Reviewby Daryl Surat,
Episodes 1-13 streaming
I picture Toshiki Hirano as an elderly man imprisoned within the confines of Anime Jail, the place you go when you're arrested for Anime Crimes. The uncrowned herald of VHS-era mayhem who once upon a time blessed us with heaps of bloody violence courtesy of titles like Iczer-One, Dangaioh, Hades Project Zeorymer, Devil Lady, Apocalypse Zero, and of course Magic Knight Rayearth (seriously, take a look back at that second season and those OVAs!) has lay dormant for well over a decade—until Netflix unleashed DEVILMAN crybaby earlier this year, resulting in a synchronicity wave that revived Hirano from his dormancy to place him once more into the director's chair so that he may unleash the cleansing flames of Anime Hell upon an unsuspecting new generation of anime fans who just might not be ready.
The 2018 Baki anime is an adaptation of 2000's New Grappler Baki manga, the second series to detail the trials and tribulations of the inhumanly powerful Baki Hanma, a heavily scarred and muscular kid who's mastered all sorts of underworld martial arts. For the benefit of those who never saw any prior installments, what happened up to this point is basically “there was an incredibly long tournament fighting arc, and Baki won at the end.” The opening credits of this series are effectively a highlight reel of what's previously transpired, and it's not the end of the world if that's all you know about it. After all, lots of people got into Dragon Ball Z having never seen the original Dragon Ball.
If you didn't already learn this from DBZ, one thing to know prior to watching Baki is that power creep is a thing in serialized action storytelling. Heroes prevail over overwhelmingly difficult foes, but then what? They need new opponents who for dramatic purposes should probably be even tougher than those before, and what better way to establish this than by having these new enemies effortlessly vanquish those previously formidable combatants? Many noteworthy storytellers try to break free of the endlessly iterative power creep wheel, but manga author Keisuke Itagaki elected to just run on that wheel so fast that it flew off the axle. As a kid, Baki punched a giant ape through its eye to directly strike the brain. Not only was this not fatal to the ape, it wasn't even the end of the fight. In one of Baki's earliest fights, he got his nerves severed, resulting in blindness and partial paralysis, because his opponent jabbed at him with two fingers to fishhook sever nerves in his bicep and neck.
If you're thinking “BUT YOU CAN'T DO THAT,” have you ever stopped to consider that maybe you're just not enough of a BADASS to transcend the so-called limits of scientific theory regarding what the human body can do? The world of Baki operates under the same logic of Black Belt magazine circa the 1960s and 1970s (and 80s and 90s to be honest): professional fighting champions are actually just small potatoes, because REAL masters who know the FORBIDDEN techniques don't waste their time on such things as publicity. Those in the know understand that one man suitably adept at martial arts is enough to strike fear into the entire United States armed forces, because not even the nuclear arsenal is guaranteed to do them in. By the 2018 iteration of Baki, everybody involved can not only survive but handily recover from fatal wounds in a matter of hours at least. Shot 12 times? Dismembered? Throat slashed? Face ripped off? Every bone in your body shattered after you got set on fire? None of these things is necessarily the end provided you're tough enough, no matter what the namby-pamby scientists with their book-learnin' claim to the contrary. Unless they're saying things like “if you have strong teeth, then your strength increases due to your ability to bite down hard,” in which case there's a perfectly valid scientific explanation for everything that follows.
So many characters in Baki are improbably elderly; it's a world rife with excessively sinewy buff dads and grandpas that make Whitebeard from One Piece look like a wimp. Yet at 17 years of age, Baki himself stands to overcome them all (eventually). In these first 13 episodes, Baki himself does little fighting other than sustain quick yet inconclusive losses, as most of the focus is on the newly introduced escaped death row convicts getting into scraps with Baki's former adversaries. This first half of the series focuses on two of the killers above all others. There's “Spec,” who demonstrates his initial toughness by shooting himself repeatedly through the mouth with a pistol without flinching or losing his smile. That's episode two, and it only gets more outrageous from there (don't worry, he puts Scotch tape over the bullet holes in his cheeks). Then there's Dorian, the kind of guy who implants incendiary devices within his body just in case a situation arises where his martial arts mastery and monofilament wire just aren't enough and he needs to regurgitate a whole grenade or glass bottle filled with flammable liquid. (Spoilers: these situations arise repeatedly.)
Itagaki's character designs and aesthetic choices are not exactly in line with traditional otaku interests, but now that Hirohiko Araki and Nobuyuki Fukumoto artwork is beloved by modern audiences, buff and scarred old men can't be far behind! In any case, this is easily the best-looking and best-sounding Baki anime to date. I prefer the Japanese audio, but the English dub cast is stacked with top talent in its own right, which is perhaps more apropos given how much of the cast is non-Japanese. Much has been said about the occasional use of cel-shaded 3D CG for moments of action, and while they're noticeable, I honestly didn't find them distracting or detrimental. Perhaps I'm just used to the second opening of the 2000s TV series? In any case, director Hirano has ensured the brutality of the printed pages made it on-screen, and being on Netflix means never having to adhere to broadcast standards and practices.
This will come in particularly handy once the second half of this series is released in the US, for it contains the mightiest sex scene in shonen action history. I don't approve of Netflix's staggered release schedule or the fact that they don't seem to run spell check on their subtitles—fans of Little Witch Academia know of what I speak—but even though episode 13 abruptly ends as a naked black man defenestrates a katana-wielding ex-cop, I don't think you necessarily need to wait for episodes 14-26 to be available before checking this out. One thing to know before watching that second half, if you've never seen Baki before, is that Baki's dad is the worst dad in anime history, which is the reason why this series was cross-promoted with Hanebado!, which features the worst mom in anime history.
Like so many Netflix anime offerings, Baki is a throwback to a bygone era of utterly amped-up, completely non-aspirational entertainment that's practically guaranteed to offend. What I point to as evidence of it being THE GREATEST ANIME STORYTELLING is identical to what others would call THE ABSOLUTE WORST. I say we should be showing the children this right alongside Steven Universe. “It ran in Shōnen Champion, so therefore it's for kids!” shall be my parting cry as I'm dragged away, just like when I show Apocalypse Zero to people.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ A completely insane, ultraviolent, testosterone-laden barrage on all semblances of conventional logic and beauty
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