The story revolves around Baki Hanma and his quest to proclaim himself as the strongest grappler in the world, thus taking the title from his father. Baki also fights to gain the trust of his overly psychotic mother.
Ah, Baki, where to start where to start, when I first started this series a few months back, I had no idea it would lead me to start practicing MMA. Yet here I am, a member of an MMA gym training in kickboxing, karate, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
At surface level, Baki seems like a stereotypical shounen, about a boy training to become the worlds strongest and face it all head on, and technically that's not a wrong synopsis.
So what separates Baki from other shounen anime? Well, the creator, Keisuke Itagaki, did his homework to say the least, having military experience and a degree in
Shorinji Kenpo, he didn’t need to rely on things like ‘increasing power level/chakra/ki’, and instead gave a mixture of fantasy martial arts and real ones taken to the next level, all having basis in the principles and applied knowledge (Physics, anatomy, slight psychological elements, etc) that tend to make up actual martial arts.
As a result, pretty much all of the fight scenes are incredibly detailed and well written, the reader will know exactly what it happening and how, which adds a huge layer of excitement to the many fight scenes in the series. Instead of just blood flying everywhere as characters are slashed and blasted, Grappler Baki makes sure to let the reader know what got hit and why it’s important, giving the reader an idea of how this will impact the fight as well as the fighter, which provides a suspense that can’t be found in most other action anime/manga
This dedication to martial arts not only makes up the combat of Baki, but a lot of the story and especially the characters. In modern martial arts, it’s believed that not only the style is important, but the way each unique individual utilizes it is more. A fighting style tends to be forged by experience and personality, and the series captures this perfectly.
It’s not at all uncommon for flashbacks to be shown mid-fight, showing us how these fighters came to be who they are, the struggles they faced, and how their fighting styles were basically forged by said struggles. Be it the young man who fearlessly took up responsibility after his father’s death in order to be a pillar of strength for his ill mother, the boxer whose warrior spirit was brought out by his heritage and his desire to protect his little sister, the wrestler who went from someone who genuinely loved the sport to rather fame obsessed and self-indulgent.
The thing is, these backstories, regardless of the character, tend to be pretty sympathetic and actually realistic. There were plenty of boxers who used it as a way to survive the crime ridden neighborhoods, and get themselves and their families out of the slums. There are plenty of fighters in general who lost sight of their passion when they let fame get to their head.
To top it off, a lot of these backstories tend to have themes that honestly wouldn’t be expected of a shounen. This especially shows with Baki’s mother, whose story is pretty much a cautionary tale of how a submissive woman having an abusive relationship with a charismatic devil of a man can turn her into just as much of a monster as he is due to her sheer desire for his approval
To get to the titular character himself, he’s a very interesting case of character development. Notably, the series is just as much about Baki’s growth as a person as it is about his growth as a martial artist. It’s revealed rather early on in the manga, Baki was quite literally born to fight. His father Yujiro, the strongest creature on earth, essentially had a child with the intent of making and eventually breaking a warrior that would give him a satisfying fight. The first saga, the champion saga, is merely an introduction for this world of fighters, however, next up is the prequel saga, ‘the child saga’, in which we start to see who Baki is. The young Baki, age 13, is rather hotheaded and impulsive, fighting is pretty much all on his mind. This mindset goes to the point where he goes out of his way to pick fights with gangsters, boxers, and even wild beasts. Starting with that arc, we start to see Baki slowly learn to control his fighting instinct, and after a certain event happens, he ends up developing in ridiculous ways and beginning to see the bigger picture of life.
Finally, what many view as the downside of the Baki series, the art style. Even if you like Baki’s art style, you clearly see why it turns so many people away. As said before, Baki is rather heavy on the detail in pretty much everything it does, this includes the human facial and bodily features, and it has no problem showing the ugly to it. The physiques of the fighters are that of fighters, not male models. There tends to be things like veins bulging from muscles, horrendous scars, no one is that handsome after being constantly socked in the face. Honestly, the ‘ugly’ art style tends to work in the manga’s favor, except when it starts to exaggerate certain features, often the limbs seem to bend in ways they shouldn’t, similar to early JoJo, and, at times, there are clear exaggerated bends and curves that can raise eyebrows. If you don’t mind characters who aren’t sights for sore eyes and can handle the exaggeration, then the art style is both extremely fitting and an interesting change of pace in my opinion.
All in all, as said, Baki, at surface, is your stereotypical shounen, as you start to read it, you realize it’s one of the manliest series ever written, but as you read on and go further and further into the series, you realize something else. An attention to detail that truly makes the series. In the long run, Baki doesn’t just focus on the why and the what, it also focuses on the how. In fight scenes, it focuses on how the action and the injury effects the fight. In the story, it’s a huge aspect to the characters, we not only see how Baki’s experiences and relationships come to start forging him as a person, we see how the people who make up those experiences and relationships came to be who they were up until that point, and we see how their experiences and affiliation with Baki effects them as people.
The final result of this, especially when combining all four series so far, you get the story of Baki’s transition from boy to man to master, seeing how the world impacted him and seeing how he impacted it back, full of some of the best action scenes you will ever see, each fight getting you more and more hyped up as you wonder where it’s gonna go next.
Martial arts are an expression of power, showcasing the potential of the human body when pushed to its physical limit. It also makes for exciting anime, and allows animators and directors to showcase their prowess as things get heated.