by Sam Leach,
How would you rate episode 869 of
One Piece ?
First off, a few quick things I didn't get around to covering in last week's review: I was really happy that the anime made Smoothie's role in the story more clear, showing her absorbing her subordinates to enlarge herself. Smoothie's sudden gigantification powers were one of the more egregious "this obviously got cut for page space" scenes in the manga, and I love how big and fast her attacks look in motion. It was a stand-out scene in an already remarkable episode.
Plot-wise, we've mostly been moving the non-mirror world characters into their next positions. Capone and Chiffon have decided to take the wedding cake to Fluffly Island, since each island within Totto Land is several hours apart and they want to make sure Big Mom stays distracted long enough for the Straw Hats to make their escape at 1:00 AM. Chiffon's the one who makes the call to take the cake a little further than their original destination, Liqueur Island, because she wants to repay her debts to Nami and the crew. Sanji and Pudding are also flying to Cacao Island by themselves to pick up Luffy, since that's safer than anchoring the Sunny in the middle of battle.
Okay, now for the actual new stuff this week: Luffy and Katakuri are just fighting for fighting's sake at this point. This is where the weaknesses baked into this fight's structure really start to show, because the emotional investment of the characters is now at odds with the plot. This is where all the build-up, tension, and Haki level grinding should be, but the fact that we got so much out of the way before Katakuri's big change of heart means we're stuck with another tedious fight episode that doesn't accomplish nearly as much as it should. This is an episode about how Luffy and Katakuri's fight is becoming an intimate mind-meld, but it's also an emotionally distant montage as we fast forward several hours so the fight can cut it close to that 1:00 AM rendezvous time.
The backbone of this episode lies in flashbacks to Luffy's training with Rayleigh before the time-skip. We've been slipping into these Rayleigh flashbacks for a few months now, and they've also been getting pretty samey. However, this is the most the series has ever fleshed out the underlying philosophy behind Observation Haki, which is that it's like a type of hyper magic empathy. Rayleigh asks Luffy how he'd react to an opponent whose Haki was strong enough to see the future, and Luffy's response is a typical "I dunno. It depends on their personality." Basically, Luffy might not have been able to rise to this challenge if Katakuri weren't as relatable or sympathetic, nor do I think this fight would have been able to go on this long if both characters didn't see something special in each other.
One of the weirder conceits of the post-time-skip era is that Luffy has already learned a bunch of lessons and power-ups off-screen. It's only when he meets a tough opponent that the audience gets clued into what Luffy is capable of. In that vein, this episode ends on a cliffhanger where Luffy busts out a new transformation, a new variation on Fourth Gear called "Snakeman." (The traditional Fourth Gear form is called "Bounceman," and earlier in the arc we saw the impromptu "Tankman.") What Snakeman actually does will have to wait until next week, but it's yet another example of something Luffy came up with during his two years of training, and it continues that trend of characters tapping into their innate animalism.
Things are heating up on Cacao Island, just outside of Luffy's only potential exit mirror. Big Mom's children are coming together to form an army, and it's starting to feel like a surprise family reunion that they probably wouldn't have gotten if the Straw Hats weren't stirring up so much trouble. There are many competing tones between Big Mom's rampage, Luffy's fight with Katakuri, and the rest of the Charlottes sitting around trying to make sense of it all. I also want to take a moment to appreciate the final act of the arc taking place on Cacao Island, the very first place we visited in Totto Land. (George Lucas voice: "It's like poetry, it rhymes.")
We're getting close, people! Next week should be the finale to the Katakuri fight, and then all that's left will be the escape. This particular episode suffers from Too Little Too Late Syndrome, with the action being done a disservice by the long road that has led up to it, and I think it fails to make the most of the little time we have left with this fight. The Rayleigh stuff is nice, and I like how these two fighters are now so in tune with their futures that they're finishing each other's sentences, but ultimately this episode is just yet another buffer before we get to the real meat of the story.
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