Far beyond a grappler
After running amok throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Toshiki Hirano was declared too dangerous to direct anime ever again. That is, until Devilman Crybaby on Netflix arrived and proved that straight-to-video-style anime mayhem could live and thrive. Now Hirano is back to doing what he does best, which is blowing away minds and bodies through the power of cartoon violence.
If you’ve never seen any previous Baki anime from decades past, worry not as this anime is an adaptation of the New Grappler Baki manga, which is only now seeing an English-language digital release courtesy of Akita Shoten Comics. Think of it as similar to how Dragon Ball Super didn’t really require you to watch original Dragon Ball.
The opening credits visually summarize the entire story to date, which is basically that 17-year-old Baki Hanma has prevailed in the ultimate of underground martial arts fighting tournaments whose combatants seemed nearly invincible. But much as how each progressive new opponent for Goku in Dragon Ball makes the previous ones look like child’s play, the five most evil, most powerful, most likely to be immortal death row convicts in the world have all sensed Baki’s power and escaped to Tokyo so they might entertain the possibility of actually being defeated. Even if that means, say, escaping from a military submarine before swimming across the Pacific Ocean or climbing out of an abandoned nuclear missile silo.
The logic of Baki is identical to that of Black Belt magazine circa the 1960s, before MMA was a globally broadcast thing: any professional fighting champion you’ve ever seen is nothing compared to the TRUE masters who practice the SECRET, FORBIDDEN techniques capable of letting you survive getting shot repeatedly, having your throat slashed, getting every bone in your body shattered after you’ve already been set on fire, and so on. If your karate is strong enough, you will not only survive these things but you will be healed and ready to fight again within a matter of hours, if that.
When you’re this level of tough, it’s not a big deal to take a pistol and smile gleefully as you shoot yourself repeatedly in the mouth without flinching. Two tiny pieces of Scotch tape, one for each cheek, is all you need to recover from that. You may find yourself needing to swallow an entire hand grenade to vomit up later just in case the need arises to quickly have a grenade. Just so we’re clear: all of these things actually happen in Baki … and they happen early on. It only escalates from there.
Director Hirano—in conjunction with Netflix’s utter lack of broadcast standards and practices—has ensured that the unbridled insanity of Keisuke Itagaki’s original manga has made it to the screen relatively intact. This requires some creativity, since Itagaki’s artwork emphasizes characters that are abnormally muscular (and oftentimes, elderly to boot). Certain moments of action are rendered in cel-shaded 3D CG, but while I noticed it, I don’t think the end result is particularly bad looking.
As fans of video games by Arc System Works can attest, the technology behind making 3D CG models look like two-dimensional hand-drawn pictures has come a long way in recent years even though anime still rarely seems to exemplify this. For years Baki has been considered simply too darned ugly to catch on in the United States, but you know what? The exact same thing used to be said (and used to be true) about Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Maybe now, America’s anime fans are collectively ready to accept buff, sinewy, scarred-up grandpas into their hearts after all this time.
To say that Baki is divisive would be understating it, for it is almost guaranteed to offend by virtue of showcasing every negative “-ist” you can think of. But every single bit of evidence provided as to why this incredibly ultraviolent violence adventure is awful is also why it’s the greatest type of anime storytelling ever told. I can only hope and pray that a generation of new, impressionable otaku youths watch this as their formative anime experience the way fans once watched Fullmetal Alchemist or something. Hey now, this originally ran in Shonen Champion, so that means it’s meant for kids!