Ep. 90: New Grappler Baki Volume 1, by Keisuke Itagaki
David hosts this week, continuing his “Violence Hell!” series of manga picks for season 4 with BAKI, by Keisuke Itagaki! Will this hyper-violent treatise on masculinity be a big hit with the crew, or is it going to be “Too Las Vegas?” What does ANY of that mean!? Listen and find out!
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New Grappler Baki Volume 1
By Keisuke Itagaki
Translated by Richard Jesner/Monosuke Inc.
Published by Media Do Co. Ltd, Digital Only
Included in the Kindle/Comixology Unlimited subscription
Audio editing by David Brothers. Show notes by Christopher Woodrow-Butcher and Deb Aoki
BEFORE WE GET STARTED
Hey all, Christopher here and I’m writing up a storm this week. Just a warning up front though: This comic is extremely violent, and some of the images we include here are also extremely violent. If that’s not your thing, that’s totally cool, but just letting you know before the fists fly and real crazy stuff kicks in.
ABOUT KEISUKE ITAGAKI
It was pretty refreshing to Google this author and see dozens of photos of him. Most manga creators tend to live pretty private lives, but Keisukue Itagaki seems like a pretty outgoing dude. A veteran of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force, Itagaki is also an amateur boxer and a lifelong Shorinji Kempo martial arts practitioner. Oh, and he makes manga!
Born in Kushiro, Hokkaido in 1957, Itagaki is one of those manga creators that’s just shy of a household name in Japan, but has had a strange and abortive career in English-language manga. His Japanese career started in 1989, but it took just two years until he developed his smash-hit series Grappler Baki in 1991, a series that has become his life’s work (with a few detours along the way).
The original 42-volume Baki series would go on to spawn four sequel series, which end up being136 volumes of manga, with more than 95 million copies in print. That first series, Grappler Baki, did get an English release (or at least an attempt at one) as U.S. publisher Gutsoon Entertainment released the first 5 of 42 volumes before they folded in the early 2000’s manga crash. You can either find those volumes for crazy prices online or for literally 25 cents in discount bins — there’s no in-between out there in out-of-print manga land.
As we mention throughout the podcast, we’re starting with the second series, simply titled Baki in English, though apparently the “official romanization” of this title is New Grappler Baki: In Search of Our Strongest Hero, which is a much better name, and Media Do probably should’ve used that. Lol. This series is 31 volumes, all of which are on Kindle, and as you’ll see we only scratch the surface as we discuss just volume one here.
There’s a lot more to talk about in the bio section, but we reveal a lot about the creator, the series, and its fans as we go through the podcast (did you know that Beastars creator Paru Itagaki is actually the daughter of Baki creator Keisuke Itagaki? That’s a picture of them up there!).
[DEB:] ICYMI, check our our episode and show notes on Beastars!
02:00 David mentions the anime for Baki, and there was both an early 2000s series with multiple seasons and original animation videos, and then a ‘revival’ series on Netflix a few years back that spurred a whole new range of interest in the property. This is realistically where David ‘discovered’ it here for the podcast, and fell in love. Interestingly, with both a 2000s series and a 2020s series, Baki is one of the few anime that spans literal generations of fandom, all coming together to watch dudes just absolutely wail on one another.
[DEB:] If you have a Netflix subscription, go check out the BAKI anime and the new BAKI Hanma anime in all of its violent and gory glory. Here’s a trailer that only hints at what’s in store:
“Because, Baki is very straightforward: If you aren’t into this kind of manga, you probably won’t like Baki. But if you like these kind of action scenes, this kind of non-toxic hyper-masculinity…I think Baki has a lot going for it.”David Brothers, on Baki
02:45 It’s my own fault that David went right to me this week, because I made SUCH a face when he described Baki as “Non-Toxic Hypermasculinity”, considering every single character in the first two volumes of the book except Baki is not just ‘toxic,’ but a violent murderous psychopath. Except for Baki, who everyone is deathly afraid of, so… yeah. I dunno, I only read 2 volumes so who knows? But I… did not see it when he mentioned it, and, spoilers, 3 months later, I still KINDA don’t see it.
06:20 When they murdered the poor convenience store worker who sold that one murderer a nikuman (a delicious steamed bun with meat filling inside), that was kinda the equivalent of killing the dog, for me. It’s like being rude to a waitress — that murderer has no f**king class.
07:46 Oh look, Chip Disagrees.
08:30 I do think that Chip’s rebuttal coming in the form of “This is like Mark Millar” might still count as a victory for me, But I do think that’s a perfect comparison. Spend a little time telling the reader EXACTLY how badass the character is (see: that time a Mark Millar villain boobytrapped someone’s womb?!) to set them up as an important hero or an important threat.
09:37 We talk a lot in this episode about the nature of “The Grotesque” in art, and how things can be both revolting and beautiful at the same time. Chip specifically references North American comic book artist Tradd Moore again, as someone who does beautiful artwork of grotesque figures and often some pretty crazy violence. We’ve mentioned him here on the podcast a few times before too, and I see the comparison and his work is great.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but on really reflecting on these hyper-stylized, muscled, distended figures, I’d say it reminds me a bit of Bart Sears’ work actually, another American Super Hero artist.
Either way, the musculature on display here really is something else.
10:00 Here’s some C4 in a High School, to explain what C4 is and why it’s important! The 90s were a very different time.
10:30 Continuing the grotesqueries, here’s that image that Chip mentions which is a title page with Baki showing off his grotesquely modelled arm. There’s… a lot of muscles going on there.
10:45 Chip mentioned his newsletter, so lets give it a shout-out! Go check out his Substack, now an enemy of Twitter!
11:41 The Strong Is The Beautiful? The Strong Is The Beautiful.
11:50 If you’re in the right headspace for this book there’s a ton of comedic moments, like this guy, whose “Butt has literally inhaled his pants.”
15:07 As Deb mentioned, the insanity of the guy in the electric chair who shakes off getting electrocuted, and then comes back to life and kills a bunch of guys, is really something else.
You’ll have to read the book for the scene of the guy who got hanged.
“Grappler Baki is the Las Vegas of manga. Just relax, don’t take it too seriously.”-Deb Aoki
But Deb, we’re a Manga Podcast! If we don’t take Grappler Baki seriously, who will?
Haha, seriously though. “The Las Vegas of manga,” is a great quote. Trashy, over the top, messy, surprisingly violent, and fun if you’re in the right mood for it. Just don’t stay too long.
15:50 “He blew his his brains out,” takes on new meaning in Baki.
16:55 Chip isn’t exaggerating here; Some of these dudes really are 10 feet tall, it’s insane. The comparison to normal people, even normal people that are supposed to be kind of big and tall and muscley is hilarious.
18:30 David mentions this essay by Geoff Klock, about The Grotesque in Art, but fails to mention that it’s about Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, which was QUITE the divisive work when it came out.
18:45 David brings up our episode on Chainsaw Man, and that’s a good one, that talks about the interplay between a ‘fun’ shonen/seinen manga story and some pretty gross violence, and how pushing the characters in a non-human direction lets you get away with more violence. Go check out that episode, it’s a good one.
19:11 Chip brings up Tom of Finland, a gay illustrator known for his exceptionally gay drawings and comics. Tom of Finland also features characters with, lets say “Heroic” proportions, extra-large bodies (and appendages) that are highly stylized.
I didn’t wanna derail the whole podcast here, it’s not Tom of Finland-Splaining, but man I coulda dug real deep into this idea. I think Chip isn’t wrong at all, the idealization of the Tom of Finland drawings (which inspired the ‘gay clone’ look of the late 70s and 80s), the homoerotic male gaze, versus Itagakai’s near-sexless male gaze, it’s a really interesting idea!
I don’t think the proportions are quite as distended, but they are definitely both idealized and consistent in similar ways. But there’s a huge difference too, in that, so far as I can tell, Tom of Finland never really drew “normal” people in his work. In fact in all of the Tom of Finland comics and drawings I’ve seen (quite a few…), I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who doesn’t have that exact same “Tom of Finland” physical build as everyone else. In fact, in Tom’s world there’s just dudes, all with the same build and similar style, always right on the verge of having a very good time, it’s kind of monomaniacal? In Baki, normal people do appear, but they’re really just victims of these hulking violent gods.
20:05 We mention a few series really quick here, and later in the episode, that range from “Teen no-goodnicks being badasses” to “ultra violent nightmare battles” with quite a few in between. For the record though, those titles are:
- Crows, by Hiroshi Takahashi (High school delinquent manga). Not yet released in English.
- Tokyo Revengers, by Ken Wakui (high school delinquent manga with time-travel). Available in digital from Kodansha, with print 2-in-1 omnibuses from Seven Seas.
- Ikebukuro West Gate Park, by Ira Ishida and Sena Aritou (post-high-school gang manga). Out of print in English.
- Kengan Ashura, by Yabako Sandrovich and illustrated by Daromeon (secret battle arena manga with vicious lead fighter). Available digitally at Comikey, plus an anime series on Netflix
- Golosseum, by Yasushi Baba (international martial arts tournament for secret elixir(?) of indestructability featuring thinly-veiled caricatures of real people, most notably Vladmir Putin). Published by Kodansha.
- Fist of the North Star, by Tetsuo Hara and Buronson (post-apocalyptic badass murders murderers in a barren wasteland where only honor and martial arts matter). In print/digital from VIZ Media.
- Record of Ragnarok, by Shinya Umemura and Takumi Fukui and illustrated by Ajichika (all of the Gods of the universe battle humanity’s greatest warriors for the fate of reality. Published in English by VIZ Media. We did an episode on it!)
It’s probably worth noting that Baki IS somewhat unique in being a pure battle manga, and was also quite influential in its own right. But I don’t think it exists in a vacuum, and its antecedents are generally pretty beloved by the people who enjoy it.
21:00 Here’s that insane image of the swimming Chip loves, ⅔ of a page closeup with TEETH!
23:50 While we’re exploring standout images, here’s those weird knuckles from page 84.
25:00 I don’t want to get shanked by rabid Baki fans, but yeah, these first two volumes where Baki is just sitting around being terrifying to everyone around him, and everyone in the book is talking about destroying him and killing dozens of people to get to him? Real Poochie Vibes.
28:15 Yeah, as mentioned none of the characters in this book have dicks, so far as I can tell. This dude is actually concave where his penis and testicles should be.
Since you’re all here for stunning insight to my teenage years, I will say that when I was a comic-buying teen, I bought The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe “Master Edition” that began serializing in 1990, that had ‘turnarounds’ of all of the characters on card stock with hole punches at the top so they’d fit in a three ring binder.
I loved it as a teenage Marvel fan, but as a gay kid I couldn’t help looking at it and being… I think I would have said ‘disappointed’ at the time (actually I was deeply closeted, I would have just pretended I did not know what you were talking about). Because you see, they didn’t just draw the characters like Ken dolls with no definition in the crotch (a real change of pace from Tom of Finland up top), but they actually went so far as to draw those characters as… well… concave? See for yourself:
I look at it now, and it’s exactly as I remember. Maybe worse actually? Where the fuck is 3D Man’s dick? For characters that wear outfits that leave very little to the imagination, literally everything is left to the imagination here.
Sigh. I can’t believe how disappointed I am all over again. Especially because Marvel is still using these illustrations.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, in comics for hetero dudes, there’s a long proud history of making sure they don’t accidentally see a dick. Baki and the Marvel U proudly uphold this tradition, together.
28:48 So yeah, this fat teen no-goodnick is drawn like he’s a 35-year old dockworker, which is already pretty good, but then as Chip mentions he does have “some” of the hallmarks of the erotic manga dudes that I mentioned enjoying, maybe back on our episode about MASSIVE for example?
As Chip mentions, there’s a lot of attention to detail here with things like chest hair being really lovingly drawn… but compare and contrast with this image of a hairy dude by Ebisu from Massive:
One is clearly meant to repulse, and one is clearly meant to tittilate (even if it’s not your thing). I’m not mad about it (not like the Official Handbook nonsense up top), but this is the kind of thing (back in 1990) that would have been ‘mainstream representation’ for bigger dudes: Bullies, punks, gross and hairy… versus the hairless and ripped hero, or the hairless and ripped “Main” villains. Talking to gay comics fans, especially bears and gay mangaka, characters like this would absolutely be turn-ons for your horny teen self… Even though you knew they were supposed to be ‘gross’. So, yeah, Chip’s not exactly wrong, but also I’m not giving Baki points for that.
(Aside 1: Itagaki IS kinder to other characters, giving them grotesquely pretty faces, long eyelashes, thick eyeliner even, pursed lips, etc., but that fat dude ain’t it.)
(Aside 2: Also I know Chip was making a throw away gag and I have taken it too seriously here, but I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Tokyo letting my mind wander while I’m writing this stuff, so why NOT dig in, right?)
Anyway, for a better example of a hairy chubby manga character that a lot of gay folks actually had a ‘crush’ on, look no further than Kochikame’s Ryotsu Kankichi, star of over 150 volumes of manga from Shonen Jump. The dad-bod that launched 10,000 doujinshi, and countless daddy fetishes in Japan.
He’s a hairy daddy type, he gets naked a surprising amount of the time, there’s even an anime! Admittedly, he is a cop, but no one’s perfect.
34:50 On the other end of the spectrum is the artist Richard Corben, known for his sci-if work on American Underground comics, science fiction and horror, in particular his series DEN. Corben’s work is similarly idealized and distorted, and definitely plays with the idea of the grotesque.
[DEB:] Incidentally, Dark Horse is releasing a new edition of DEN that’s coming out starting in August 2023. You can pre-order it now!
35:30 So the actual title of that original novel about BL Baki is Grappler Baki BL de wa Nai ka to 1-Nichi 30-Jikan 30-Nichi Kangaeta Otome no Kiroku (Notes of a Girl Who Spent 30 Hours a Day for 300 Days Thinking “So Baki The Grappler Is BL, Right?”). It was an book-length essay by sociologist Junko Kaneda, that was then adapted into a narrative live-action television drama.
So, maybe someone DID find something sexy in this book that I missed? Though as Deb says:
“The chronicle of a maiden who thinks Baki is a BL. Baki BL? That’s a lonely, lonely ship.”
And to explain the joke, shipping is when you as a reader are interested in the relationSHIP between two characters, usually in a piece of fiction, and usually two male characters. And yeah, anyone X anyone in Baki seems like it would be pretty lonely.
Meanwhile: While doing a bit more research, I just read this article, and wow, some people really ARE interested in the Baki characters banging, because the anime delivered JUST THAT.
I like that David knew this, having watched the anime, and didn’t bring it up.
36:50 I mentioned our episode on Raw Hero, which is another fun one that’s basically depraved fun.
It’s sort of interesting, in retrospect, how many other manga we’ve read here on the podcast that we need to bring up this episode to try and make sense of Baki.
37:40 You can’t draw a page like this, guy crawling on the ground with a straight jacket, without being aware of what you’re doing.
Honestly, go back up and read that Geoff Klock essay on the grotesque. It’ll only take 5 minutes, and I feel like he’d have a lot of similar things to say about Baki.
40:00 Speaking of previous episode of Mangasplaining, last season David gave us another martial arts manga, though a little bit less… Murderous? Lol. That manga is All-Rounder Meguru by Hiroki Endo, and is complete (digital only) from Kodansha. If you somehow missed us talking about that one and just ended up here for Baki, and want something that’s more Mixed Martial Arts than Magic Murder Masochists, go check out that episode:
45:00 I googled “Batman falling from the moon” from Chip’s current run on Batman, and got treated to this headline graphic from Polygon that’s so good on its own that’s really all that needs to be said.
Since we’re plugging Chip this week ANYWAY, the first hardcover collection of his run on Batman was just released and it looks really good! Here’s a picture of him with it:
You can go read this Publisher’s Weekly interview with Chip, too!
47:00 Chip was referring to Jiro Taniguchi’s A Journal of My Father, here. It’s kind of the gold standard for serious/sad manga that we’ve read here on the podcast. It’s really good manga, and I think we did right by it. Go listen:
48:45 Saving the very best for last, there is ONE MORE tournament manga that we’ve mentioned (a lot) and read (and enjoyed) here on Mangasplaining, and that is the absolutely irrepressible Dick Fight Island, by Reibun Ike. Two men enter, whoever makes the other ejaculate first wins. It’s even better than it sounds. If you haven’t heard that episode (or read the extremely sexy show notes), I highly recommend you go check it out:
49:00 Speaking of lonely ships, Deb mentions that she once purchased erotic doujinshi featuring the real life band Rammstein. I snuck through her Instagram and lo and behold, it’s true! I wonder if she still has it?
[DEB:] Indeed, I still have it, but it’s filed away somewhere. I’ll take photos of the interior if I find it again!
As a final thought, on a second or third re-read there were a few moments in here of genuine, intentional homoeroticism in this book, but I think I missed them the first time around because they all come from a place of fear, for the most part. One dude lovingly putting his lips on another dudes ears (before blowing his brains out), or this scene at the urinal from book two that is just… a lot.
There’s definitely more going on here in the subtext than I gave it credit for, but at the same time, it’s pretty unrealized in the text. At least in what I’ve read so far. Maybe that sociologist is right and it is secretly BL? It was an interesting book though, and I can’t say I’m never gonna read more.
49:29 THE BREAK
Now it’s time for SHOUT OUTS
DEB shouts-out the *very* NSFW Korean webtoon JINX, by Mingwa. This story about a champion MMA fighter and how he deals with his pre-fight jinx by having rough sex before his title matches is A LOT, but maybe in a good way? You decide. Published by Lehzin. (Account required since its 18+)
CHRISTOPHER shouts-out Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam, an upcoming graphic novel about Food and Family by Thien Pham, from First Second Publishing.
CHIP shouts-out the television show The Good Wife. Good show that really did Kalinda dirty in those last seasons. BTW, did you know that they did a version of The Good Wife in Japanese? Google it, it’s near.
DAVID shouts-out the upcoming film The Covenant, by Guy Ritchie with Jake Gyllenhall. He also kind of shouts-out Jake Gyllenhall in general.
We also get a mention of Alexander Ludwig, Bjorn from Vikings, and since it’s that kind of episode, sure, I’ll include a sexy beat-up photo of that dude.
Chip redirects the recommendations to Jake Gyllenhall’s appearance in the John Mullaney comedy special The Sack Lunch Bunch, which is quite good and is also on YouTube, legally, in its entirety:
Finally, we come to the sad revelation that I didn’t actually read the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sorry. It’s still on my iPad and I will read it. Especially because a friend of mine who listens to the podcast just read it and, like Chip, called it one of the best novels ever written, and like now I feel like a heel. I promise, I’ll start it on the plane tomorrow.
And that’s this week in Mangasplaining! This episode is also available wherever you get your podcasts, so please subscribe and leave a review, so others can discover our show. Also, if you’d like to get the latest episode delivered straight to your inbox along with exclusive interviews, articles and new chapters of manga you can’t read anywhere else, subscribe to our Substack newsletter. See what you’re missing at Mangasplaining Extra!
Next week on Mangasplaining:
Get ready for a very special crossover episode with Matt Alt and Patrick Macias from the Pure Tokyoscope Podcast! Haven’t heard Pure TokyoScope yet? Go listen! They get into what’s happening in Japan now, like their recent spoiler-free episode about the Shin Kamen Rider movie, reminisce about the good ole days of pre-mainstream Japanese pop culture fandom, and much, much more.
Thanks so much for listening! Please support your local comic and manga specialty shop when purchasing these books, and you can find one near you at comicshoplocator.com. You can also check your local library for print and digital lending options, they have TONS of manga! Finally, thanks to D.A.D.S. for their musical accompaniment for this episode.
[…] Fancy a bit of the old ultraviolence? The Mangasplainers have the series for you: Keisuke Itagaki’s New Baki Grappler, one of the most bloody, muscle-bound manga ever translated into English. [Mangasplaining] […]