Chinese Girl Cartoons – Baki (2018)

Spoilers! Come getcha spoilers! Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the show and don’t want to know any plot details! Spoilers! Spoilers here!

In which extremely large and hideously ugly men hit each other for reasons. We certainly have come a long way since the good old days of OVAs with excessive plot condensation, now this fucking thing gets 26 whole episodes of wildly inconsistent madness in which plot threads and characters are picked up and dropped at random. I guess this is what happens when you adapt a long-running manga and start and end in the middle with no intention of writing an original ending to cap it off neatly. Props to the writers for authenticity, of course, but by the time this series is over it feels no more conclusive than its beginning felt introductory. It definitely presumes familiarity with the Baki universe, which is fair enough since the original manga is incredibly popular in Japan, but prior to this point all I had seen of it was an OVA the main feature of which was Baki’s fight with a guy who could rip the nerves out of his opponent’s neck, so needless to say this series in which said nervy boy was only a minor player was quite confusing to start with.

The basic premise, which becomes less and less relevant as the story progresses, is that five of the world’s worst murderers have escaped death row and come to Japan in search of the ultimate fight and true defeat, both of which presumably will be delivered to them by our boy Baki. Well, spoilers: they ain’t. In fact Baki spends most of his time not fighting at all, and pretty much all the bad guys are beaten by other people, only one of whom I knew from the OVA. Instead, Baki is too busy having awkward and rather graphic sex with his girlfriend while the crims are beaten to a pulp very slowly by various martial arts masters and an enormous black man with a huge boner (I am not making this up) whose name is Biscuit (I repeat: I am not making this up). And then for no apparent reason we get Muhammad Ali… sorry, Muhammad Alai (yes, Alai) Jr., who becomes a major character out of nowhere during the last three episodes.

On the face of it, it should be a very entertaining and wonderfully violent affair, but for all the blood and teeth flying around there is a strong sense of of flatness and banality to the violence itself. Even when guys literally have their skulls caved in with bare fists, the impact feels dull. Even when someone literally has their face burnt off, there is no sense of revulsion or horror. The art style revels in ugliness, but when it must show wounds it seems to shy away. Whether it’s flayed skin, deep cuts, or broken bones, everything is presented in the manner of face or body paint; almost nothing looks like it actually hurts but was painted on, as if the whole thing is just playfighting. This isn’t helped by the bizarre and incongruous moments in which the characters suddenly become cel-shaded 3D models and animate dodgily at one another. Yes, yes, I know, cartoons aren’t real, but this cartoon has managed to make itself seem unreal in its own presented reality, and this weakens what should be an agreeable bit of skull cracking goodness.

It’s not all bad though. The patent ridiculousness, the absurdity of much of what happens across Baki‘s 26 episodes is very watchable, even when it decides to depict the most awkward and ugly sex scene you can imagine. Like, if you think back to The Room, and Tommy Wiseau’s bony-arsed navel humping style of intercourse, this is more like something out of a Goya painting. It’s not full-blown hentai, but it’s not far off, and there is something about it that is far more monstrous than any of the fight scenes. Again, I would say that this is largely down to the Halloween facepaint approach to depicting the result of having your face burnt off, but hey, even if the violence had been as extreme as it should have been, this would still be quite affectingly horrendous. But between the ridiculous facial expressions and behaviours of the characters, the bizarre conversations that amount generally to nothing, and the sudden inexplicable introductions and disappearances of apparently important characters, there is an undeniable hook (made partially of military grade weirdness) to Baki that kept me coming back even after episodes that I found rather boring. If JoJo is consistently weird and quite aware of how weird it is (“bizarre” is in the title, after all), Baki is like a show assembled by an AI, all the right materials are there, but it lacks the kind of sense and character that a human would impart on their creation. Now, not having read the manga, I can’t comment on the accuracy of this adaptation, but whether it is faithful or not there’s something awfully off about the pacing and the balance of it all.

Now, I get it, this isn’t the entirety of the Baki story, I know that. But to stay with that comparison for a moment, JoJo didn’t start halfway through Stardust Crusaders (okay, yes, the original OVA did) and end halfway through Diamond is Not Crash (stickin’ with it!). Baki feels not even half finished but half started, for that reason I would have a difficult time recommending it to someone as a piece of narrative fiction. However, as a piece of “what even is this?” I can kind of recommend it, assuming you aren’t squeamish about blood, which if you’re familiar with the trash I usually watch for these reviews you won’t be. It’s a severely weird show, wildly inconsistent in quality, with plot threads that go nowhere and characters that just disappear and reappear without rhyme or reason, and a main attraction of extreme violence that ain’t really all there. It is weird but in a way that doesn’t feel at all calculated or congruous or idiosyncratic, and ultimately it comes off as an unintentionally strange mess. But it is entertaining, and that has to count for something.

 

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