When it comes to anime, “This isn’t even my final form” is a trope as old as time. As the battle gets heated and the chances of defeat increase, heroes and villains alike reveal that, through either training or just sheer luck, they have at least one more powered-up version ready to go. At its best, like with Luffy’s Gear 5, the latest upgrade to One Piece’s future King of the Pirates, it can be absolutely thrilling. And watching fans react to the event (and inevitably argue over it) makes it clear why it’s become such an enduring trope for the last half-century.
So, to celebrate Gear 5, let’s hop through five decades of the greatest anime power-ups, jumping through genres and icons to dive into what’s made this such a beloved plot device.
Mazinger Z’s various power-ups
Image: Toei Animation/Viz Media
Manga author Go Nagai’s influence on pop culture can’t be overstated. He created series like Devilman, Cutie Honey, and Violence Jack, and also helped pioneer the “super robot” genre with Mazinger Z. Giant fightin’ robots would become one of anime’s bread-and-butter subjects in the ’70s, and Mazinger Z was at the forefront of the genre, telling the story of pilot Koji Kabuto using his late grandfather’s fantastical mech to battle the nefarious Dr. Hell.
Pretty cool, right? But that combat doesn’t come without some wear and tear on Kabuto’s big robot, so old parts are replaced with newer, cooler, more powerful enhancements. Like Mazinger Z’s Hover Pilder, the little craft that Kabuto uses to fly around and pilot Mazinger Z, which is replaced by the more streamlined Jet Pilder. And when it’s time for the robot to get back in action with the sequel series Grand Mazinger, it’s not made out of your grandpa’s Super-Alloy Z, but rather Super-Alloy New Z, which is much lighter and more durable. Rad.
Fist of the North Star’s Hokuto Shinken
Image: TMS Entertainment/Discotek Media
Despite one of Google’s “people also ask” questions being “Is Hokuto Shinken a real martial art?” — no, the fighting style that allows combatants to access all 100% of their abilities (rather than just a meager 30%) isn’t something you can actually learn. But it sure looks cool, especially when wielded by Fist of the North Star’s protagonist, Kenshiro. Even if you’ve never watched the series, you likely know its trademark move — the rapid strikes that, when performed correctly, cause the evil opponent’s body to burst and break apart in a variety of beautifully bloody ways.
Set in a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic wasteland, Kenshiro is a solid dude in a land full of brutal wannabe warlords. And his sense of ethics helps, because as is common in this sort of thing, one’s mastery of Hokuto Shinken is heavily influenced by one’s feelings of love and friendship. So when Kenshiro is able to tear through his own shirt thanks to the Art of Dragon’s Breathing and then explode a bad guy’s head by just touching it, you’ll know it was all possible because he liked being nice to people. Well, most people.
Dragon Ball Z’s Super Saiyan form
Image: Toei Animation/Crunchyroll
Undoubtedly the preeminent anime power-up, the Super Saiyan form has long gone past being a mere adjustment to Goku’s hair and biceps and joined the mass cultural lexicon beyond anime. It’s been used in reference to professional athletes, been a joke on Saturday Night Live, and inspired a new form of Sonic the Hedgehog, among many other things. It’s the go-to reference when someone is about to do something that exceeds whatever limits we thought previously existed.
Its origin has become legendary (Dragon Ball’s creator, Akira Toriyama, dug it because it meant that he could take a break from coloring in Goku’s hair for a while) and its context in the story has, um, powered up countless imitators: Goku is only able to unlock this next step after Frieza cruelly kills Goku’s li’l pal Krillin. Sure, Dragon Ball Z would eventually take a lot of flak about its tendency to have people just stand there and yell as they get stronger for the length of whole episodes, but in the case of the first Super Saiyan transformation, it’s pure exhilarating escapism.
Sailor Moon’s transformations
Image: Toei Animation/Viz Media
Despite being one of manga and anime’s most popular genres, “magical girls” are often left out of the conversation when it comes to discussing anime’s global rise. It certainly doesn’t help that Sailor Moon, the genre’s standard-bearer, was often treated with indifference by television networks even as it amassed an early devoted following in America. But Sailor Moon’s transformations are, to its fans, just as recognizable as Dragon Ball Z’s.
Sailor Moon, along with her fellow guardians, would garner boosts on both a power and aesthetic scale. Often correlated with items (the transformation into Super Sailor Moon required a Holy Grail), it was unabashed in its colorful joy and sincerity. Power-ups and strength upgrades weren’t just limited to being the playthings of boys and the source of action-figure wish fulfillment. The characters of Sailor Moon were as exciting as they come, even if it took American television too long to realize it.
Image: Toei Animation/Discotek Media
When the monster collecting boom hit in the late ’90s, one of the staples was the idea of evolution. A biological process rendered in flashy anime and video game forms, its most famous was in the world-eating franchise Pokémon. But Digimon, a franchise that, at least in America, never managed to hit in the same way as its Pikachu-led cousin, often concocted these transformations in a much more emotionally meaningful way.
Taking the structure of the virtual pet it was spawned from, Digimon: Digital Monsters’ evolutions were very much based around the connection between a person and their respective laser pet. The critters couldn’t just warp into being bigger dinosaurs/robots/warriors through strength alone. The partner had to reach some form of emotional growth, too. And pushing too hard on a Digimon to evolve often meant unleashing a dark side of its potential. Be nice and learn from one another? You get MetalGreymon. Be impatient and thoughtless? You’re gonna have to deal with SkullGreymon, asshole.
Image: Pierrot/Viz Media
Having a power-up that serves as both an outlet for immense strength and also a curse wasn’t a new thing by the time Naruto started playing around with it. YuYu Hakusho often reckoned with the idea that the lust for too much power would warp you physically and psychologically, meaning that by the time the villainous Toguro amassed his full strength, he seemed barely recognizable. Funnily enough, Kurama, the nine-tailed fox beast sealed inside Naruto from birth, is allegedly named after YuYu Hakusho’s Kurama, someone who also has a fox demon lurking inside of them.
Naruto begins his titular series shunned by his community at large due to being the host of such a destructive force, and throughout the story, the young ninja has to grapple with that power. At the risk of it consuming him entirely, he uses it as a source of strength and “chakra,” carefully balancing its allure with its danger. There are multiple variations of harnessing this, but one of the most memorable is Naruto’s eventual transformation into a “Tailed Beast Mode,” where the lonely kid from the Hidden Leaf Village becomes a borderline kaiju.
One Piece’s Gears
Image: Toei Animation/Crunchyroll
It’s easy to see that One Piece creator Eiichiro Oda derives a lot of fun from Luffy’s “gum gum” powers. Turning into rubber means that the protagonist of the series (which turned 25 last year and is still going strong, with a live-action Netflix adaptation on the way) can stretch, bounce, and bend in a way that’s only limited by the author’s imagination. And when he introduced Luffy’s new “Gear” forms during a particularly desperate moment of the narrative, it felt less like a self-serious rebranding and more of a way to extend the expression of Luffy’s wild powers.
The Gear forms (Gear 2 pumps his blood faster, allowing for more speed and force; Gear 3 inflates body parts, causing massive examples of cartoonish power; and Gear 4 inflates all of his muscles, turning his full body into a bouncing weapon) have seemingly culminated with the latest Gear 5, in which Luffy not only has unlimited capabilities regarding his rubber form but gives rubber properties to the world around him. Of course, with One Piece’s now labyrinthine story, there is a mythological importance to this form that would take about four more paragraphs to explain. But at its heart, its Looney Tunes vibrancy is just another wacky step for anime’s favorite rubber man.
Hunter x Hunter’s Troubling Growth
Image: Nippon Animation/Viz Media
Few anime dive into the potentially horrifying nature of a world built around combat and tests of strength like Hunter x Hunter, another landmark series from YuYu Hakusho creator Yoshihiro Togashi. The capacity for stunning displays of violence isn’t a new thing (series like Dragon Ball Z and even One Piece are no stranger to mutilation), but Hunter x Hunter refuses to turn it into something aspirational. The lead character, Gon, a likable little boy on a quest to find his father, gains equal tastes of victory and defeat throughout the series, and tries to master his Nen, an innate energy that people can control and use (often in battle).
Driven to a mad grief due to the death of a friend (and the constant emotional turmoil of one of anime’s best story arcs, the Chimera Ant arc), Gon calls upon all of his Nen to not only turn into a dark portrait of adulthood, but to also beat his enemy to death. Looming in his new muscles and wrapped in a threatening aura, it’s the anime power-up turned hideous. Even after beheading the corpse, he refuses to stop the assault. It’s one of the most vicious moments in the genre, one that sticks with you long after the episode ends.
Demon Slayer’s Mark
As you might be able to tell, a lot of anime power-ups come with some kind of easily recognizable physical change. This not only signifies the new level of strength, but makes the characters ultimately potent for even more merchandising and promotional opportunities. For example, Demon Slayer, an anime that evolved from a fun yet unspectacular series to a worldwide phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic, created the Demon Slayer Mark, a tattoolike marking that the warriors on the show attain when stuff gets particularly rowdy.
To get it requires a mastery of a Slayer’s breathing style that both grants new abilities and enhances old ones. It can even cause a Slayer’s sword to turn red (it does more than that, obviously, but now having a dope-looking red blade seems to be the primary function). As such, it, like many modern power-ups, it can feel like an amalgamation of what’s come before. But hey, when you strike gold like “obvious physical change reflects great strength increase,” you go back to that well as much as possible.