you're going to laugh at him, laugh at me too!" That sort of thing. From Katakuri's point of view, Luffy has it way better than him. He has the freedom to be imperfect and friends who love him for who he really is. Katakuri can no longer pretend that his legacy is of any value.
There are a few examples in this episode where I think the anime's more sluggish pacing is starting to work in the story's favor. Flampe's sudden turn on her big brother is still audacious and weird—she even tries to "expose" him and spread the news of his true appearance as revenge for him not being what she expected—but this episode feels like a much more natural turning point for the fight, compared to the manga where it's almost head-scratchingly out of place. I like the buildup as Katakuri walks over to his little sister. For a moment you expect him to physically attack her for interfering, but instead he self-mutilates. Then when he reveals his toothy face, you expect Flampe and her friends to be terrified, but instead they just think he looks dumb.
Flampe's sudden hatred for her brother is coming from a very unusual place. It's not enough that she put him on a pedestal, but she demands he stay on that pedestal so that she can continue to feel good about being his fan. She interfered because she thought helping would get her praise (analogous to the type of real-world fan who is weirdly determined to backseat-write the author's story—which is Definitely A Type), and this nearly off-topic fan metaphor starts to make sense within the layers of ego gymnastics that have been dictating the Charlotte family this entire arc. What good would praise be coming from this lousy sack of bones?!
There's a lot about my own perception of how human psychology works that's reflected in this episode. I think it's true that we have aspects of ourselves that are purely instinctual and other aspects that mostly just care about what other people think of us. What I find really compelling about One Piece is the way that it tries to mediate between these two things. Take willfully stabbing yourself to show how tough you are, for example. Is it a selfish meathead thing to do in a desperate bid to gain the approval of others? Or is it an expression of agency in a world intent on robbing you of that very thing? In One Piece it's often both, because id and ego solidarity is the true prize. You know this fight has turned a new page when it's Katakuri trying to learn from Luffy instead of the other way around.
And thus, the remainder of the Katakuri fight becomes an entirely new beast as our fighters tune out the haters and focus on their newfound bond as warriors. Both of their motivations are now completely severed from the central plot of the arc, opting instead to take this momentary human connection as far as they can. It's oddly Fight Club-like, where Katakuri's the depressed insomniac in search of release and Luffy's the, um, charismatic alpha-male cult leader? (Listen, I would say no metaphor is perfect but I think I might be on to something here.) The pacing is moving in a strange direction that's surprisingly working for me, but compared to last week this episode struggles with too many unflattering camera angles that just don't look right. I can't confidently call this episode a home run, since it's defaulting to a pretty obtuse thematic experiment to force development on a fight that got stuck in its ways, and unless the execution is going to be absolutely pitch-perfect, it's the kind of thing that's likely to lose its audience.
But I thought it was pretty cool.
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