Reviewby Faye Hopper,
After being poisoned by the death row convict Yanagi, Baki Hanma has been reduced to an emaciated husk. He can barely stand, much less fight. But fight he must. The Great Raitai Tournament, an ancient Chinese Martial Arts contest, is set to begin, and Baki has received an invitation. Baki cannot simply refuse. After all, among the tournament's roster is Muhammad Alai Jr., son of the greatest boxer to ever live, and Baki's own father, Yujiro Hanma, the strongest man in the world who Baki has sworn to beat in combat. At the head of the tournament are the Sea Kings; an order of Martial Artists who embody the ancient tenets of Chinese fighting. Foremost among them is Sea King Kaku, the champion of the arena who has yet to bested, even at 146 years old. Will Baki recover from his ailment and survive? And who will triumph? Will the raw power of Yujiro Hanma slam its fist and obliterate the arena? Or will a thousand years of Martial Arts tradition stand strong and prevail?
The word that best characterizes Baki the Grappler is impact. Nothing in this series is played subtly or with any degree of reservation. Everything—from Baki drinking sweetener infused water to fights where people's faces are ripped off—has an intensity that grips and throttles the audience. At least, in the manga. Baki's most recent anime adaptation has, in its previous installments, struggled to adapt the loud insanity of the original material. Scenes without fights often lacked energy, and a lot of key, iconic moments from the manga were without real, lasting impact. But, in this most recent season, things have changed. Things have improved. Now, the madcap verve of Grappler Baki is on full, beautiful display, and I couldn't be happier.
The anime adaptation's new, deeper understanding of Baki's tone is shown off immediately. In the first scene, Muhammad Alai Jr. (yes, that is a stand-in for Muhammad Ali Jr.) confronts Baki's father, Yujiro Hanma. Alai Jr. has fully developed a boxing technique unfinished by his father—the greatest boxer of all time—and to test his mettle, Yujiro falls to the ground, forcing Alai to come to him (this being a move that had once stumped Alai's father). Alai's response? He leaves the room. Everything that is great about Baki is in this scene: a melodramatic, self- serious presentation of something as ridiculous as plopping on the ground as a fight tactic, a shocking and hilarious conclusion that, all the same, makes a philosophical point about combat (after all, why lose to the strongest man in the world when you can instead keep your life and fight another day?) and, unlike the previous seasons, an understanding that everything—from a face close-up to a kick, an idle conversation to a screaming match—must be depicted with the same raucous pomp.
And the arc that follows is as entertaining and crazy as this introductory scene. Though a more traditional battle manga structure than the no-holds-barred street brawls of the Death Row Inmates arc, the Raitai Tournament leverages its more standard roots to provide great fight after great fight. Baki's exhilarating near-death encounter with the poison master, Biscuit Olivia's hands-in-pocket showdown, the Japanese marital artist Jaku trying to recruit the incomparably skilled Sea King Retsu through guile and trickery…all of it is so involving, and the variation in the style of fights make it so the arc never loses its momentum or repeats itself. The final fight between Sea King Kaku and Yujiro Hanma is the stuff of battle manga legend. The tide of battle is always turning, the scale large and awe-inspiring, and the animation sells every punch, every astonishing heel turn. And the conclusion is absolute perfection. What wins in the fight between martial arts tradition and sheer strength? I won't spoil Baki's answer here, but it is as uproarious as it is surprisingly insightful.
If the Great Raitai Tournament were the only arc this season covered, my review would be glowing. But two arcs are adapted here. The second, called the Godlike Clash of the Kids Saga, is a lot less eventful and a lot less fun. The arc consists almost entirely of Alai Jr. challenging Baki to a fight and being beaten into the dirt for even attempting to best the fighting prodigy and his world of tournament masters. It would be one thing if this concept were a springboard for cool, new fights, but it's not entertaining or even particularly interesting to watch Alai Jr. get clobbered and brutalized episode after episode. And while I like Alai Jr. as a distorted mirror image of Baki (both are legacy fighters with powerful, unbeatable fathers, just each hailing from a different fighting tradition), I'm not a fan of him as a romantic rival. His courtship of Kozue skirts up to the line of robbing her of agency (a fact made even more dubious by how Kozue's role in the story is mostly to be sad when Baki is hurt) and clingy possessiveness in how he constantly badgers her with marriage proposals. Though Kozue does have a few fun, brusque retorts to these innumerable attempts at affection, this uncomfortable subplot further distracts from Baki's core appeals of perpetual combat and over-the-top melodrama. As an ending not just to the season but this Baki series, the Godlike Clash of the Kids is disappointing, somewhat uncomfortable and takes the wind out of the series' excitement.
Despite these quibbles, I love Baki. I love it's disgusting, grotesque caricatures of masculinity. I love its patent absurdity. I love its captivating and creative fights. And I even love its characters, as ridiculous as they are. But, of course, Baki's gross, ultraviolent camp is not for everyone. There are moments that were too much for even me (I had to take breaks from watching Alai Jr.'s hands being bloodily fractured, for instance) and if you want a plot hook that involves something outside of over-muscled men beating the tar out of each other, this might not appeal to you, either. But for those who love a good dose of vicious, tasteless lunacy, there is no substitute for Grappler Baki. It is singular, it is incomparably entertaining and its own, twisted, disgusting way, it is beautiful. And for the first time, this anime adaptation lets you know exactly why.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ The Raitai Tournament Saga is a great arc adapted well; surprising plot turns keep every encounter fresh and the outcome of fights unknown and exciting; direction has kicked into overdrive and sells every last ounce of melodramatic intensity
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