Recently, my friends and I have become born-again sports anime fans thanks to the pay-per-view feel of classic boxing-themed shows like Tomorrow’s Joe and Hajime No Ippo. While these shows maintain a sense of realism that doesn’t require me to suspend my disbelief too often, Netflix’s new season of Baki Hanma takes a different approach to battle, putting me in a chokehold and making me beg the series to keep showing more absurd shit, which it’s delivered every time.
Baki Hanma: Son of Ogre, based on the manga series by Keisuke Itagaki, follows the titular young martial artist as he battles fighters from different disciplines in order to one day grow strong enough to challenge his father, Yujiro Hanma, in battle. Basically, imagine the overarching plotline of the Mishima family in Tekken if Heihachi had the combative strength of a nuclear bomb and you’ve got Baki. It took me a while to warm up to its first series’ volley of early tournament arcs and its occasionally rough CGI animation, but Baki Hanma has hit peaks most action shonen series could never hope to reach by being fully committed to demonstrating how wacky a shonen anime can be.
Baki Hanma is both the wildest and most compelling sports anime I’ve ever watched. Aside from displaying the most anatomically detailed-yet-exaggerated action sequences I’ve ever seen, it’s also somehow in on the joke of how silly its premise is, without making a mockery of combat sports as an art form. For example, throughout Baki Hanma and its prequel series Baki, I’ve witnessed fights where Che Guevara battled triplets using a tetrahedron battle position, a man transform into a muscle-bound Pac-Man ball, and Baki grow more powerful after losing his virginity.
While all these out-of-context scenarios sound like a game of shonen anime mad-libs, Baki Hanma emerges as one of the most compelling sports anime because it strikes a balance between its testosterone-fueled absurdity and its respect for combative sports as both an art form and a way of life.
Unlike popular shonen anime like Dragon Ball Z in which a person’s strength is measured by a power level that is arbitrarily increased, Baki fights are fought and won based on the merits of a fighter’s physical skills as well as how they inhabit the will of a fighter in their own personal lives—albeit in an exaggerated manner. For example, Baki’s half-brother, Jack Hanma, had surgery that lengthened the bones in his body and over-trained while on steroids because he thought it would help him become a better fighter.
In contrast, the disciplined Retsu Kaiou fights to demonstrate how Chinese Kenpo has improved since its inception. Basically, every fighter has a UFC pay-per-view style story associated with them, with the added bonus that series protag Baki doesn’t trounce every opponent he faces. In fact, the show has no problems with having Baki lose big battles if he can’t overcome his opponent’s physical skills or ideals about what it means to be a fighter. This alone makes Baki Hanma more of a compelling watch than much of today’s shonen anime, with its tendency to just be a power fantasy without any protein to be found in its writing.
While the fights in Baki kept me on the edge of my seat, its writing is what actually convinced me to stick with the series. What first led me to become a Baki fan is a moment from the previous series when Baki’s father Yujiro recalled a conversation he once had with Muhammad Ali, as you do. Although Yujiro isn’t at all what one would describe as a good guy in the show, he once told (the fictionalized) Ali that he “stands in reverence” of him not just for his in-ring accolades but for what his fighting spirit manifested in his personal life. In Baki episode 25, titled “Gods and the devil,” Yujiro tells Ali:
“You fought the status quo for the sake of impoverished African Americans. You fought your own government for the sake of the battered Viet Cong. You represented the weak and oppressed in all of your battles. You are hope. A shining beacon of hope for the powerless…You took on racial discrimination and then your entire country. You were never up against an easy opponent.”
The best part about Baki is that this isn’t the only time it dips into real-life history to highlight what makes a fighter strong. In fact, during the first season of Baki Hanma, the show touches on how Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara used the love of his people as fuel for his fight during the Cuban Revolution. He also just so happened to use it as motivation to fight a man who could expand his muscle to destroy the entirety of an Arizona State Prison in a battle where they traded blows with the added challenge of not letting go of the end of a handkerchief, which looked as rad as it sounds.
While Baki’s fights are visually clear and easy to follow, that doesn’t stop them from being both incredibly bizarre and compelling to watch. Look no further than Baki Hanma figuratively jumping the shark in its latest season by pitting modern-day fighters against a recently defrosted caveman named Pickle who used to hunt dinosaurs. Yet still, the anime manages to stay true to itself by using its fuck-off premise to explore the evolution of martial arts over the ages and whether or not it could be used to defeat a dude who used to hunt T-rex for food and would have no qualms with cannibalizing his opponents as well. Keep in mind, this is the season before Baki finally confronts his dad in The Father VS Son Saga which releases on August 24. The show is rad as hell and made me want to pick up a history book while simultaneously training at my local dojo.