Action-packed and unashamedly macho, Baki is mostly nonsense, but it’s always fun when nonsense punches itself in the face continuously.
Sometimes you just know what you’re going to get, and if the heavy-metal riff that opens the new Netflix Original anime Baki doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the 13-episode first season, there’s probably no hope for you. (Netflix seems to be making a habit of releasing rather straightforward original anime.)
This, then, is an anime about men who look like condoms filled with walnuts, five of whom are the most violent and dangerous criminals in the world who have – entirely coincidentally, I’m sure – all recently escaped death row and begun making their way to Tokyo, Japan, to challenge the title character to a scrap.
One of Baki’s themes is the idea of becoming blasé and jaded after reaching the pinnacle of your chosen field; you see it in Baki himself, who is training for the legacy of “world’s strongest fighter” formerly occupied by his father, and in his would-be challengers, each of whom is bored by the extent of their own abilities and sees in Baki an opportunity to finally be challenged and potentially taste defeat.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baki communicates this – and everything else it wants to communicate, which isn’t much – almost entirely with its fists. Which is fine, if you ask me, and will likely be fine with the not-insignificant sub-section of Sh?nen fans who are used to this kind of thing, but it can be a bit wearisome here. The show’s oddly paced and structured, and while the melodramatic clashes and over-the-top violence are fun, they’re a little sporadic and don’t land with much consequence.
The simplistic plot progression isn’t exactly offset by the thin characters, most of whom are simply embodiments of the overarching philosophy of their chosen martial art. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own, but in conjunction with such a rote format, there’s nothing to really latch onto with Baki beyond the facile face-punching pleasures that amount from stuffing a show so full of ciphers.
There’s fun to be had here all the same. The art’s attempts to emulate the absurdist aesthetic of the manga mostly fall short, but the general fetishization of uber-macho martial artists is one of those things that’ll always be appealing on some level, even if it’s only an ironic one. But Baki’s tireless sincerity is also pretty charming, and there’s enough spectacle and irreverence here that it’s easy enough to switch your brain off and enjoy the flexing. Just don’t expect much brain behind the brawn.