BAKI – Anime Review
Synopsis: While martial arts champion Baki Hanma trains hard to surpass his legendary father, five violent death row inmates descend upon Tokyo to take him on. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
Baki is in this weird position where Netflix presents it as a jumping on point for new viewers, but the actual series doesn’t quite work for that. Baki is actually a very long running manga and anime franchise that started way back in 1991. It’s also one of those series that’s never been properly brought over to the West. A smaller manga company dabbled with the manga’s first run (There’s been five in total, spanning 132 volumes.) Unfortunately that company went under, and never released proper collected volumes. Now a new media company has the license to the second run (releasing volumes digitally), but not the first. Back in the early 2000s Funimation licensed the anime, but since then has lost the license, leaving only a smattering of used DVDs to bandy about the market with high mark ups.
Strangely enough Netflix didn’t nab up the rights to Baki’s first two seasons (Known as Baki The Grappler.) It’s either because they couldn’t, or couldn’t be bothered. I don’t know, but it does make Baki a difficult sell seeing as new viewers will quickly come to realize they’re coming in on the middle of a much, much longer story. There’s plenty of scenes, dialogue, and flashbacks that help to shed light on this, but never enough to make one feel like they aren’t missing something. It doesn’t at all help that for a show titled Baki, our titular character doesn’t get a single full fight in these first 13 episodes (The full show is 26, but Netflix has split the run up into two halves.) This gives Baki this very strange feeling, of a series that has moved past its main character, or is drawing things out in order to save the ‘best for last.’ It’s also a hallmark of a long running series, where attention is gradually shifted to side characters because overtime there becomes less interesting stuff to do with the main character, or the author feels like giving audiences a break by letting the smaller characters have a chance to shine on their own. This leaves Baki in an unfortunate situation of acting as a jumping on point for viewers out of sheer in-access to the rest of the franchise.
Despite this unfortunate situation, right away Baki sets its tone. This series is over the top. From Baki’s sheer power causing anyone weak around him to tremble uncontrollably, to the five convicts who escape death row in flashy, violent showcases, the series establishes right away what audiences should expect. This isn’t a series for anyone looking for real logic, or heartfelt drama. Most of Baki is predicated around insane fights, with increasingly insane mechanics, abilities, twists and turns, that seek to continually one up itself.
That said, despite the hype online from Baki’s small, but fervent fan base, Baki isn’t perfect at what it sets out to do. Often the series can be described as a one trick pony. Once you understand the narrative, constantly one upping itself, always shifting which fighter is winning in a given match up to absurd extremes, the series can become a bit predictable. While the way in which fights play out in detail can often be filled with surprises, you know that whatever attacked is being used is about to be countered, or overcome. In fact it’s more a surprise when someone finally loses, as attacks that keep an opponent down are few and far between. This might not all be a problem if Baki wasn’t cramming content. The series is adapting something alone the lines of six to seven chapters an episode. This means the twists and reversals, as one fighter gains the upper hand over another come at a near blinding pace. This takes the extreme nature of the fights and sometimes makes them more manic and wishy-washy.
This might not be a problem if Baki contained any character development, but the series purpose is singular and direct. It’s all about that crazy over the top action. Baki himself sort of has an arc, but his appearances in his own series are so fleeting that it never really gets off the ground. This means as a viewer you need to have extreme and singular appreciation for Baki’s mayhem, otherwise there just isn’t that much else to fall in love with.
Visually, the series wavers greatly. Many of the manic fights contain incredibly, if not extremely over the top art. They match the style of the writing beautifully. But at times, perhaps for budget purposes, the series makes use of 3D models. Most of these 3D fights lack the same dynamic energy, and come across more as visual eyesores that rival many of the non-fighting scenes, which often leave a lot to be desired.
But perhaps most frustrating is that for a series like Baki, characters survive death far too often. Brutality is a major theme throughout these 13 episodes, with people getting their faces torn apart, hands ripped off, and wind-pipes crushed. Yet none of our ‘good guys’ stay down permanently. While our major villains, the escaped deathrow inmates, do end up passing onto the next world, it takes a LOT to keep our heroes down, if they go down at all. Characters survive the most awful of injuries, and while that adds to their badassery, it becomes so frequent that it makes the characters dealing out those terrible wounds feel lame and nonthreatening.
Baki isn’t helped either by Netflix’s decision to chop its run in two. While other series have largely worked in this split method, Baki is the one case that absolutely doesn’t. The final episode is almost entirely focused on a new character, and feels like a poor place to call it quits until Netflix feels like launching Baki’s second half.
Ultimately Baki isn’t a title for I can recommended for the average viewer. It’s too narrow-minded and squarely focused on its fighting absurdity, not offering nearly enough character development to make up for its frantic pacing. Its animation woes keep it from earning points as a visual masterpiece, and Netflix’s inability to upload the original two seasons makes it difficult for new audiences to jump in. Still, Baki is great for viewers who love their absurd anime and who want to see a show constantly one up itself as each fight gets more and more insane. Baki isn’t a must watch as we go into the new year, but it’ll definitely scratch that itch for pure, fighting mayhem fans.
BAKI is available for streaming via Netflix.