Making hid debut back in 1989 with MakeUpper (yes, a manga about hot-blooded makeup artistry), Itagaki quickly made a name for himself when he debuted Grappler Baki in Shonen Champion in late 1991. A former member of the Japanese army & practitioner of Shorinji Kempo, Itagaki used his passion for self-defense & martial arts to create what is today the most well known "MMA manga" out there. In fact, Baki actually predates organizations like Pancrase & the UFC by a couple of years, kind of making it ahead of its time. The manga became a giant hit for Akita Shoten, and is still running to this day, as Itagaki has split it up across multiple series, and right now is is at a total of 132 volumes. As for anime adaptations, the manga has so far seen three. First, in 1994, Knack produced a 45-minute OVA based on the very beginning of the manga; don't worry, Knack's OVA output of the early 90s was actually pretty good. Then, throughout 2001, record label Free-Will produced a 48-episode TV series, animated by Group TAC, that actually adapted all 42 volumes of the original Grappler Baki manga across two seasons. Most recently, in 2018, was TMS' 26-episode TV anime adaptation of the first 2/3 of the second manga series, New Grappler Baki: In Search of Our Strongest Hero (or simply Baki), which Netflix has so far made the first 13 episodes of available internationally. With the second half of Baki set to debut on Netflix next month, I figure now is the perfect time to check out & review what Group TAC did 18 years ago, and we're starting off with the first 24 episodes.
Baki Hanma is a 13 year old teenager who hopes to one day surpass the combative prowess of his father. Unfortunately, Baki's father is "The Orge" Yujiro Hanma, the most powerful being on the entire planet, one which even leaders of nations cower in fear of. Still, Baki aims high, and even after leaving the high-tech gym he once worked with, his mother Emi Akezawa (head of the supremely rich Akezawa Group) still aims to find her son the toughest foes for him, as Yujiro wants to eventually test Baki & see if he's worthy of being his son. Five years later, after wandering the world to get stronger, Baki finds himself as champion of an underground arena run by Mitsunari Tokugawa, an old descendant of the legendary unifier of Japan from the Sengoku Era, where only the truly strongest in the world compete.
|This happens only four episodes in... I love it.|
It's worth noting that the Grappler Baki anime is interesting in how it tells its story, because it differs from the manga, somewhat. Instead of starting with 13-year old Baki, as the anime does, the manga instead started with Baki already competing in the underground arena, with the younger days, dealing with his rough relationship with his mother & his initial attempt to fight his father, being a giant flashback story arc. Because of that, Episodes 1-16 are actually from later in the manga than the remaining eight episodes of the first season, but at the same time seeing the story be told chronologically makes more sense for the anime adaptation. When Itagaki debuted the manga, it made sense for him to start with Baki as a 18-year old making his way up the underground ranks, as it allowed for him to give readers a good feel for the kinds of wild & crazy fights that were to take place, and should the manga maintain a readership back in the early 90s, then he could delve more into the actual story behind Baki. With the anime, however, the manga was already a success & had a set amount of episodes to tell this half, so starting with the backstory makes more sense for those who would going into this series for the first time, as it would allow the viewer to better understand where Baki came from once he enters the underground arena. In terms of how much of the original manga this first season covers, from what I can tell it's roughly 20 volumes worth of content. Obviously, I'm sure that some scenes were excised, but overall the pacing feels brisk but not like it's rushing, which is cool.
One major aspect to take into consideration is how power scaling works in this series. In pretty much any sort of action series like this, the hero almost always starts off at a relatively low position & works their way up the ranks, with each new challengers being more powerful than the last. Grappler Baki, however, kind of throws a wrench into this concept, however, because the power scaling shown here is purposefully busted right the get-go. For example, by Episode 2 Baki is already sparring with Yuri Chakovsky, the welterweight boxing champion of the world, and then two episodes later he fights a 6.5' killer ape in the mountains. Then when given the opportunity to actually challenge Yujiro, Baki tests his skills against a five-man mercenary troupe who aim to kill! Without a doubt, Itagaki had no intentions of making Baki your standard "fighting manga" lead, because at age 13 he's already far surpassed any sort of normal challenger. To be fair, though, he does have at least one challenger that's actually around his age, who would be Kaoru Hanayama, the 15 year old head of his family's yakuza group who already stands at over 6', has giant scars over his face from fighting, & has enough gripping in his fingers to bend coins in half... You know, a perfectly normal teenage boy.
The amazing thing about the series, though, is that when you remove all of the sheer insanity & absurd power scaling, Grappler Baki is still just as much of a traditional shonen action series as anything that came out in Jump, Sunday, or Magazine. Baki is intensely straightforward when it comes to becoming stronger, but at the same time learns more about the human body, spirit, & fighting techniques from his foes, and after defeating them they instantly respect him back & become his friends; hell, Baki & Hanayama become downright Best Friends Forever. This is in contrast to Yujiro, who fights purely for his own enjoyment, finds befriending people trite (any that he does actually have are really nothing more than people he can use to showcase his inhuman abilities), & feels that any sort of compassion is the ultimate in weakness. This is what essentially creates the conflict with Emi, as she's initially shown to care for her son & wants him to better himself, but once Yujiro returns to challenge his son, she immediately wants nothing more than for Yujiro to love her back, and does a complete 180 on Baki, hating him because of his weakness. Honestly, the change in Emi's demeanor is a bit too sudden in the anime, as she's showing care for him in one episode before hating him the next episode she's in, & I imagine it's a victim of the accelerated adaptation rate; I can only hope Itagaki made Emi's change in attitude towards Baki a bit more natural in the manga.
Of course, all of this mainly applies to the "Childhood Chapter" of the series, as the "Underground Arena Chapter" can feel like a very different beast in comparison. Whereas the story of younger Baki was still held in some sort of "reality", at least in terms of the world Itagaki created, once Tokugawa is introduced you get the feeling that you've only seen the surface of what "true strength" is in this world. Before this point, characters have been strong, but their abilities are still based on some sort of realistic concept, like boxing, grip strength, endorphins, or adrenaline. The underground arena, in comparison, has Kosho Shinogi, a man who can literally dig his fingers into his opponent's body & rip apart specific nerves, & his older brother Kureha, a mad doctor who's experimental surgeries have given him the ultimate knowledge of the human body. We also are introduced to some of the "old guard", like wrestling legends Antonio Igari (a blatant expy of Antonio Inoki) and Mt. Toba (see: Giant Baba), former arena champion Doppo Orochi, & Izo Motobe, who uses his own "formless" style of jujutsu. We're also introduced to Kozue Matsumoto, a classmate of Baki's whose mother owns the loft that Baki now lives in, who is obviously meant to be the romantic interest, and the two's general awkwardness between each other is enjoyable to watch. In general, there really isn't too much to say about this arc, because it's so focused on fighting, compared to the more story-focused childhood stuff. At the same time, though, this is the part of the series where Grappler Baki truly feels like it's at home. Wild fights, crazy advice (did you know carbonated drinks are healthier when de-carbonated?), intense warriors, & an execution that has nothing but earnest love for all of it. I still have a second season to watch & review, so I'll go into more detail about this stuff there.
In terms of Grappler Baki from a technical perspective, the anime definitely can be a bit of a mixed bag. The overall production directed by Hitoshi Nanba (Golden Kamuy, Heroman) shows no hesitation in utilizing the usual limited animation tricks, like manipulating stills to convey fast movement, focusing more on specific key frames to emphasize certain moments, & delineating non-fighting moments with notably lesser-quality animation. That's not to say that the anime looks bad by any means, but it definitely shows its age, especially due to it being one of those early anime that looks to have been animated digitally, which does make it age harsher on modern TVs. Not just that, but the anime is actually formatted as 4:3 letterboxed, with OP & ED karaoke being shown in the black bars, and an interesting gaffe in Episode 4 indicates that Group TAC actually animated the show in proper full-frame, with the letterboxing bars being added in post. Unfortunately, this makes the show even rougher to watch on modern TVs without stretching the image, but FUNimation's subtitles for the Japanese audio also utilize the letterboxing bars! At least the character designs by chief animation director Futoshi Higashide do adapt Itagaki's unique style well, especially for the Underground Arena content. Itagaki loves giving his fighters a mixture of sleek & skin-tight, so much so that you can see the shapes of their bones, while also giving them intensely detailed muscle structures, and the anime maintains that look extremely well; you certainly can't mistake Grappler Baki for any other anime.
The writing was headed up by occasional blog favorite Atsuhiro Tomioka, which maintains a steady & face pace, as mentioned earlier, while still allowing there to be just enough of a break from the action to let the characters breathe & develop outside of the battles. I'd love to be able to check out the manga & see what may have been removed, but it really doesn't feel like anything that would be important to the overall plot has been excised. As mentioned at the start, this anime was primarily produced by Free-Will, a record company run by Hiroshi "Dynamite Tommy" Tomioka, the man generally considered the mind behind the rise of visual kei outside of Japan, and that's definitely shown the most with the music. Starting with the background music, instead of actually crediting any specific person or people for the composition, the music here is simply credited as "Project Baki"; even to this day, who specifically composed the music is a mystery. I hate that I can't give proper credit, too, because the music in this show is absolutely amazing & utterly fitting, but in a way you wouldn't normally think. With a show as action heavy as this, you'd expect something more akin to hard rock, but instead the anime goes for more of a house & techno influence, plus a touch of jazz, and the closest comparison I can think of is Yuzo Koshiro's iconic music for Streets of Rage 2, which is certainly high praise; it's also amazingly good workout music.
As for the OP & ED themes, there's an even more curious story here. When the anime originally aired on TV in Japan, Grappler Baki had "Ai Believe" by Ryoko Aoyagi for its OP theme, with Aoyagi being one of Dynamite Tommy's projects over at Free-Will. Similar to the BGM, the OP is another house/techno dance beat that's high energy, instantly memorable, & just as outstanding, which is no surprise since it was also composed by Project Baki. However, when the series came to home video, "Ai Believe" was removed completely, & in its place was "Child Prey" by dir en grey, another Dynamite Tommy-produced group. Unlike Aoyagi, though, dir en grey is a heavy metal band, resulting in "Child Prey" being an in-your-face death metal assault, and the song in general does match the hard-hitting style of the franchise; the OP animation was even altered to better match the change in song. However, that now results in a sheer cliff of difference between hearing dir en grey's theme song, followed by Project Baki's sound. Most people think that this change in OP theme was done solely for FUNimation's DVD release in 2005, but the Japanese credits that play during the footage not only credit "Child Prey" accordingly, but also feature word-for-word karaoke lyrics for the song, meaning that this was done in Japan first; a music video for "Child Prey" is even included as an extra. However, this only applies to the OP, as original ED theme "Reborn" by Ryoko Aoyagi is kept all the way through, and the song here is similarly fun & memorable, though much more mellow to act better as a way to cool down from the craziness. I have absolutely no idea what happened behind the scenes at Free-Will that resulted in "Ai Believe" being given the axe, while "Reborn" was kept, and what's even weirder is that a similar thing will happen with the second season.
Considering the relatively large cast of characters that appear throughout the series, I'll focus primarily on those who appear in the Childhood Chapter for this review, & detail the others in the next review. On the Japanese side, the cast is lead by Masami Kikuchi (Kaine Wakaba in Metal Armor Dragonar, Tenchi Masaki in Tenchi Muyo!), who matches Baki's rough & wild side extremely well, and the moments where the character has to show his softer & more caring side are delivered extremely well, too. Hanayama is voiced by Masayui Nakata (Odel Henrik in Victory Gundam, Ragnar Blitz Lebrett in Wild Arms XF), whose heavy & gruff voice fits the giant yakuza leader, but also allows for the kind-hearted boy deep inside the shine. Yurika Hino (Jean Grey in X-Men, Aoi Murasame in Pachislo Kizoku Gin) plays Emi, and does a nice job playing up her more straight-to-the-point & even ruthless sides. Finally, Kenji Nomura (Atsushi Suedo in Baki , Santana in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency) has giant shoes to fill with Yujiro, and he pulls off the character very well; he sounds appropriately battle-hardened to the point of being unimpressed with humanity. The rest of the notable Childhood Chapter cast is rounded out by Koji Yusa (Gaia), Masaya Takatsuka (Yuri), Hidetoshi Nakamura (Captain Strydam, Yujiro's confidant), while the early Underground Arena features the likes of Yu Shimaka (Mt. Toba), Kazuhiro Nakata (Kosho Shinogi), & Mitsuru Miyamoto (Kureha Shinogi).
As for the English cast, which was directed by a variety of people like Jeremy Inman, Chris Cason, & Chad Bowers, it's all lead by Robert McCollum (Captain Hook in B't X, Jellal on Fairy Tail), who does a good job, matching the variety in Baki's emotions, but not directly imitating Kikuchi's vocal style. Hanayama is voiced by the venerable Kyle Hebert, whose gruffer vocal delivery matches well, though he is only seen for much of this season; a 13-year old Aaron Dismuke also cameos as Hanayama is a flashback. Emi is performed by Wendy Powell (Envy in Fullmetal Alchemist, Lady Iku in Shigurui), and this is probably one of the few roles that I actually prefer in English over Japanese, and Powell delivers a great performance here, with tons of wild emotion. Finally, the weight of Yujiro lies on the shoulders of Matthew Tompkins (Ryusaku Murase in The Galaxy Railways), who only did anime voice work for a short time before moving on to regular TV & movie roles. If anything, Yujiro is likely Tompkins' biggest anime role, and luckily he does a great job with it, adding a different type of cynical harshness than what Nomura did. The rest of the English cast here is rounded with Chris Rager (Yuri), Mark Stoddard (Strydum), Chuck Huber (Gaia), & Chris Sabat (Kosho & Toba). Overall, the dub's biggest flaw is that a lot of the performances, though good, seem to be delivered with such a straightforward delivery, which kind of flattens some of the lines; luckily, the last few episodes improve on this, so hopefully the dub finds its groove in Season 2. Each DVD also has a dub commentary for a single episode, usually featuring Inman & another actor, though the actual content differs wildly on the partner; some commentaries are great insights into the actual production, while others are more joke-filled & non-informative.
|Yeah, FUNi called it "Baki the Grappler",|
but "Grappler Baki" is cooler sounding.
Grappler Baki has gone down as one of the most iconic series in the history of Weekly Shonen Champion, and this first season of the original anime is an excellent introduction for newcomers, which I'm sure was the point behind this adaptation. The Childhood Chapter is a great way to start the adaptation, giving newcomers a good feel & idea as to the kind of wild madness that Keisuke Itagaki has formed this world into being, while the Underground Arena Chapter takes what came before & makes it feel like you've finally moved into the "reality" of the world of Baki, and it's all delivered with an addictive soundtrack that might honestly go down as one of the most underrated in anime. Without a doubt, though, there are some flaws, whether it's the admittedly standard-looking animation, lack of strong bloodletting (which is surprising, since the anime aired in late-night), the noticeable change in feel when going from one story to the other (not to mention characters from the first 2/3 of the show being outright never seen again after Episode 16), the lack of any real feeling of finality in this season (which really shows how the anime did the arcs in reverse order), & the fact that the equally addictive OP theme was replaced by a song that fits the concept better but is completely opposite in tone. Still, overall it's a great first season, and it's a shame that it's not currently in print.
Anyway, check back later this month (or maybe early next month, no promises), as I move into Season 2 of Grappler Baki, as it moves into the most natural of story arcs: One giant tournament to end them all!