There aren’t too many super-muscled beat-’em-up anime nowadays. Fans had Fist of the North Star and that was about it, almost everything else that came over to the States wasn’t worth the time. Well, FUNimation’s aiming to take down Fist using the most muscular 13-year-old ever seen.
After going through some grueling training the past three months, Baki is back and stronger than ever. His mother and manager are eager to get him out to prove his stuff, but they picked the wrong fighter in Karou Hanayama, a.k.a. The Gripper. This mountain of muscle can literally make a person’s arm explode just by gripping tightly, and he’s a glutton for punishment. Baki, being the spunky young hero, challenges him to a battle soon after hearing about him, but he’s going to regret it. As if that wasn’t enough, while the battle’s going on, Yujiro, Baki’s father and the greatest fighter on the planet, arrives in order to show everybody what a real fight is!
I’m not exactly a big fan of the super-muscled beat-’em-up genre, and this didn’t do much to convert me. The story is paper-thin and only exists to link the various fights together, and the characters aren’t particularly likeable, except maybe Baki. Hanayama, the main rival, is a mountain of muscle and not much else, though it seems he will gain some sort of personality in future episodes. I think the writers figured that there wasn’t enough plot to fill the episode order, so they decided to make a bunch of plot-advancing flashbacks. Unfortunately, these flashbacks are poorly placed and serve to disrupt the action rather than add to it. They pad the wrong times, destroying the momentum of many of the fights. This is particularly painful in the last two episodes, which are mostly flashbacks that would’ve been better shown later on in the series, after we had gotten to know the characters a bit better.
One of my problems with anime in this genre is the character designs and this series is no exception. Hanayama has way too many muscles on him and the scenes of him in nothing more than a sumo-loincloth are kind of hard to watch. Yujiro’s back looks like a painful mass of muscles surgically put together, while Baki’s muscles are thicker than my head — and he’s only 13! What with the arms exploding, legs being twisted (and stood upon) and Yujiro being Yujiro, this series turns me off more and more every second.
I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been fed a steady diet of Production I.G., Madhouse, and Gonzo recently, but the animation comes in below the new high standards of the industry. There are a lot of digi-pans and manipulated stills, plus a lot of unnecessary and cheesy triple-shots, where the same shot is repeated three times for dramatic effect. There are times where the actual animation is pretty good and comparable to the companies I mentioned above, but those moments are few and far between, unfortunately, and none of them are in the final episode, which is the biggest one on this disc. But it’s not all bad. The transfer is nice and clean and the series itself is in widescreen, even though it’s not used very effectively.
Sound-wise there’s more of the same. The music is pretty decent, though nothing special, but the most disappointing thingis the lack of dubbed songs. The opening didn’t need it since it was already in (barely-audible) English, but the ending theme is the original Japanese. Considering the high quality of pretty much all of FUNimation’s non-DBZ/DBGT dubbed openings, not hearing one on Baki‘s ending theme is unfortunate. The dub job is pretty good. Baki gets the best VA, but overall the track’s quality doesn’t quite measure up to Case Closed, Samurai 7 and Gunslinger Girl. If you enjoyed previous FUNi dubs, you’ll likely enjoy this one as well. The Japanese version is also on here for you purists.
There’s actually a good amount of extras here on this DVD, which is surprising. There’s a trivia section which is mildly interesting, summaries of each episode on the DVD menu, the textless opening and ending, character profiles, and a bunch of screen shots from the episodes. There’s also a commentary with voice actor Kyle Herbert (Yuri’s coach, Hanayama) and voice director Jeremy Inman. It’s a decent commentary (much better than, say, Gundam F91‘s), but it won’t blow you away. As an odd treat, there are also nine paper character stands that you can punch out of the various main characters. It’s one of those things that’s ultimately useless, but fans will love anyway because it’s cool. Unfortunately, as with all FUNi DVDs over the past year or so, there are still those damn unskippable trailers (this one’s is Samurai 7), an annoying “feature” that should never have been done to begin with.
If you’ve liked previous beat-’em-ups like Fist of the North Star or Fighting Spirit, you’ll probably like Baki the Grappler. Those who can’t stand body contortions should stay far, far away.
Episodes on Round 2: Grappler vs. Gripper
Episode #5: “A Warrior’s Heart”
Episode #6: “Spirit”
Episode #7: “Gripper”
Episode #8: “Demon”