The central plot revolves around a man named Bunshichi Tanba, a dojo-crasher who seeks stronger fighters to prove his strength to himself. While traveling to several schools and challenging the best each had to offer, Tanba came to the FAW (a gym that trains pro-wrestlers) and is pitted against T. Kajiwara. Tanba is defeated and humiliated after realizing that he is not strong enough and disappears for 3 years. Upon his return, he has become nearly unbeatable.
Garouden is penned by Keisuke Itagaki, of Grappler Baki fame. Like Baki, it is a series about jaw-dropping, brutal fights between unique, realistic characters one wants to learn more about, all told with many helpings of humor and self-deprecation.
Unlike Baki, the manga is largely based on the best-selling action books, from a different author, and follow a very different story arc and approach towards combat. The fighting is vastly more realistic. In fact, of every manga and anime I've seen, it's the closest to legitimate mixed martial arts.
The grapplers are shown as mostly dominating the pure strikers, and the submission
specialists eat the karatekas for breakfast, but both karatekas and wrestlers alike have to adapt new techniques to improve and defeat their many rivals.
It's neat watching a master karateka learn armbars and a sprawl, or a big, beefy wrestler employing the high kick.
Beyond simply the action, the manga is remarkable for its style. The main hero, Tanba Bunshichi, is, without a doubt, one of the coolest characters I have ever come across in any medium.
From his clothes, to his facial design, to his body posture, his charisma leaps off of the very page one is holding. His always calm demeanor is contrasted against his psychotic obsession for fighting, and a complete lack of regard for social convention.
Throughout the series, he will, upon finding a powerful fighter, either pursue them, or fight them on the spot. Most of the other characters, from the arrogant, cruel Great Tatsumi, (modeled on the great Antonio Inoki) a legendary wrestler who has become a powerful tycoon, to the ruthless, mysterious Fujimaki Jyouzo, who attacks capable fighters on the streets with no warning, and cripples them, are also captivating and interesting.
The series has a number of plot arcs, many highly unconventional for a simple action series, from Crybaby Sakura's quest to finally cry (he has no eyes), to Fujimaki's desire for redemption and his lost lady love, to the rivalry between the FAW pro wrestlers and Shozan Matsuo's Hokushin-style karate dojos, to Tanba's desire to smash every fighter standing in his way.
If you enjoy fighting, action, unconventional characters, or gripping storylines, you have to check out this classic.
Seeing as I'm an Martial Arts manga fan, MMA fan, Martial Arts fan, Karate fan, Wrestling fan, Pro Wrestling fan, Realistic Fighting fan, AND Combat Sports fan, I can honestly say that Garouden is my favorite manga series of all time. I'm starting to feel that EVERYTHING in this series is catered just for my tastes, and with that, I gave a 10 on everything (except art, which I gave a 9) because I'm definitely the target fanbase of this series and pretty much everything I wanted in a martial arts manga is seen here, and it's done a lot more realistically (despite manga exaggeration)
compared to other martial arts mangas.
In a way, the settings of the whole series felt like it was the 90s Japan in MMA, as it remained being dominated by traditional martial artists like karatekas and pro wrestlers who do both works and shoots. There's also a ton of real life martial arts and MMA references in the series, and hardcore fans of either one will be able to see what are those.
Anyway, one of the main reasons I love the series is how it illustrates martial arts a lot more realistically than most other series, and that there are no true heroes, just martial artists each with their own ambition and desire to fight and win.
Another is the story, especially how it addresses the various philosophical aspects of martial arts, on tradition and on change, on how sport and competition situations differs from the street. A bit of history in this too regarding the early days of MMA in Japan, with the "style VS style" aspect and how pro wrestlers do shoots in their shows. The story's credit goes to the original author of "Garouden" which originally started as a novel by Baku Yumemaru (as the manga is illustrated by Keisuke Itagaki, the author of the Baki the Grappler series)
But in general, if you're a fan of any of the things I want (as mentioned on the first paragraph), give this series a read, as there's a good chance you'll love it, especially now that nearly all the volumes are scanlated in this ongoing series.
Be sure to give it a chance, as early on, the art is quite primitive and unrefined, but that only goes on up to the 3rd volume or so, as the art improves significantly by the Crybaby Sakura/GREAT Tatsumi arc. The action and the story is top-notch, especially considering it's a martial arts manga based from a novel.
And as a side note, be sure to check out the Japanese PS2 game of Garouden (called Garouden Breakblow) and its sequel (called Garouden Breakblow : Fist or Twist, which are now my favorite fighting games of all time.