Immaturity and Impunity: Performative Masculinity in Baki the Grappler

Content material warning: dialogue of home violence, sexual assault, drug use, and poisonous masculinity

Spoilers for Baki Hanma

Though Baki the Grappler is over thirty years previous, the franchise has seen a worldwide resurgence due to a recent take as an ONA collection hosted on Netflix. This was my gateway into the broader world of Baki, a charmingly ridiculous realm that, beforehand, I had solely glimpsed via DVD advertisements, web memes, and the occasional offhand suggestion if I had been ever within the temper for one thing mindlessly violent (which, for what it’s price, I’m normally not). However regardless of its enthusiastic embrace of playful exaggeration and dramatic pageantry, Baki the Grappler shouldn’t be written off as mind-numbing leisure for the lots. A important evaluation of Baki as up to date anime, and part of popular culture extra broadly talking, will help us all higher perceive how performative masculinity capabilities—and why it’s so probably harmful.

 Itagaki’s long-running manga collection has been tailored quite a few instances. These releases have taken many alternative varieties, together with an OVA, a tv collection, and numerous video video games. For my functions, I’m specializing in Baki (2018–2020) and its continuation Baki Hanma (2021–2023) with the intention to analyze depictions of masculinity in Itagaki’s authentic work whereas contextualizing them inside present sociopolitical climates. 

By means of a rocky relationship between an unrelenting father and an indomitable son, Baki posits that, sadly, we stay in a world the place may typically does make proper, be it morally, politically, or legally outlined. When such culturally outlined notions mix with socially enforced ideas of manliness, the outcomes might be as problematic as they’re potent. As a lot as I completely get pleasure from TMS Leisure’s animated rendition of Itagaki’s creation, I acknowledge the way it can perpetuate dangerous stereotypes, hurtful habits, and usually unhealthful existence whereas additionally selling self-discipline, perseverance, and self-reliance in equal measure.

Jack injecting a syringe into his neck; half his face looks into his skeleton

No matter entry level into the franchise, the story of Baki is a few younger man named Hanma Baki striving doggedly to perform a single, seemingly insurmountable purpose: defeating his father, Hanma Yujiro, identified by world governments and legal underworlds alike because the strongest creature on Earth. Initially, his function for doing so was to earn the love of his mom, Akezawa Emi, a lady who considered him solely as a method of retaining Yujiro’s affections. Whereas Emi’s shortcomings as a mom are many, Yujiro’s selfishness is solid because the supply of devastating emotional aftershocks. He tells the mom of his youngster that if he discovered the boy’s power to be inadequate in an upcoming bout, he would depart her; she, in flip, makes their son the goal of her discontent. On this method, Baki involves affiliate bodily preventing with incomes approval. Furthermore, he’s implicitly taught that proving oneself as a person is the one method to protect the nuclear household.

A youthful protagonist profitable his mom’s consideration by depriving his father of standing makes Baki appear downright oedipal. Nonetheless, Itagaki’s mythmaking is not any mere copy of the classics. Baki loses to his father and, in doing so, loses his mom: after Yujiro nearly beats his teenage son to dying, he kills Emi when she intervenes. Reasonably than remaining damage, this tragedy turns into Baki’s new motivation to finest his tyrannical father in hand-to-hand fight. His backstory vividly illustrates that, for good or unwell, a father’s affect within the home sphere is foundational to many facets of a boy’s private improvement.

A lot could possibly be stated about portrayals of womanhood on this collection; as an illustration, though Baki’s mom is little greater than a well-worn trope, his girlfriend, Matsumoto Kozue, refreshingly upends at the very least a few of the tiresome cliches involving distressed damsels discovered all through the style. But Baki predominantly depicts manly males preventing different manly males. Whether or not it includes open warfare between nations, lethal weapons wielded by expert warriors, or bare-knuckle brawls within the streets, violence is introduced because the medium via which males of all cultures talk.

Repeatedly, Itagaki makes use of this as a springboard for biting political commentary, which commonly consists of indictments of American hegemony on the worldwide stage. A climactic conflict between characters Biscuit Oliva, based mostly on bodybuilder Sergio Oliva (who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba to stay within the US), and Jun Guevaru, based mostly on Che Guevara (a revolutionary who helped overthrow the federal government of Fulgencio Batista), serves as a direct metaphor for the numerous ideologically fueled conflicts between capitalism and communism occupying a lot of the 20th century. However Baki additionally humorously lampoons particular, highly effective people: within the Netflix anime, viewers can see parodies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama quiver in worry of Yujiro, nicknamed Ogre for his inhuman talents and intimidating presence; within the manga, readers also can see knockoffs of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump taken down a peg by Yujiro’s brutish demeanor. Whereas this, too, is an attention-grabbing subject to discover, I’d like to make use of a sure former president as a springboard of my very own to debate a very essential Baki takeaway: the unsettling attract of poisonous masculinity.

As a result of concepts about masculinity range vastly relying on cultural context, a easy definition just isn’t as easy because it sounds. Talking from my restricted perspective as a cishet man, I contend that in any occasion, a defining characteristic is definitely its childishness: it’s a part of the rationale males are stereotyped as doing stupidly harmful issues once we must know higher, and why jokes abound about girls tending to stay longer. Although it’s not precisely a perfect for which to try, a lingering immaturity from boyhood typically resides in achieved males properly into maturity. Itagaki appears to agree with me: in Episode 6 of Baki Hanma, Oliva and Guevaru bond over their shared urge to be the hardest man within the room. The previous describes this trait as a flaw, and the latter says it’s one thing they need to have left behind after rising up. Combating, particularly the aggressive compulsion to win in any respect prices, is in comparison with childhood pleasures like sweet, toys, and playground video games—all properly and good throughout the folly of youth, however usually unbecoming of well-adjusted adults.

Certainly, a typical maxim within the collection and far of the fandom is that each boy goals of being the strongest man alive in some unspecified time in the future. The insinuation is that the majority of us males notice ultimately that we should let go of such foolish fantasies, simply as we should abandon different immature pursuits in alternate for recognition as protectors, suppliers, and achievers in our skilled areas of experience. (Clearly, examinations of those stifling expectations resonate not solely in Japan, however in quite a few different nations, too.) 

The characters in Baki, nonetheless, are allowed to be totally different. Whether or not they’re extremely revered in reputable society or social outcasts, they preserve a extra primal masculinity by settling issues with their fists. Thus, Baki confronts us with a troubling paradox: the need to dominate is immature, and subsequently have to be relinquished (or, at the very least, channeled appropriately) on the highway to maturity; but the manliest of males are sometimes regarded as those that, in a way, stay immature, who maintain on to their boyish goals of being one of the best at operating actually quick, or lifting heavy objects, or beating somebody utilizing solely their muscular tissues.

The second season of Baki Hanma expands on this theme. In Episode 15, the prime minister discusses the potential risk posed by Hanma Yujiro with members of his cupboard. Although they concede that Yujiro’s antics could possibly be a foul affect on Japanese youth, these necessary authorities leaders (all males, in fact) can’t assist however laud his uniquely spectacular bodily feats. One particularly, based mostly on Japanese politician Ozawa Ichiro, calls him “the aspiration of all males” and suggests to the prime minister that occupations like his personal, together with the whole lot else from rock stars to troopers (and, as a playful in-joke, even manga authors), are merely efforts to compensate for his or her lack of brute power. In keeping with such a worldview, place and status function imperfect substitutes for the sheer energy afforded by a powerful physique and the willpower to make use of it to the fullest. It’s not arduous to think about how repeated depictions of these in management gushing over an unrepentant assassin and rapist may gas corrosive strains of anti-intellectualism in any given populace.

Because of the rule of cool, Baki makes patently absurd comparisons between one man and full armies really feel fully plausible. The existence of a peace treaty between Yujiro and america of America is only one instance. There’s positively a thematic logic to it: Yujiro’s power and the impunity that comes with it mirror dominant nations regularly committing aggressions in opposition to weaker ones and getting away with it. Yujiro being held to account for his sins is about as doubtless because the US being punished for battle crimes. This alone has made him honored by growing nations. And though he doesn’t act on Japan’s behalf, Yujiro’s Japanese nationality is a profound reassertion of masculinity for a rustic whose navy was basically castrated by the US following its defeat in WWII. However I believe Itagaki is doing much more with Baki and characters like Yujiro than geopolitics.

In most respects, Yujiro is a horrible particular person and a horrible father. He might be merciless and petty, but he is without doubt one of the most iconic characters of the franchise. We watch each scene by which he seems with bated breath. He’s the villainous antagonist of Baki’s quest, the ultimate boss of a really high-stakes sport, however we are able to’t actually envision him shedding a battle. The recognition of Baki painfully demonstrates that we’re not preoccupied with him regardless of his bad-boy habits, we’re drawn to him as a result of of it. He instructions consideration and even affection exactly due to his potential to take what he needs, not regardless of it. When he met Emi, it didn’t matter to him within the slightest that she was a married lady: he wished her, so he took her.

Emi declaring that she'll give Baki to Yujiro as a present

However Emi’s characterization additionally reminds us that some girls fortunately play together with patriarchy. She was interested in Yujiro’s ferocity, not repulsed by it, and cherished how simply he dispatched her husband whereas claiming her for himself. In Episode 12 of Baki Hanma, Baki confronts a disturbing actuality whereas preventing the caveman Pickle: although his father murdered his mom, part of him can’t assist however admire his indeniable power. “There’s no denying it,” Baki says to himself, “each final inch of him is faultless.” A bodily spectacular man possesses an aura that generally permits him to, fairly actually, get away with homicide. Due to this, toxicity is neither a legal responsibility nor even an impediment to gaining prominence in sure circles. For a lot of males, it’s an asset, a instrument to be wielded to horrible impact.

That is the important thing to understanding a strongman like Donald Trump, or influencers like Andrew Tate, or the cultural second by which we presently discover ourselves. Since highly effective males—be they athletes, celebrities, or politicians—can get away with heinous habits, an efficient sleight of hand might be harnessed to worthwhile ends advert nauseam: virtually anybody can seem to be highly effective, particularly to naïve youngsters, simply by performing misogyny. Churlish defiance of something, even fundamental decency, is eagerly interpreted as manliness by immature or in any other case insecure males. It’s why neither Trump’s indictment for trying to overturn an election nor Tate’s arrest for alleged human trafficking have destroyed their respective careers: so long as they undertaking an air of bravado, they’ll retain loads of devoted followers. So, too, will Hanma Yujiro proceed to induce each fealty and worry within the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands across the globe. As we see within the climactic face-off along with his son, he’s worshiped by the lots not as a result of he’s good natured, however just because he’s sturdy. The flexibility to bend the cultural and political establishments that form our shared actuality to 1’s will is a show of power that invariably attracts a large portion of any inhabitants. 

Yujiro declares that strength is all that matters

Like different larger-than-life personalities, Yujiro arrogantly considers himself past reproach, beholden to no ethical code aside from his personal. The lack of home and worldwide legislation to restrain his actions does nothing to dispel him (or those that know him) of this unwavering perception. His disregard for the concerns of others manifests in surprisingly disturbing methods, like his insistence on approvingly patting Baki’s head regardless of the boy’s objections. Itagaki Keisuke provides us no poetic justice for Yujiro’s misdeeds, no comeuppance remotely proportional to what he deserves. Certain, his son went toe-to-toe with him as a worthy opponent (and gave him a superb kick within the crotch), however this was really the achievement of his best need. His personal flesh and blood being the one particular person able to injuring his in any other case invincible physique feeds his ego and reifies his sense of superiority. 

Because of both psychopathy or a aware effort on his half, Yujiro reveals an unwillingness or outright lack of ability to really feel, a lot much less categorical, guilt. He’s utterly remorseless: not solely does he refuse to apologize to Baki for killing his mom, he gained’t even supply him a proof for why he did it; he turns into indignant when his son dares to ask him about one thing he considers his private enterprise. Though this was the spark that ultimately ignited their fiery feud, Baki appears to forgo this demand of his father after the punches begin flying. The prospect for this uncared for boy to lastly bond along with his dad, even underneath such unusual circumstances, proves too attractive for him to move up. Though, as beforehand talked about, Baki outwardly protested being patted on the pinnacle, he couldn’t disguise how badly he sought his father’s approval. Right here is the place Baki reveals the final word payoff for performative masculinity: the evasion of accountability. Our want for a patriarch, an actual or symbolic father determine, typically compels us to miss the wrongdoings of highly effective males. That is why shaming those that abuse this want for their very own ends by no means actually works—they’re shameless! The one factor they reply to is a present of power.

Baki kicks Yujiro right in the crotch. "I'm so goddamn strong, nothing is a challenge!"

The result of the final word quarrel between father and son as depicted in Baki Hanma is fairly becoming, kind of. Baki’s earlier bout with Pickle prepares readers and viewers for ambiguity, for differing interpretations based mostly on technicalities to correctly outline victory and defeat. This isn’t to say I didn’t discover it immensely satisfying. After a lot buildup, Baki calling on each approach in his arsenal to cope with the head of bodily pressure lived as much as each ounce of hype it generated. However as a lot as I like this collection and respect Itagaki, I have to admit that I’m not fully comfy with how Baki’s arc ended within the anime. He grew immensely as a person, in power of character as a lot as thoughts and physique, however his father was capable of take a lot from him whereas nonetheless commanding his admiration. Yujiro murders and maims as he needs, by no means prone to shedding fame or fortune due to something he says or does.

However that is what makes Baki artwork. In a fictional world the place the unimaginable turns into believable, we should face the identical sobering actuality with which we’re introduced consistently in actual life: generally, the bullies win; generally, we don’t get the closure we’d like, and we’ve to make do with out that apology or rationalization we’re so rightfully owed. Via a protracted, painful journey, Baki finds his personal sense of contentment. He didn’t got down to change into one of many strongest fighters on the planet, however his interior motivation to avenge his mom and self-discipline his father took him to the mountaintop regardless. 

Yujiro reaching out to pat Baki. "Strength is the power to realize your wishes."

Taken as an entire, Baki has various redeeming qualities in terms of the way it depicts males and defines masculinity. It doesn’t encourage boys to be bullies, but it surely’s additionally not afraid to evangelise the timeless adage of speak shit, get hit. It reminds us to by no means choose a ebook by its cowl: Biscuit Oliva is an inmate who’s as well-read as he’s well-toned, a complicated connoisseur of advantageous wine and delicacies; Hanayama Kaoru is a yakuza boss with a strict sense of honor and responsibility. Plus, consider it or not, Baki really promotes good well being nearly as a lot because it portrays unrealistic recoveries from debilitating accidents! For instance, Baki’s half-brother Jack Hanma serves as a cautionary story in opposition to steroid abuse and different pitfalls on the lonely path to vengeance. Lastly, contemplating that the principle characters comprise a number of totally different nationalities, it’s genuinely fairly healthful how common being a dude actually is, on a elementary stage.

 In closing, there’s extra depth to Baki than those that haven’t skilled it most likely notice. On the floor, its emphasis on uncooked energy, submission, and the aggressive nature of maleness may make it seem considerably reactionary. True sufficient, loads of guys are going to take nothing greater than a gleeful exaltation of brutality away from their viewing; actually, I believe that may be cathartic at instances. However I strongly consider that its prevalence within the current is an indication of development, not regression. Hanma Baki exhibits us that being sturdy doesn’t need to imply being imply, and the pursuit of power as a person shouldn’t depend on placing down girls. Whether or not we’re martial artists or manga artists, and whether or not we’re from Japan, the US, or wherever else, we select what sort of particular person we’ll be day by day. We don’t need to emulate the worst qualities of Hanma Yujiro with the intention to achieve success, and we shouldn’t look as much as those that do. I’m assured that Baki the Grappler will proceed to encourage athletes, authors, and all these preventing to raised themselves for a lot of generations to return. 

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