Baki is BACK; this time, the fights are more out of this world than ever! Literally, as the thawing out of the caveman, Pickle inspires Japan’s top martial artists to test themselves against his prehistoric power. Can generations of martial and technological evolution stand up against the strongest predator of Earth’s most brutal era? Soon after, Retsu sees how his Kung Fu performs in the boxing ring as the father-son brawl between Yugiro and Baki finally begins to ramp up. While the two try to explore and redefine their relationship, it’s clear to everyone that conflict is inevitable, and the world braces for what’s set to be a catastrophic encounter. This is the fight the entire franchise has been building toward over numerous titles, and we will finally learn if Baki has become strong enough to defeat the Ogre, his father, and the strongest living creature in the world.
I hate that there’s a sexual assault scene in this season of Baki, and mad enough about it that this review is opening with my analysis of what’s easily the worst part of the season. The second episode of this season opens with revived caveman Pickle sexually assaulting a news reporter live on air. This is gross, gratuitous, and ultimately lazy writing, as there are so many more interesting ways to establish the problems involved in having a hulking caveman walking around in the modern day besides him not knowing what consent is. The anime even features some more thought-provoking problems later on, with Pickle refusing to eat anything he doesn’t personally fight and causing traffic accidents because he doesn’t know what cars are.
The choice to establish Pickle early on by his ability to inflict sexual violence is incredibly frustrating because he’s an entertaining character outside of this! His glee at being able to fight these very serious martial artists while also being utterly indifferent to their very serious philosophies and motivations was hilarious. This dynamic drove home how none of these characters are serious people and instead overgrown children who want to be the toughest kid on the playground and are falling over themselves to fight the new kid who’s one of the best at their game without even realizing it. While I loved when the Raitai Tournament Saga explored the philosophies present in different forms of martial arts, the pure joy expressed by these characters at being able to execute their chosen craft — beating people up real good — at the highest level was equally enjoyable and endearing.
Pickle also embodies a neat thought experiment in martial arts. As noted in the Raitai Tournament Saga — and many martial arts movies broadly — early self-defense techniques come from people trying to mimic the movements of animals as they defend themselves from predators. This inspiration is still overtly present in some disciplines, such as Mantis Style Kung Fu. How would modern martial arts match up against someone who had to survive alongside dinosaurs, the strongest animals in the history of the world, though?
That’s the question at the heart of the first 13 episodes of this season of , and when it focuses on that question, it’s impressive in a way that’s deeply appealing to my inner twelve-year-old boy.
The back half of the season centers on Baki and Yujiro finally facing off and settling the numerous long-standing beefs between them. While there are side stories, like Retsu getting into boxing and Chiharu Shiba repeatedly challenging Baki to hype up the young man before his fight with Yujiro, the relationship between this father and son is the focus. The exploration of this relationship is also much more nuanced than I expected from an anime with a few episodes that boiled down to, “What if a caveman fought a guy who did a lot of steroids?”
While Baki wants to fight his dad this season, he wants to reframe his relationship with his father more. Baki’s tired of his dad being the most important person in his life while also being an enigmatic figure he knows nothing about. So he decides that, if and when they fight, it’ll be because they got into a disagreement, which would be typical for a father and son, and spends much of the season trying to integrate Yujiro into his life. Baki has meals with his father, learns about food and culture from his father, and eventually fights with him over how he treated Baki’s mother. Granted, that treatment involves Yujiro killing her after Baki failed to defeat him in a fight, but seeing Baki and Yujiro form a more complicated dynamic was refreshing.
Anime, and a lot of fiction broadly, often doesn’t explore the nuance of relationships with characters that can be broadly characterized as abusers. Often, those characters are just villains, and protagonists only see them as hated obstacles to overcome. That’s not how things work in real life, though; this kind of view only gives an abuser more power by making them the center of a character’s life. It’s much more compelling to see Baki try to change his relationship with Yujiro into something where they can both be active participants, rather than the anime framing this as a wholly good vs. evil fight. This isn’t to say that has deep ruminations on abuse narratives and complex power dynamics, but the characters here felt true to life in a way that both surprised and resonated with me.
The final, multi-episode spanning fight between Baki and Yujiro also lived up to the hype and is one of the best in the series. Of course, these meathead characters wouldn’t truly be able to understand each other and see their personhood without duking it out for a while. The art and animation in this fight are a cut above, even for this visually wild and wonderful series. The visual of Yujiro flexing every muscle in his body simultaneously will haunt me for months, and sequences where Baki metaphorically transforms into a liquid are equally well done and striking. Baki’s VA, Troy Baker, and Yujiro’s VA, Kirk Thornton, are also exceptional in this final bout. Both characters’ identities are laid bare throughout this fight, and both actors do a terrific job of bringing that whole spectrum of emotions to life.
Even if I started this review by focusing on the biggest blemish of this season and perhaps the entire series to this point, this is the best Baki has ever been. It’s completely understandable if this anime isn’t for you, but if you can get on with this ride, it’s a great one. As a fan, this was everything I wanted from the series and more, and anything we might get beyond this will be a fun bonus.