I will be the first to admit that `fight' anime aren't really my strong point. Watching two impossibly proportioned thugs crush concrete with each other isn't my idea of entertainment. Even so, the sheer sense of focus in this anime left me, almost, impressed at the same time as I was repulsed by the content.
The anime begins with 100 thugs gathered under a bridge in the dead of night. The clothing lets you know that these are not `good' students and the weapons in their hands indicate they have violence on their mind. Indeed they've been gathered together for the sole purpose of beating up, perhaps even killing, another student. At which point you can't help but wonder why they need to have odds of 100 to 1. Something that begins to get answered when you meet Grappler Baki himself.
A red haired kid, in theory 13 years old but impossibly muscled. Every waking moment has been spent making himself stronger and faster. Studying the various fighting arts so that he can maim and injure with awesome speed and efficiency. There is nothing in his life that is more important than this, and he's already very skilled. He's obsessive and more than a little monstrous. And despite his skills, it's not nearly enough. Taking on 100 is simply another test, dying a risk he takes should he prove weak. He thinks of nothing but becoming stronger, although when we eventually meet his family we begin to see how he has been made into what he is.
I've seen fight anime before. Shows like Yu-Yu-Hakusho and Flame of Recca are basically an endless series of fights with a little bit of character work to frame it. But this series is on an entirely different level. It is a story almost entirely about fighting. Grappler Baki is never shown to have a life, if he makes friends it's after the two of them have tried to kill or maim one another, and his family are even more obsessive about the lure of violence and the growth of power. While it's easy, indeed tempting, to make fun of it for this limited depth over time it begins to build a sick fascination and even a monstrous sort of logic.
Needless to say it is also very, very violent. Blood flows freely, bones are broken, muscles are torn and injuries accumulate. When a blow lands, including on Baki, you are left in no doubt that it is a serious and intense attempt to maim the target. But it's more than that. It includes many individuals who get pleasure out of both the skills of combat and their application. They like hurting people, they've built their lives around becoming better at doing so, the receive satisfaction when they win. Indeed some of them, with Baki's unbelievably monstrous father at the forefront, have a philosophical belief in power and violence. When a character stops at a boxing gym and beats up everyone there he is trying to `teach' them something about how he thinks the world works, as much as he is getting enjoyment from it. There's even a strangely masochistic tinge to it, that they must find people stronger than themselves, and take the injuries they receive, in order to grow stronger. Even when these injuries are permanent and crippling.
It's not a clever series, it's not impressively deep, but it is astoundingly focused. There is the strong suggestion that the creators believe in the world they have created. A world of extreme humans, with primitive beliefs and shadowy and mysterious societies. And the series is so strongly focused on this world that it begins to almost gain a certain reality. You can almost imagine that such a world, that such viewpoints, could exist. It probably helps that I watched it all in one sitting, letting each episode build the substance of this strange and alien world.
Of course at the same time your brain is probably mentioning how stupid it all is. To begin with the whole `combat human' thing, which crops up on many occasions, is neatly answered by a couple of guys with assault rifles. No matter how much fighting skill you have there's a reason armies are full of guys with rifles rather than martial artists. So already there is an immense artificiality about the whole thing. Then we come to the fighting arts themselves. It's not super-hero territory but it certainly isn't reality either. In this world human beings can take insanely intense blows, perform awesome physical moves and use strange and almost magical fighting techniques. Once again, it's very silly. The human body, no matter how much you train or `believe' can not over-rule the existence of physics.
And the reason for all this is, strangely enough, philosophy. A strange and fairly idiotic belief system that is the essence of sport movies as well as fighting movies. And this is the belief that intense training, and a tiny bit of pseudo science / mysticism, enables some people to go well beyond humanity. Thus there is lots of hard training which makes Baki stronger. But also quite absurd stuff such as growing stronger by eating raw bear flesh, performing symbolic combats with beasts of nature and growing stronger by getting beaten up or using strange techniques which have more to do with magic than logic. The pseudo science involving some babble about using `adrenaline' and `hormones' to become capable of super human feats.
In other words it is entirely ridiculous. If you believe that this sort of thing has any connection to reality then your own connection has become dangerously tenuous. And if you find the belief systems, and people here, admirable then you seriously scare me. However at the same time there is a sick fascination with the world that the anime depicts. The intensity of the fights, the mono-maniacal obsessiveness of the participants and the slow evolution of the story is not without some degree of power. And indeed some of the events depicted are intense enough that you will remember them. The show doesn't really come to a conclusion, but then neither does the `quest' the show is about, so perhaps it's intentional. Or, more frightening, they hope to make more.
Still, if nothing else, the fights are pretty decent. It doesn't have the budget to truly animate every move but it does a pretty good job of suggesting the flow of combat and the important moves. There's a lot of imagination in how each combat goes, in the sequences and techniques called upon, and how the two combatants interact. No boring `energy blasts' or magic, no endless punch-fests, and the combats don't tend to drag on too long. Lots of variety in how people fight, where they fight and what happens during the fight. Baki himself is a little bit boring, but there are some sweet physical action sequences to enjoy.
Apart from that the animation is workable but not especially good. The main thing of notice is that it has a very odd visual style. It uses strongly contrasting sets of colors. Thus while a lot of the colors are fleshtones they will range from a very pale flesh color, to deep brown to black. This is largely so that huge, deeply defined, masses of muscle can be depicted. However it also shows up in the faces and characters, which are not particularly attractive but strongly `defined' by the shows visual style. It's a touch unusual, and as I mentioned not that attractive, but it fits the material being depicted quite well. It uses some `normal' backdrops which are sometimes attractive but often relatively undetailed and occasional `stills', often with motion blur, to capture a moment. The voices are fitting, although not all that subtle, and the music consists of a dancey opening and not all that much else.