Anyone that has been a fan of anime for a while may recognize the name Baki as a OAV movie that came out in the 90's as well as a 40+ volume manga. If you're the type of viewer that can't get enough flying fists, cracked ribs and bloody noses then you're going to be in male muscle bound heaven. Seriously, there are more shirtless guys walking around in this show than you can (or would want to) shake a stick at.
The whole focus of this series is on Baki fighting, getting his ass kicked and then rising above the challenge. With all of the screaming, punching, kicking and bleeding going on there's not a lot of time to tell a story or add depth to it's characters. Granted this is only the first volume and we are being introduced to the world Baki lives in, but aside from a bunch of fights and watching him train we don't get much else.
Even though he's only 13 years old, Baki Hanma aspires to be as strong, if not stronger than his father and is more beefy than a baseball player on steroids. The kid knows how to fight too, but he keeps getting involved in battles where the odds are stacked against him to test his abilities. Whether it's him squaring off against a hundred guys, a world champion grappler or a nine foot kung fu fighting ape, he always seems to try to be the underdog.
After loosing a fight in a big way Baki retreats to the mountains to train some more and eventually meets up with his giant friend Ando. For the next two episodes you get to see Baki train and sweat more to the oldies than Richard Simmons ever did. He "awakens his endorphins" which initiates a borderline orgasmic hallucinogenic response and really is more creepy than effective. It's by doing this that he overcomes his weaknesses and feels that he's stronger than ever and ready to fight some more.
That's really the only story going for this show so far, though we do see some points of intrigue with other characters at times, but nothing develops from those plotlines in this volume. There other points of the story follow a few other fighters that Baki has (or will) interact with and some puppet mastering by his mother who seems to be trying to turn him into his father. I don't know if she sees the boy as his father already, but at one point she kisses him full on the mouth which needless to say, raised an eyebrow.
Despite its lack of purpose and reason so far, Baki the Grappler does have a lot of humor going for it. The kid has a lot of great one-liners and spouts out some funny stuff to break the monotony of watching fight after fight. There's even some visual humor too and I can't get enough of watching him kick the nine foot monkey where it counts.
One look at Baki the Grappler should tell you that the artist direction is a style all it's own with chubby faced characters and flexing muscles. Even though the show has an interesting art style, the battles here are mostly still frame and there are some shortcuts in the animation process. Every other part of the show is wonderfully produced, but complete animations during the fight scenes would have gone a long way to making it more enjoyable.
Baki the Grappler is presented with a 1.85:1 non anamorphic widescreen transfer, which is what it originally aired with in 2001. While the presentation is very clean at times there is some noticeable grain, aliasing and jittery animations. This may have mostly to do with the original material and is only recognizable if you really scrutinize the image quality. There is a great use of colors and lighting with little saturation and even though the fighting animations are still, there are some nice effects to go along with them.
There are three separate tracks to choose from, each with optional English subtitles. There are Japanese and English 2.0 stereo tracks as well as an English 5.1. The two stereo tracks are competent enough, but ideally you'll be using the 5.1 option even though it would have been nice for a Japanese 5.1 selection. The English dubbing is pretty good for the most part, even though there are a few performances that could have been better. The directional sound is used very effectively, especially with all of the action going on during the show.
Baki the Grappler's first volume features quite a selection of extras. First off is a description of Muay Thai Boxing that goes into detail about the fighting style and some of the rules of combat. Next up is a commentary for episode one with director Jeremy Inman and Baki's English voice actor Robert McCollum. They talk about some bits of the production of the audio and other interesting facts about the show, but the best part of the commentary is that it's absolutely hilarious. I think I enjoyed watching the show with the commentary more than just watching the show itself.
There are also some character profiles and some manga artworks and stills from various points of action during the show. Rounding out everything are a handful of trailers and a forced preview for Yu Yu Hakusho.
To be honest, I have some mixed feelings about Baki the Grappler. The fights are cool and some of the characters are interesting, but this first volume doesn't really delve into much story aside from Baki training to be stronger. The groundwork has been laid down for future volumes to tell an interesting story, but this first volume just feels like it's lacking in the plot department. Unless you're a fan of fighting anime, I'd say rent this one until we see where the series goes down the road.