The meat monsters are back
Some spoilers to follow…
Up until early last year, I was only vaguely aware of Keisuke Itagaki’s Baki the Grappler series. Seeing promotional art of the 2001 TV series and occasionally spotting the title pop up in conversation, I assumed it was just a down to Earth martial arts story. I was wrong. I mean yes, Baki is about a boy fighting his way up the ranks of the martial arts world, making rivals and forging friendships through intense training and fisticuffs. But it is also a grotesque carnival of the human body that utterly spits in the face of even the pulpiest expectations. Where ludicrous, sustained, and downright cruel violence can and will erupt at a moment’s notice. Where a man can lose his hand in battle, only to smile malevolently and declare that he can finally punch without reservation. Where a vat of sugar water can rejuvenate someone who was on the brink of death moments before. Baki marches exclusively to the beat of its own deranged drum. Needless to say, it was extremely my jam from the get-go. And this third “Part” as Netflix bills it (really just the belated 3rd cour of the production that began in 2018), once again directed by Toshiki Hirano, of many a dangerous 80s OVA notoriety, continues the series’ trashy excellence.
Jumping right back into where the last season left off, hilariously muscular—though downright lean within the show’s standards—teenager Baki had been left fatally poisoned by a previous opponent, which didn’t stop him from entering the ancient and sacred once-in-a-century Raitai Tournament in China with the hopes of facing his terrible father in combat, Yujiro Hanma, known as “the strongest creature on Earth.” Baki‘s obtuse pacing being what it is, this story arc really began in earnest several episodes before the last season wrapped, setting up newcomer Mohammad Alai Jr. and several of the other participants, before just sort of stopping. Much in the same way as the previous arc set up a no holds barred battle royale between a group of deadly escaped prisoners hoping to taste sweet death in combat (traditional execution methods just wouldn’t cut it for those guys) and Baki’s extended family of friends and rivals, the Raitai Tournament goes sideways fairly quickly, with fighter swaps and rule changes before a sense of normalcy can ever set in. Absurd matches that revolve around a showdown where fighters test quickdraw skills pulling their hands from their pockets or a series of escalating intense handshakes take up just as much time as ones packed with traditional punches and kicks. Early on, a man has his entire face ripped off in one swift movement, and I fully expected him to rise up with a fresh wind and fury in his fists. This is the kind of mindset Baki puts you in. The faceless man doesn’t resume the match but is otherwise fine. Faces come and go in Baki.
I could go on and on breathlessly recounting the many outrageous, laugh out loud beats presented with the utmost sincerity, like the opening episode of the new batch continually impressing the nature of the Raitai Tournament only being held every 100 years to then have the announcer excitedly introduce the previous winner, who is not only alive but defending his title. But it is probably best not to go far into too many of the particulars that punctuate a Baki arc, as it’s all about the wild moment to moment ride, and frequently the destinations leave something to be desired. Every technique or ability, always sold as the most deadly or insurmountable, is clinically laid out. And each one straddles that important line in fiction between utter nonsense and “yeah sure, seems legit.” Can the Chinese Poison Hand technique really cancel out the effects of the lesser Japanese iteration because ninjas didn’t get all of the scrolls shipped over hundreds of years ago? I don’t know, but Baki is committed heart and soul to making that sale.
Pacing and structure act as a double-edged sword, both fueling Baki‘s ecstatically pulpy highs and throwing the show into a pit for extended periods as it fumbles around. For every moment of welcome silly indulgence, like the very serious business narrator launching into a sidebar comparing a solid punch to a finely cooked soup, mid-fight, a much built up plotline can just fizzle out in seconds as Baki meanders into another story altogether. For a show bearing his name, Baki himself participates in very few actual fights. Having no familiarity with Itagaki’s massive body of manga source material, I can’t say how much of this is Baki being true to itself or series composer Tatsuhiko Urahata’s hand, but it is something that must be accepted, because if these 39 episodes have proven, Baki has no interest in doing things any other way.
The Raitai Tournament arc is the clear highlight of these 13 episodes, in no small part because we get to spend more time with Baki’s scenery devouring brick wall of a dad, as the two team up during a major shift in the competition. All Baki wants to do is punch Yujiro in his giant horrible face, but circumstance and the little fact he’s the greatest fighter alive keep getting in the way. Like the last season’s “Most Evil Death Row Convicts” story, the show shines best when it’s two demonic masses of muscle (with a few elderly exceptions), backed by extended narration recounting out each of the fighter’s legendary feats and accomplishments, tearing hunks of flesh off each other and otherwise inflicting life alerting damage. When one or both participants pop up later, having walked off severed limbs or destroyed skeletons, and ready for more? Well, that’s just a bonus.
It’s unfortunate that the back half of this stretch of material runs out of gas, focusing on Alai Jr. challenging Baki and trying to steal his girlfriend, Kozue. It has many of the beats that have characterized the best moments of the series thus far—bone-crunching turn arounds, adrenaline poisoned machismo—but Alai’s story ends up quickly shelved, the rivalry revealed to be nothing but a lead-in for a future confrontation yet to be animated. There’s finishing with the audience wanting more and then there’s just leaving something to be desired of a thread running for over a dozen episodes. The actual final episode is however a nice treat for anyone who loved those awful convicts with nothing but their own eventual deaths on the brain.
Baki acts as something like a funhouse mirror to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Both are defined by their unflinching and gruesome confrontations, but whereas Hirohiko Araki, particularly in recent years, renders his combatants as chiseled, statuesque visions of style and elegance, taking equal parts inspiration from Renaissance art and high fashion, Baki‘s many characters are realized through an unsettling excess of muscle and sinew. Where simply witnessing many of the characters crack a toothy grin or tense up is itself violent. Every time a smile upsettingly rippled across Yujiro’s face, I felt like it needed a specific content warning. I still don’t know why Baki and his father’s back muscles form a demonic face during tense battles and honestly, it’s a mystery I’m not in a rush to learn more about. Baki is ugly and proud of it. Every scene exudes the distinct aroma of hot dog water. It is perhaps a blessing in disguise that the crummy animation, looking largely like something dug up from the early 2000s, renders the action in limited bursts, with characters often sliding across the screen in frozen positions. I don’t know if my mind could handle the reality of this show being a sakuga darling.
To put it lightly, Baki is an acquired taste. It takes only moments to decide if it will speak to a primal part of your brain that yearns dig into its crass spectacle like taking a giant bite of a greasy fast food cheeseburger or if it will disgust you to the point of desperately needing to flee. I hold both sentiments as equally valid. I mention things like odd pacing, scattershot interest in storytelling conventions, and crude content not to condemn, more to observe and process. I honestly don’t want Baki to change. The idea of cleaning it up in the name of being more palatable runs too great a risk for spoiling what is clearly a work of mad passion. I see the junky quality as a feature, not a bug. This production only covers a fraction of Itegaki’s sprawling tale and I hope the accessibility and attention that being on Netflix brings will fuel more. Baki is gross, callous, capital P problematic, and a wildly fun ride. I desperately want more of it.
All 39 episodes of Baki are currently streaming exclusively on Netflix
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