I decided to watch the 2018 release of Baki with practically no knowledge of the source material nor having seen anything beyond short snippets from earlier anime adaptations. I tried it on a whim. And having watched the entire thing, the first thing that comes to mind in terms of reviewing and/or recommending Baki is, well it’s complicated. There will be spoilers.
Stepping out of my own shoes for a second, I think one could objectively argue that Baki has a very high bar for entry and not in an intellectual way. The character designs are some of the most ridiculously over-muscled physiques in all of anime and they are NOT conventionally attractive. That alone could be enough of turn some viewers away, but not only that, right away Baki is asking you to REALLY REALLY suspend your disbelief as the death row prisoners make their escapes in episode 1. Two of them survive tried and true methods of execution. One swims out from a submarine to reach the surface without taking a breath or being affected by the change in pressure. One crawls out of a missile silo using nothing but rusty spots, seams between metal plates and his bare hands. And one uses the martial arts equivalent of an air pump to break rocket-proof glass. Also we are told that all the world’s nitroglycerin crystallized around the world simultaneously because of the borderline magical event known as synchronicity, which is what caused all five inmates to escape their various prisons at the same time for the same reason.
If you’re already acquainted with the source material then the sheer absurdity of Baki’s world is well known to you. But if you jump in cold turkey, then Baki asks a lot from you right out the gate. And that’s setting aside the fact this arc of Baki is 4 YEARS into Baki’s story. There are a ton of established characters from prior arcs who appear in Baki 2018, and some of them have about as much screen time as our titular Baki. In Baki’s defense it is peppered with very brief flashbacks that shed some light on who these characters are and how they came to be involved with other characters in the story. But these flashbacks also make it clear to anyone checking out Baki 2018 that there is a considerably longer story they are missing out on.
If all that wasn’t enough, the sheer level of violence in Baki is enough to drive people away, both in terms of the damage dealt and how unrealistically people recover from the damage they take – assuming they do in fact recover. The violence on display is even by anime standards, especially brutal. The are no blood pinatas, people don’t just go down with slash and bloodspurt. Here’s an example, one of the death row inmates uses a small explosive he has hidden under his skin to totally bow the face off one of the marital artists, and the show does in fact show the skinless face. Bodies get broken and twisted, combatants get covered in vicious scars. This a show which is not only incredibly violent but one which displays the damage done as realistically as the scenario dictates. Long story short it can be a lot to stomach.
To make matters even worse, the narrative, if you can even call it that, is a meandering mess. There is little in the way of structure, linear progression or even satisfying resolutions between characters. For example one of the death row inmates is killed by Baki’s dad after fighting a character who only shows up for 5-10 minutes in the entire show. The only battle which is resolved in a remotely traditional way, after the challenge is posed between Baki and the other top 5 martial artists against the top 5 deadliest death row inmates, is the first battle between Speck and Hanayama Kaoru. Hell a bunch of characters get beaten multiple times by different members of the enormous cast of Baki, which seemingly calls on all of Baki’s former opponents-cum-friendly acquaintances to make an appearance. Even the ending of Baki 2018 is literally the intro to a new tournament arc.
Having said all that against it though, I still can’t condemn Baki outright, at least not completely. Keeping in mind that I have a very high tolerance for unbelievable anime bullshit so long as it’s cool, I admit that Baki strains the limits of my tolerance – especially because the whole meandering nature of the conflict. However I can’t deny that I also found Baki incredibly captivating. So much so that I immediately began to voraciously devour the manga as soon as I had finished watching it.
There’s a charm in the absurdity of Baki, a delightful goofiness that evolves into something fascinating in the over-the-top characters, personalities, bodies and fighting in Baki. It feels like pro wrestling, something which is at once goofy, obviously fake and so macho that it’s cheesy, while at the same time being badass enough to draw a crowd. The way the Baki is so willing to lean into the obviously fake parts of it’s story and just run with them is kind of endearing in it’s own way – it shows an almost naive kind of sincerity that most media can’t portray, because the creators of most media won’t let their own properties run wild with such reckless abandon. Baki has a heart to it that most shows, no matter how much more tightly constructed they might be, just lack.
The anime also rocks one of the most aggressive and energetic OSTs that I’ve ever heard and I love it. It makes the fights more badass, the standoffs more intense and the goofiness even goofier.
All things considered though I’m not sure I can really recommend Baki 2018 as a standalone show. Even of you’re the kind of person who digs the violence, who can look past the so-macho-they’re-almost-grotesque character designs and is willing to ignore or even buy into the ridiculous world of Baki – there is no satisfying story in Baki 2018. The whole conflict feels pointless, with Baki spending so much time off screen and characters from prior arcs coming in at random to curbstomp half of the death row inmates anyway. And look, I’m all for pointlessly over-the-top action with a scant story, but Baki 2018 is too loose with it’s story. It’s not interesting for such a direct 5v5 challenge to be so thoroughly undercut by pre-existing characters who we haven’t spent any time with.
For Baki fans this presents no issue, they already know these other characters and are probably thrilled they made an appearance. But Baki 2018 fails as a self-contained story arc, in fact I think it fails so hard in that department that it really mars the experience. Which is a shame because as ludicrous and violent as the world of Baki is, I bought in to it. I was captivated by Baki in all it’s insanity, so much so that I did go check out the source material and have considered watching the older anime adaptations. It’s just a shame that Baki 2018’s inadequacies were part of the driving force to do so.
Ultimately I know Baki 2018 is not for everyone and I don’t really recommend it to most. If my description of Baki 2018 sounds interesting then by all means check it out, but to me it basically serves as a hook to draw newer anime fans to the manga, the show by itself is not satisfying enough to merit being more than that.