Back in the early aughts, Gutsoon! Entertainment — a fledgling company so bold that their name actually included an exclamation point — launched the weekly manga anthology Raijin Comics. Every super-thick issue was packed full of awesomeness, ranging from the fantastically ’80s City Hunter to the hilariously energetic Slam Dunk to the hyper-violent Fist of the Blue Sky. There were a few duds, such as Revenge of Mouflon (if you don’t know what a mouflon is, be sure to look it up on Wikipedia) . . . but overall, every week showered readers with new chapters for amazing series that had somehow slipped through all the other publishers’ hands.
I of course bought every issue. Sadly, beta males passed this over in favor of Tokyo Mew Mew, and the magazine went under. But this isn’t an essay on Raijin Comics — that has already been done elsewhere. The point is, Raijin introduced me to a shockingly good “fight” manga called Baki the Grappler. When I first heard the name, I assumed it was junk filler, but Baki was actually an extremely popular series that ran for 110 volumes in Japan. And when I say “volume”, I mean a 200-page book. That’s TWENTY-TWO THOUSAND PAGES. You could shelve ten copies of War and Peace back-to-back and still not measure up to Baki’s manly girth.
We didn’t get those 110 volumes. In sum, we probably ended up with three or four volumes’ worth. So when Raijin folded, I fell into Baki withdrawal . . . but then, at the nadir of despair, I came across an interesting advert in an old issue of Protoculture Addicts. You see, Raijin was not Baki’s first appearance in the States. Back in 1996, U.S. Manga Corps had released a one-shot OVA called . . .
The cover showed two dudes wearing white gis, which isn’t the most enticing image. Plus, U.S. Manga Corps had a bad habit of releasing absolutely terrible one-shot OVAs — stuff like Crystal Triangle and Dog Soldier. I felt no shame in having previously passed it up. But now, after reading a few chapters of the Baki manga, I knew I had to own this obscure OVA.
One of those dudes on the cover is ATSUSHI SUEDO. He’s a generic thuggish karate student who thinks he’s better than his master (keep in mind that the master once killed a tiger with his bare hands). The other dude on the cover is BAKI, a young fighter who is destined to beat Suedo’s generic thuggish ass.
When this video begins, Baki is a white belt challenger who’s putting the Shinshinkai karate club to shame at their own tournament, so the captain of the team — Suedo — steps up to take him down. Suedo is of course a sacrifical lamb to advance the plot, but during the course of the fight, he actually manages to prove he’s a worthy fighter. That’s something the manga was always good at: making both combatants look tough, even when one is clearly outmatched by the other. The video faithfully maintains this respect for its characters.
It’s so faithful to the manga that it introduces a lot of characters who would eventually become important, but do nothing in the context of this 45-minute OVA. Grappler Baki denotes characters as being “important” via a technique stolen from Rose of Versailles: postcard shots.
|OROCHI DOPPO . . . does nothing!|
|SEICHO KATO . . . does nothing!|
The animation is serviceable, but not impressive (even for its age). For the action scenes, it relies heavily on dramatic camera angles and speedlines instead of actual motion. That being said, there are some surprising details. During one of the OVA’s few peaceful moments, a woman chops a daikon radish, and the knife reflects its wielder’s hand. In most anime, it would just be some shade of gray.
After a flashback to the year 1615, this video treats us to a classic battle from the manga: Baki versus Kosho Shinogi, also known as “the cord cutter”. This is a man who can actually pierce flesh with his fingers, tearing critical nerves to blind his foes or rend entire limbs useless. He also has the kanji for “DESTRUCTION” emblazoned across the back of his blood-red gi. In case all of that weren’t already sinister enough, he’s voiced by Kaneto Shiozawa (Ostracon from Emerald Dragon).*
* Baki was voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi, who also voiced Ben Seaver in the Japanese dub of Growing Pains.
If you’re a detail-oriented viewer, then this fight is a great ride. When Baki and Shinogi face off in that age-old “neither person is able to let down their defense and strike first” stalemate, the audience guesses as to who will be the first to strike. While they chatter, Baki launches an INSANE leaping kick which is obviously doomed to failure. It’s a shockingly futile attack that Shinogi clearly knows he can counter, based on his smug expression.
Counter it he does, with a palm thrust to Baki’s ankle. That would be painful enough, but the young champion’s ankle is actually torn open, revealing one of Shinogi’s weapons: skin-slicing strikes. This establishes an immediate contrast against Baki’s more conventional impact punches. With the first blow, Grappler Baki has set this fight up as more than “who’s better” — it’s a clash of styles. That’s pretty cool.
Shinogi follows up with a kick of his own, proving he can also cut people with his feet. After receiving two early injuries, Baki is clearly the underdog, which is very different from the TV series. The TV show spent its first several episodes showing us Baki’s pugilistic childhood, so by the time it got to this match in episode 16 or so, we already knew Baki was a beast. In that version, Shinogi was presented as the underdog. Heroes make for more compelling underdogs than villains, so I’d have to say the OVA presents the better version of this battle.
Following that initial exchange, Baki soon gets his chance to shine. With a blow to the sternum, Baki sends Shinogi flying against the arena barrier. The camera shifts to a behind-the-victim view, showing us that Shinogi is still slumped against the wall. AND THEN SUDDENLY! Baki’s face rises from below, whooping and hollering his native war cry, only two inches from Shinogi’s head! The moment is priceless, as is Shinogi’s “oh shit!” expression.
Those four paragraphs are my synopsis of the fight’s first two minutes. The remaining ten minutes are just as cool.
Grappler Baki: The Ultimate Fighter is a fun, self-contained story with action, crowd-surfing, action, head-hopping, action, lots of blood, and even some action. It’s got a ridiculous cheesy ending theme song with Engrish lyrics such as “BAKI! YOU NEVER LOSE AGAIN!” (which is an interesting line, considering Baki is the undefeated champion of the underground arena). I enjoyed the Baki TV series, but if this is the only Baki you ever watch, that’s okay too.