published in Empire No.76, Sydney
In many respects, Baki The Grappler is quintessential fighter anime. It shadows the teenage Baki across five years as he resolves to become the strongest fighter in the world, undertaking a series of gruelling bouts to realise his ultimate aim. In graphic manga-style, the animation is less about smooth motion and more about frozen impact. As with much fighter anime, the effect intensifies the violence through a series of moments where Baki and his opponents’ pain is captured in freeze-frames accompanied by dimensionally-warping sound effects.
Yet Baki withholds numerous deeper and darker currents swirling around his ruptured familial connections. His father “the Ogre” looms as a truly monstrous figure, one whose only bond with Baki develops through pushing his son to the point of self-annihilation. Emotionally interfering with this is Baki’s mother who is monstrous in her own way. Her obsessive worship of her husband is transformed into a psychotic drive, leading her on numerous occasions to willingly offer up her son as fodder for pummelling by her blood-lusting husband. A cycle of savage twists and devastating betrayals transform Baki into a family psycho-drama seething with violent hatred on an unimaginable scale.
Combining graphic violence with intensely sadistic psychological threads, Baki strangleholds itself with unremitting force. Bluntly yet effectively, the series depicts stand-offs between Baki, his parents and his challengers, each charged with a heat haze shimmering with the desire to annihilate the other. Although based in reality (or sorts), Baki’s world takes on cosmological breadth as he pushes himself to conjure forth endorphin rushes, thrill to the moment of his imminent death, and charge his body to move in ways beyond his conscious control. Ultimately, Baki becomes a story of his body-mind cleave, rather than merely narrate this character’s journey.