Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - BAOHby Jason Thompson,
Episode XI: BAOH
"We're going to need bigger fucking guns!"
—Rutger Hauer in Split Second (1992)
I'm writing this from San Diego Comic-Con (booth O8 in the small press section!), looking at horror movies, and thinking of how my greatest weakness is not chocolate or pornography but beautiful, wonderful GORE. The 1980s was the time of a splatter boom in Japan. Violent foreign horror movies like Dawn of the Dead, often censored in their countries of origin, were released uncut, and Japanese movies also indulged in bloodsoaked ultraviolence, as if the rapidly expanding economy demanded rapidly expanding brains, exploding hearts, gushing blood, excess in all its forms. Action movies and manga were more violent too. Fist of the North Star, one of the most popular shonen manga of the time, featured a martial artist whose specialty was touching pressure points to cause opponents' heads to explode. Riki-Oh ("Violence King"), whose praises other bloggers have sang better than I could, upped the ante with fists being shoved through people's jaws, villains tossed in meat grinders, and human bodies generally being treated like grass by a John Deere riding mower. (You can tell a lot about Riki-Oh by the scene set in a graveyard, in which the meaningless English-language text on the tombstones isn't people's names, it's the titles of anatomy books.) As for the *real* horror manga, like Kazuo Umezu's The Left Hand of God, The Right Hand of the Devil, it was even grosser.
In this fine tradition is the 1984 manga Baoh, a name which always makes me think of pork buns. Baoh, which ran in Shonen Jump at a time when its violence standards were looser, is like a cross between a shonen manga and an '80s horror movie, perhaps a film by body-horror master David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly), but more likely one of the thousands of second-rate imitations with names like Mutant and Deadly Spawn (nice SFX in that one, BTW) moldering in blue-faded VHS tapes in out-of-business video storefronts around the nation. The Viz edition, with an appropriately demented English rewrite by Fred Burke, even had a great horror movie tagline: "It lives in your brain…and won't let you die!!!" Baoh is fairly typical for its genre in many ways, and even though it was adapted into a fairly mediocre OAV, it would probably be forgotten today except that it was one of the first manga by Hirohiko Araki (Jojo's Bizarre Adventure). As such, it has a certain over-the-top flavor, a certain Araki-ness, which elevates it above other action-gore manga like Arm of Kannon and Warriors of Tao.
Baoh is a blood-splattered, brainmatter-drenched shonen superhero manga. The protagonist is a teenage boy, Ikuro Hashizawa, who is kidnapped and turned into a deadly bioweapon by the Judas Laboratory, a sinister secret organization dating back to World War II and now controlled, it's hinted, by the U.S. military. Ikuro escapes from captivity and goes on the run with Violet, a 10-year-old girl with psychic powers who has a crush on him. (Yeah! Psychics! It's so '80s!) The third companion, undoubtedly included for cute factor, is Violet's pet, Notsuo, whose species is indistinct but who is probably a koala, a bushbaby, a fluffy meerkat, or one of those snuggly stuffed animals that clips onto your clothing. In typical gar style, Baoh is a bit sexist; although there's no nudity or fanservice, almost all the female characters are hapless victims or giggly girls who are in love with our hero ("Wasn't that boy cute? A real dreamboat!")
Unbeknownst to him at the beginning of the manga, Ikuro has been infected with "Baoh," a parasitic worm that gives him unbelievable survival powers. When Ikuro is in danger, Baoh takes over, turning him into a weird mutant with wild hair, regeneration, claws, stony skin and a thing like a third eye in the middle of his forehead. "Under certain circumstances, I learned how to speed up evolution. Thus was created…Baoh!' explains Professor Hazyeye, the main nemesis and chief scientist at Judas Laboratory. Hazyeye has sworn to capture or kill Baoh at any cost, and the story consists of him sending a variety of assassins and monsters, each more powerful than the last, to kill our heroes. But for some reason, the assassins never work together, and Hazyeye sends them one at a time in order from weakest to strongest, so each one is just sucky enough for Baoh to defeat them and become more powerful so he can fight the next enemy. As Baoh becomes stronger, he evolves, gaining more and more destructive powers, such as:
1. The Baoh Acid Palm
("Baoh's hand discharges a fluid so strongly acidic that it can melt matter -- only one of the deadly weapons Baoh has at its disposal!")
2. The Baoh Armored Phenomenon
("The liquid secreted from the parasite entered Ikuro's blood vessels and began changing the cellular tissues…hardening his skin into a unique form of protection…and charging his muscles, bones, and tendons with power!")
3. The Baoh Skin Saber
("The skin on the host's wrists becomes hard and sharp! This is…the Baoh Skin Saber!")
4. The Baoh Piercing Needles
("When Baoh hardens its host body's hair into shooting darts, there isa change in the hair's chemical composition, causing it to combust when it contacts another creature's body heat.")
5. The Baoh Pulse of Dark Thunder
("The muscles and nerves of even an ordinary human being make a very weak form of electricity. But what if, like batteries in series, the muscle cells were linked one by one? A single cell could then wield the power of thousands, even millions of cells! Much the way an electric eel generates current, Baoh's nerves and muscles create electricity!")
The main thrill of a battle manga is seeing a character fight progressively stronger opponents, and in this way, Baoh doesn't disappoint. Cyborgs, mutant bats, a mutant mandrill that shoots grappling hooks out of its mouth, and a Native American psychic named "Walken" (who says things like "Now is your time of dying!" and looks like Go Nagai's Violence Jack) all smash against Baoh, invariably missing their chance to kill him at the last minute, but slaughtering plenty of faceless minions and innocent bystanders in the process. Never has a manga featured so many different ways to show people's heads melting, exploding or being diced up. My personal favorite scene is one when a man's head is sliced open so neatly his eyeball is split in half. "My arm is dissolving…melting into mush! It can't be!" one villain screams. "Glayahh! How can a human become a puddle?" To be fair to the villains, they are not trying to kill Baoh just because they're evil; there is a briefly mentioned plot point about how if they don't stop it, the Baoh parasite is going to infect the world and presumably kill everybody ("When the boy's baoh becomes an imago then the worm will lay eggs inside the host body! The larva from the hatched eggs will tear out of him and begin contaminating the world!") But never mind that! The point of Baoh is to kick ass and fight evil, as Ikuro's strong sense of good and justice prevails over the beast within, proving that this is indeed a shonen manga! ("How can I live with this beast lurking inside me?" thinks Ikuro. "Unless I unleash the beast…use its power to destroy the Judas menace…to take my revenge!')
Araki later developed into a fascinating artist but his early art here is, to put it nicely, crude. When he draws exploding heads, which is practically every chapter, it looks like something drawn in a "Learn to Draw Manga" children's workshop at the public library. But some of his distinctive traits from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure are already visible in Baoh, such as his love of exaggerated anatomy, never drawing a character in a normal pose when a contorted, foreshortened one will do. Instead of playing it safe, Araki learned to draw crazy poses first, and filled in the anatomy later—and yet it works. AnotherAraki touch is the large (by manga standards) amount of often quirky exposition. This is one of Araki's good points: dialogue which another mangaka would leave plain and functional ("I'm going to shoot you") becomes, in his hands, little masterpieces of melodrama ("A bullet with an explosive planted in the tip! To this little baby, your head is nothing but a balloon filled with blood!") Another Araki trait is his species-blindness when it comes to violence; he shows not just humans, but hapless dogs and other animals, getting dismembered and mutilated, a trait which would lead to censorship in the Viz edition of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure. And of course there are the crazy Araki sound effects. ("WRRRYYYYY" does not make an appearance, but Baoh has his own sweet signature sounds. I mean, even its name sounds like a sound effect.)
In short, if you like trashy manga, exploding brains and purple prose ("If Baoh could cry, it would undoubtedly be crying now…but no tears are shed, as it senses a new presence, the tragic emptiness left by the exit of two defenseless living creatures…"), then Baoh is the manga for you. As a Jojo completist, I had to get it. Baoh was originally released by Viz as comics in 1990, but sales weren't great, and it wasn't until 1995 that Viz bothered to release it as two graphic novels. This is the back cover text on Viz's volume 1:
From Hirohiko Araki, creator of JO JO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE, comes an even stranger tale…BAOH™, the odyssey of two young mutants rejected and used by "normal" humans…Pursued by Judas Laboratory, a brutal organization that seeks to harness their extraordinary gifts for evil ends, the two mutants learn they can trust no one but each other. In such a hostile, violent world, can the two friends carve out a place for themselves?
Check out the "TM" after the word "Baoh," which I assume was to protect Viz's intellectual property rights to the powerful Baoh merchandising juggernaut. I also like how the tone of the piece suggests that Baoh, rather than a hardcore splatter-gore shonen manga, is a tale of misunderstood young outsiders like Maximum Ride. Or, to put it another way,can the two misunderstood teens carve out a place for themselves…IN THEIR OPPONENTS' SPINAL CORDS?
Here's some of the back cover text for volume 2, which speaks for itself:
As Baoh attempts to rescue Violet, he learns the full extent of his bizarre powers…and the true meaning of friendship!
As a final thought, it's interesting that Viz credits Araki as "creator of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure" with no explanation, although Jojo wasn't translated at the time and no one but hardcore fans knew what it was. I'd like to think that this was a nod to the fans, but it comes off more like "creator of some random **** you've never heard of"! Actually, from talking to ex-Viz employees, I learned that Viz had originally planned to translate Jojo way back in the early 1990s, but they decided against it because of Baoh's unspectacular sales. Of course, Viz did eventually translate Jojo's later, and I'll talk about it in a future column. Until then, I leave you with these parting words of Baoh wisdom:
"BAROOO BAROOO WAOOOMOOO"
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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