The Mike Toole Show
To Hell and Baki

by Mike Toole,

Once upon a time, a new anime series would begin, and the reactions would slowly filter in. That experience has been sped up dramatically in the era of online streaming, and turbocharged even further with the effect that a Netflix launch has. This week, I've been witness to both fans and pundits horking down huge chunks of a new animated TV series, a long-awaited favorite with global appeal. The show has it all: exciting action, political intrigue, the culmination of a long struggle against the bad guys, and even a hint of romance. Naturally, I'm talking about Baki The Grappler.

It's pretty easy to just read a little of Keisuke Itagaki's Baki The Grappler manga and put it on blast. The series is profoundly ugly, with the artist favoring outrageously overmuscled bodies topped by absurd, round faces with full, pouty lips and boyish, cherubic features, even for the most hardened of his combat sports veteran characters. Dialogue is preposterous, plotting is threadbare, and the fights are a symphony of full-page splashes of dudes screaming, their teeth and bones and blood shattering with explosive force and flying everywhere. What kind of fishwrap is Baki, man? Who would read this absolute, vulgar trash? The answer: millions of readers all across Japan, who have made Baki one of the most enduringly popular manga in history. For sheer longevity, the series' run of 132 volumes—and counting!-- places it right behind Cooking Papa, and just ahead of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.

Baki is enjoying newfound world-wide relevance thanks to the new anime series from TMS, which finally went global on Netflix this week after airing once a week in Japan for the back half of 2018. The show may not be getting the exposure of something more obviously viewer-friendly, like that Bird Box movie or the snoozefest final season of Voltron, but people are watching it, and they're reacting to it with the appropriate mixture of confusion, revulsion, and gleeful interest.

The current series is actually Baki's third trip to the anime medium. The first one has almost sank completely out of sight, which is too bad—this 1994 one-shot OVA is an excellent introduction to the fighting hero and his story. Starting here, each anime version of Baki is always the same—he's a formidable but slightly mysterious young man who becomes the champion of noted business and political scion Mitsunari Tokugawa's storied underground fighting tournament. The big fight in this episode is against karate master Kosho Shinogi, who uses his deadly, pinpoint strikes as a pretext to grab his opponents' muscles, dig in, and sever their nerve endings, all with the sound effect of a ukulele string breaking. Needless to say, this is incredibly compelling entertainment, at turns gripping and totally hilarious.

It's that balance of tense fighting, a threatening atmosphere, and moments of crazily exaggerated violence that has kept Baki not just relevant but popular for more than two decades. To me, it's obvious why—Baki is a perfectly outrageous version of true-life mixed-martial-arts fighting, and both Baki and MMA rose to prominence at the same time. This is something I've touched on previously, in my Tiger Mask column, but many of the building blocks of modern MMA came from Japan. Pro wrestler Antonio Inoki used a variety of real-life martial arts techniques in his staged fighting, and eventually started experimenting with real bouts. One of these real-life fights was against Muhammad Ali, and it went pretty humorously; both the boxer and the grappler kept their distance, with Ali unable to land a punch and Inoki equally unable to hook his opponent with a kick or submission hold. Naturally, millions tuned in to watch this famous bout, and also naturally, both Ali and Inoki would eventually appear in the pages of Baki.

When MMA took off in the early 1990s, it was all over the map. Early UFC events were incredibly entertaining fiascos, because they started with such an inherently weird, dumb concept—that a variety of interesting but very different martial arts could be compared against one another, and one's supremacy decided. Karate experts squared off against grapplers; masters of tae kwon do and muay thai faced off. Not surprisingly, the smallest dude at the first UFC tournament, who was really good at submission holds, won the whole thing. Across the ocean in Japan, the similarly new promotion Pancrase proved a little more grounded and satisfying, with experienced pro wrestlers employing a variety of strikes and submission holds to best their opponents. Eventually, MMA figured out its own “sweet science,” one where a smart, balanced mixture of grappling and striking would dominate.

Baki, on the other hand, grabs hold of the dream of pro wrestlers mixing it up with karatekas, sumo fighters, savate champs, and judo masters and runs with it. The protagonist and his opponents utilize techniques that cause organs to rupture, bones to shatter, and blood to fly. Best of all, they usually just shake it off and keep fighting, because that's how inhumanly dangerous these fighters are, man! The OVA couldn't possibly be enough, so in 2001, the world got an all-new Baki TV series. This 48-episode series, created at Group TAC of all studios, gives us somewhat more contemporary, less outrageous versions of the characters; here, Baki has a modern hairstyle, and his dad Yujiro looks somewhat less demonic. It's this series that works harder to sell us on the story's central dynamic—Baki isn't just training to become the greatest fighter, he's trying to surpass his dad, who is the deadliest man on the planet. In this world, winning a conventional sporting tournament isn't enough—Baki will have to fight no-holds-barred matches against some of the world's deadliest killers.

Funimation picked up this TV series, dubbed Baki The Grappler. It was a very good choice; the show is a really fun, brisk tournament fighter. It's not quite as patently outrageous as the manga, but there is an amazing episode where a fighter, arriving late to the final tourney, secures qualification by defeating an anaconda in combat. These are the rules, folks—if you can't get there soon enough to fight through qualification, you can still secure a third-round bye if you defeat an ornery one-thousand pound serpent in single combat. If there's anything more interesting than that, it's the story of how this Baki TV series got made. It was actually funded by a record label, Free-Will, who naturally used the show's opening and ending segments to place songs by their starlet Ryoko Aoyagi. This arrangement isn't altogether uncommon, but Free-Will founder Dynamite Tommy is distinctly Yoshinobu Nishizaki-esque, a showman who masterminded the rise of visual kei music both inside and outside Japan, and who has famously said that he was never really into creating music, he just liked being in a band. Naturally, these days, Dynamite Tommy manages an idol group called 2o Love to Sweet Bullet; that old Baki series of his has gotten tough to find. It was one of those shows that straddled the cel-to-digital transition, so it probably wouldn't look very good on today's TVs.

Interestingly, just as the Baki TV series was going into production, manga author Itakagki was wrapping up the main storyline's Maximum Tournament story… so he could plunge right into New Grappler Baki, in which our hero is set upon by a cadre of death row convicts. These homicidal maniacs have heard all about Tokugawa's underground tournament, they know that Baki won it by defeating a loose confederation of unbelievably dangerous grandmasters who are now his friends and trainers, and they know that Baki's insanely powerful dad is at the top of the pyramid. These bloodthirsty killers don't seek triumph, but instead hunger for someone, anyone, strong enough to defeat them! Oh, and they all look like this.

That right there is an enormous part of Baki's appeal. “Normal” just doesn't exist in this world. Everyone is either a jacked-up maniac, or is in training to become a jacked-up maniac. My favorite secondary character, aikido ace Shibukawa, is a little against type—he's small, bespectacled, and older than most of the others. But he's still an absolute sadist, able to overcome much bigger and stronger fighters because he's mastered the perfect, unblockable aikido throw. Even Baki's girlfriend, Kozue, uses the power of awkward teen hookups to dramatically increase his power level before one of his fights.

Only one thing is better than watching Baki intimidate his foes with his overpowering aura, and that's watching his father intimidate the president of the United States with his overpowering aura. If you're not specifically following Baki, this is probably the part of the franchise you're most familiar with, because of just how odd and funny it is. Here in the good old USA, we laud the peaceful transition of power when a new presidential administration takes over; everything from military command data to social media passwords gets handed on to the next presidential delegation. In Baki's world, each new president must also learn of the secret non-aggression treaty that the United States military has with Yujiro Hanma; like our non-aggression pact with Russia, it's understood that the US military could probably defeat Yujiro, but it would require multiple nuclear strikes, the collateral damage would be off the scale, and it's not a sure thing! Here's a series where US special forces once tried to assassinate Yujiro, but failed, and eventually learned of his terrible, singular power in Vietnam. Occasionally, foes emerge to oppose Yujiro; one of them is ‘Che’ Guevara, the third-most powerful man in the world.

What, did you think it would be a different Che? Nope, same guy. There's some sort of parallel world business to explain how all of these cool characters can share the ring, but I really don't think that an explanation is needed at all. There's still thirteen episodes of Baki that hasn't reached Netflix yet—that run includes the appearance of Mohammed Ali—er, excuse me, the totally unrelated Mohammed Alai. At this point, I'm hoping for the Netflix effect to set in and a sequel series to be greenlit, so that we can all enjoy this key moment in animated form.

Don't tell me you want anime to be non-political... because all art is inherently political! Especially if that art is Baki The Grappler. I'm hopeful we will see this moment on the small screen, because as trashy and vulgar and violent and outrageous as it is, Baki is having a cultural moment. This new series is splashed across the world now, and despite an old failure by Raijin Comics to get the original Baki manga to the public, inexpensive e-books of the sequel series, which correspond to the new anime, are available on Amazon and Comixology. In reading these fine comics, you can see the anime Baki traced to the source; each animated iteration has stayed true to the original's carefully cultivated pugilistic insanity.

I'm always going to be a mark for the kind of silly savagery Baki shows us. After all, the only thing better than a character revealing a secret technique that instantly kills their opponent is the opponent somehow surviving the attack and striking back with an even more potent brutal, unblockable attack. What I enjoy most about Baki is that it takes the fundamentals of combat sports and exaggerates them so much. In real-life MMA, there's a pretty reliable formula where a pair of trim, muscular dudes trade blows, but almost never land a clean strike. Then they hug a lot, then someone falls over, a submission hold is applied, and the match concludes. There are no killing strikes or ultimate techniques; Count Dante, Ashida Kim, and Frank Dux all turned out to be hilarious, outrageous frauds. But there are no frauds in Baki's world; more than the violence, the absurd melodrama, the over-the-top dialogue, the unintentional comedy, what makes Baki a champ is its sincerity. I hope the title character eventually beats his old man; we sure don't need the Hanma cold war to go on forever!

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