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Review: Baki the Grappler (Season 1 + 1996 OVA)- A Warrior’s Journey

Did you guys know I actually don’t watch a ton of anime? Or television shows for that matter?

I have what I would like to call “Idiot Moron Brain”, and that Idiot Moron Brain makes it so that if the piece of media I’m consuming isn’t a movie or a game, or even a manga at times, I start to lose interest over time. This doesn’t happen ALL the time, but it’s because of this that I haven’t started or finished a ton of shows that I actually really like and this definitely applies to anime. For some reason I can’t bring myself to watch anime, even if it’s something I know will interest me. It might be because a lot of anime I’m interested in are usually adaptions so I choose to read the source material it’s based on instead, especially if it’s an ongoing series like My Hero Academia or Beastars, which I actively keep up with. Speaking on Beastars though, that series very recently finished its 4-year run and I loved it! But it did get me itchy to try out a new series to fill that void. It was then I remembered that Beastars’ creator, Paru Itagaki, is the daughter of fellow mangaka Keisuke Itagaki. The reason why this is important is that he created a series that I have had on my radar for far too long, Grappler Baki.

Please excuse the logo at the top right. Ignore it. I watched this in a totally legit way.

I first heard of Grappler Baki around 6 years ago when I was in college. A lot of my friends were posting screenshots of the manga at the time and let me tell you, it was the most insane shit I have ever seen. I saw dudes with armored bones, muscular structures that spat in the face of human anatomy, and bombastic martial arts that was just the sickest stuff ever. I always told myself I’d get around to it but, and if you’re a regular reader you’ve heard this before, never got around to starting it. The series grabbed my attention again because in 2018 it revived a new anime which aired exclusively on Netflix in North America and it looked AWESOME. With the announcement of a third season a little while back and an Itagaki shaped hole in my heart, I was finally ready to bite the bullet and start the series…except…I found out from a friend that it was an adaption of the second part of the manga.

….come on, man.

Now, a normal person at this point would have just shrugged and started the cool looking Netflix anime anyway because that’s an understandable thing to do. The problem is that I have the aforementioned “Idiot Moron Brain” and one of the many side effects of it is that I HAVE to start from the beginning to get context. I am an idiot. I was going to start the manga but part 1 is, I fucking shut you not, 42 volumes. I was NOT about to do that. I was then told by the same friend that there was a Baki anime from 2001 that faithfully adapts the entire saga up until the Netflix show and would take me way less time to complete. And so, I decided to chronicle my Baki journey in a set of reviews covering each individual season as I see them. I even decided to watch the 1996 OVA just..because! Why not? I can do whatever I want with my time. Screw you.

I care about as much as he does.

Grappler Baki (or Baki the Grappler in North America) is a martial arts series about a young fighter by the name of Baki Hanma who is training to be the strongest man in the world. He trains and fights and trains and fights so that he can eventually challenge the World’s Strongest Creature, Yujiro Hanma, his father.

I have just described Baki the Grappler in its entirety.

Baki the Grappler is as simple as simple gets. This is a series that literally opens with its own thesis statement every episode. “If someone is born male, at least once in his life he’ll dream about becoming the strongest man alive. Grappler, the martial artist who aims to become the strongest in the world!” Never before has there been a series that describes itself better than I ever could and you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way. Baki the Grappler kicks complete ass.

Literally!

What Baki the Grappler lacks in narrative complexity and subtlety it more than makes up for in pure, bombastic action and absurdity. Every episode is crazier than the last and I was not once bored or disinterested throughout the 24 episode season. This is mostly helped by the central conflict of Baki and Yujiro since you really just want to see Baki beat the shit out of the guy. The series does a great job at Yujiro look like the most insufferable piece of shit ever and I LOVE it. I also really enjoyed the character of Baki Hanma even though he’s a simplistic little jerk. I have a soft spot for battle-hungry punks like him and I really enjoyed watching him grow as not only a fighter but a person. I even ended up liking a lot of the side characters, like Karou Hanayama, a 15 year old yakuza street brawler that ends up befriending Baki after they beat the piss out of each other. Another one I liked was Doppo Orochi, a professional fighter that appears in the latter half of season 1 and is a really interesting character to listen to if you like learning about the batshit insane martial arts in this series. The dude also has a fantastic fight against Yujiro Hanma and is probably one of the highlights of the season as it’s a flat out brawl with crazy special moves and really fun animation.

Like I said, 15 years old.

The animation for Baki the Grappler was done by the now-defunct studio Group TAC, who were responsible for the Street Fighter II animated film along with several adaptions of the famous Space Battleship Yamato series. This explains with the action choreography for this season is so well made and fun to watch because that studio always had a great eye for brutality and combat. Dudes really know how to draw a guy getting hit in the face. My only complaints with the animation is that there are sometimes too many visual effects, like the weird motion blurring during the Yasha Ape fight, and the inconsistent art style between certain episodes. Straight up there are some episodes in this season that look like they’re from a completely different series. Also, this has nothing to do with the quality, but the ending theme is so weird. It has a really jovial tone and it not at all indicative to the series at all. Other than that though I think TAC did a great job and I’m excited to see what they did in regards to season 2! Hopefully, it doesn’t get weirder than that!

You expect me to believe this is the same guy as the one above? Really?

Now, as much as I enjoyed my time with Baki the Grappler, that enjoyment comes with a pretty big asterisk to it. Baki’s simplicity is its greatest strength, but it’s also the show’s biggest weakness. I know I just spent a whole section of this review gushing about how much I liked that aspect of it but if you’re looking for something with even a DEGREE of subtlety, you aren’t going to enjoy this show that much. You really have to have a tolerance for constant action if you want to engage with this series in the long term because from start to finish, fighting is what you’re going to get. I personally don’t have a problem with it because I enjoy absurd martial arts but if that’s not your thing, you’re in for a rough one, honestly.

You HAVE to be okay with dumb shit like this. You won’t survive otherwise.

Oh yeah, you may have noticed I haven’t talked about the OVA at all. It’s because it’s okay. That’s it. It’s just okay. It’s just more fighting. Honestly, I only put it on the thumbnail so I could catalog it for my own sake haha.

At least it’s cute. I still recommend it.

Baki the Grappler is a really stupid, but fun martial arts anime with a ton of charm to it. If you come into this with an open mind and a love for all things crazy, you’re going to have an absolute blast with it, I know I did. I can totally see why the series has been going for 29 years and is showing no signs of stopping. I’m really looking forward to seeing what else this series has in store for me.

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