There's a certain feeling that occurs when a new villainous team emerges in an anime. Shonen fans know it well. You look at the line-up: there's often a leader, a silent heavy, a flamboyant wildcard, a femme fatale, a dedicated henchman, a fickle underling, and all other manner of role and trope. You take stock of their personalities, their powers, their capabilities as both a combatant and a member of the team — and you take the exact same look at the members of the protagonist's team. That's when you have the beautiful thought that truly sets the sails of the imagination as far as predicting battle anime is concerned: Who is gonna fight who?
As we've entered the raid on Onigashima, it's a thought that many One Piece fans have had. You have the Straw Hats and their allies, and then you have Kaido, Big Mom, the Beast Pirates, and all manner of menacing foes tailor-made to square off against them in a series of hyped-up one-on-one matches. It's such a common occurrence in One Piece that fans are already predicting how it will go down after the dust of the battle for Wano's fate has cleared. From the second Blackbeard's crew appeared in Marineford, fresh out of their shackles at Impel Down, the second thought you have after "Oh, dang. Blackbeard is here, too?" is "How are they gonna get paired off with the Straw Hats?" It's the Grand Line fighting equivalent of a grade school dance. You're sitting on the sidelines, waiting for your time to shine, and then a Straw Hat member comes up to you, takes you by the hand, pulls you onto the dance floor, and kicks the heck out of you.
The first major instance of this in One Piece was Arlong Park, though the arcs before it definitely had different pirates squaring off as Luffy took on the leader. However, Arlong Park very neatly sets up the eventual clash, down to the fact that there are four people on each side willing to fight at the end. Luffy takes Arlong, Zoro takes the swordsman Hatchan, Ussop takes on Choo because he's a marksman and Choo spits, and since Kuroobi is wearing a gi, he's a natural fit to throw some kicks at Sanji.
The war with Baroque Works in Alabasta is perhaps the most famous example of it, giving every single Straw Hat the fight of their life at that point. It's one of the reasons Alabasta is held in such high regard to this day. Often an arc won't necessarily provide a specific bout for each character but rather gives them an important thing to do. They might be involved in taking out waves of minor enemies or performing some espionage plans that help the team out later. Not the case in Alabasta. Every Straw Hat is put through the wringer, testing their resilience almost as if the narrative is asking if they're strong enough to continue in it and make it back to their friends.
Skypiea, Enies Lobby (which includes the iconic scene of the Straw Hats facing down CP9 from opposing towers), and even Thriller Bark, include variations of it. When the team reunites before heading to Fishman Island, the triumphant moment is centered around each Straw Hat getting to show off their increased strength and strategy against the New Fishmen. Considering that Luffy spent the last few arcs in a mad dash to rescue his brother, an attempt that was tragically unsuccessful, the Team vs Team fight in the Fishman Island arc is battle-centric proof that Luffy's desire to live for his friends was well-founded. There is celebration to be found in the win over Hody Jones and his group, but the true victory comes from the image of the Straw Hats reconvened.
It's powerful enough that it marked the end of Episode 1000 before setting each Straw Hat off toward their particular mission or encounter. It's this acknowledgment of the potency of the Straw Hats as a group that ultimately makes these one-on-one fights that litter the climaxes of the arcs so satisfying. You have the captain, the swordsman, the cook, the sharpshooter, the navigator, the doctor, the archaeologist, the shipwright, the musician, and the helmsman — and as you see the villains unveiled — you create match-ups in your mind for what would be the coolest or the most fulfilling. The end goal of the fight isn't winning, it's standing shoulder to shoulder with your crew that's your reward.
Daniel Dockery is a Senior Staff Writer for Crunchyroll. Follow him on Twitter!
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