Immaturity and Impunity: Performative Masculinity in Baki the Grappler

By: Jonny Lobo February 28, 20240 Comments
Yujiro holds Baki's head between his palms

Content warning: discussion of domestic violence, sexual assault, drug use, and toxic masculinity

Spoilers for Baki Hanma

Although Baki the Grappler is over thirty years old, the franchise has seen a global resurgence thanks to a fresh take as an ONA series hosted on Netflix. This was my gateway into the wider world of Baki, a charmingly ridiculous realm that, previously, I had only glimpsed through DVD ads, internet memes, and the occasional offhand recommendation if I were ever in the mood for something mindlessly violent (which, for what it’s worth, I’m usually not). But despite its enthusiastic embrace of playful exaggeration and dramatic pageantry, Baki the Grappler shouldn’t be written off as mind-numbing entertainment for the masses. A critical analysis of Baki as contemporary anime, and a part of pop culture more broadly speaking, can help us all better understand how performative masculinity functions—and why it is so potentially dangerous.

 Itagaki’s long-running manga series has been adapted numerous times. These releases have taken many different forms, including an OVA, a television series, and various video games. For my purposes, I’m focusing on Baki (2018–2020) and its continuation Baki Hanma (2021–2023) in order to analyze depictions of masculinity in Itagaki’s original work while contextualizing them within current sociopolitical climates. 

By way of a rocky relationship between an unrelenting father and an indomitable son, Baki posits that, unfortunately, we live in a world where might often does make right, be it morally, politically, or legally defined. When such culturally defined notions combine with socially enforced concepts of manliness, the results can be as problematic as they are potent. As much as I thoroughly enjoy TMS Entertainment’s animated rendition of Itagaki’s creation, I recognize how it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, hurtful habits, and generally unhealthful lifestyles while also promoting discipline, perseverance, and self-reliance in equal measure.

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

Regardless of entry point into the franchise, the story of Baki is about a young man named Hanma Baki striving doggedly to accomplish a single, seemingly insurmountable goal: defeating his father, Hanma Yujiro, known by world governments and criminal underworlds alike as the strongest creature on Earth. Initially, his purpose for doing so was to earn the love of his mother, Akezawa Emi, a woman who viewed him solely as a means of retaining Yujiro’s affections. While Emi’s shortcomings as a mother are many, Yujiro’s selfishness is cast as the source of devastating emotional aftershocks. He tells the mother of his child that if he found the boy’s strength to be insufficient in an upcoming bout, he would leave her; she, in turn, makes their son the target of her discontent. In this way, Baki comes to associate physical fighting with earning approval. Moreover, he is implicitly taught that proving oneself as a man is the only way to preserve the nuclear family.

A youthful protagonist winning his mother’s attention by depriving his father of status makes Baki seem downright oedipal. However, Itagaki’s mythmaking is no mere copy of the classics. Baki loses to his father and, in doing so, loses his mother: after Yujiro almost beats his teenage son to death, he kills Emi when she intervenes. Rather than final ruin, this tragedy becomes Baki’s new motivation to best his tyrannical father in hand-to-hand combat. His backstory vividly illustrates that, for good or ill, a father’s influence in the domestic sphere is foundational to many aspects of a boy’s personal development.

Much could be said about portrayals of womanhood in this series; for instance, although Baki’s mother is little more than a well-worn trope, his girlfriend, Matsumoto Kozue, refreshingly upends at least some of the tiresome cliches involving distressed damsels found throughout the genre. Yet Baki predominantly depicts manly men fighting other manly men. Whether it involves open warfare between nations, deadly weapons wielded by skilled warriors, or bare-knuckle brawls in the streets, violence is presented as the medium through which men of all cultures communicate.

Time and again, Itagaki uses this as a springboard for biting political commentary, which regularly includes indictments of American hegemony on the global stage. A climactic clash between characters Biscuit Oliva, based on bodybuilder Sergio Oliva (who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba to live in the US), and Jun Guevaru, based on Che Guevara (a revolutionary who helped overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista), serves as a direct metaphor for the many ideologically fueled conflicts between capitalism and communism occupying so much of the twentieth century. But Baki also humorously lampoons specific, powerful individuals: in the Netflix anime, viewers can see parodies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama quiver in fear of Yujiro, nicknamed Ogre for his inhuman abilities and intimidating presence; in the manga, readers can also see knockoffs of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump taken down a peg by Yujiro’s brutish demeanor. While this, too, is an interesting topic to explore, I’d like to use a certain former president as a springboard of my own to discuss a particularly crucial Baki takeaway: the unsettling allure of toxic masculinity.

Because ideas about masculinity vary greatly depending on cultural context, a simple definition is not as straightforward as it sounds. Speaking from my limited perspective as a cishet man, I contend that in any event, a defining feature is actually its childishness: it’s part of the reason men are stereotyped as doing stupidly dangerous things when we ought to know better, and why jokes abound about women tending to live longer. Though it’s not exactly an ideal for which to strive, a lingering immaturity from boyhood often resides in accomplished men well into adulthood. Itagaki seems to agree with me: in Episode 6 of Baki Hanma, Oliva and Guevaru bond over their shared urge to be the toughest guy in the room. The former describes this trait as a flaw, and the latter says it’s something they should have left behind after growing up. Fighting, specifically the competitive compulsion to win at all costs, is compared to childhood pleasures like candy, toys, and playground games—all well and good during the folly of youth, but generally unbecoming of well-adjusted adults.

Indeed, a common maxim in the series and much of the fandom is that every boy dreams of being the strongest man alive at some point. The insinuation is that most of us men realize sooner or later that we must let go of such silly fantasies, just as we must abandon other immature pursuits in exchange for recognition as protectors, providers, and achievers in our professional areas of expertise. (Clearly, examinations of these stifling expectations resonate not only in Japan, but in numerous other countries, too.) 

The characters in Baki, however, are allowed to be different. Whether they’re highly respected in legitimate society or social outcasts, they retain a more primal masculinity by settling matters with their fists. Thus, Baki confronts us with a troubling paradox: the desire to dominate is immature, and therefore must be relinquished (or, at least, channeled appropriately) on the road to adulthood; yet the manliest of men are often thought of as those who, in a sense, remain immature, who hold on to their boyish dreams of being the best at running really fast, or lifting heavy objects, or beating someone using only their muscles.

The second season of Baki Hanma expands on this theme. In Episode 15, the prime minister discusses the potential threat posed by Hanma Yujiro with members of his cabinet. Though they concede that Yujiro’s antics could be a bad influence on Japanese youth, these important government leaders (all men, of course) can’t help but laud his uniquely impressive physical feats. One in particular, based on Japanese politician Ozawa Ichiro, calls him “the aspiration of all men” and suggests to the prime minister that occupations like his own, along with everything else from rock stars to soldiers (and, as a playful in-joke, even manga authors), are simply efforts to compensate for their lack of brute strength. According to such a worldview, position and prestige serve as imperfect substitutes for the sheer power afforded by a strong body and the willpower to use it to the fullest. It’s not hard to imagine how repeated depictions of those in leadership gushing over an unrepentant murderer and rapist could fuel corrosive strains of anti-intellectualism in any given populace.

Thanks to the rule of cool, Baki makes patently absurd comparisons between one man and entire armies feel entirely believable. The existence of a peace treaty between Yujiro and the United States of America is just one example. There’s definitely a thematic logic to it: Yujiro’s strength and the impunity that comes with it mirror dominant countries frequently committing aggressions against weaker ones and getting away with it. Yujiro being held to account for his sins is about as likely as the US being punished for war crimes. This alone has made him venerated by developing nations. And although he doesn’t act on Japan’s behalf, Yujiro’s Japanese nationality is a profound reassertion of masculinity for a country whose military was essentially castrated by the US following its defeat in WWII. But I think Itagaki is doing even more with Baki and characters like Yujiro than geopolitics.

In most respects, Yujiro is a terrible person and a horrible father. He can be cruel and petty, yet he is one of the most iconic characters of the franchise. We watch every scene in which he appears with bated breath. He’s the villainous antagonist of Baki’s quest, the final boss of a very high-stakes game, but we can’t really envision him losing a fight. The popularity of Baki painfully demonstrates that we’re not preoccupied with him despite his bad-boy behavior, we’re drawn to him because of it. He commands attention and even affection precisely because of his ability to take what he wants, not in spite of it. When he met Emi, it didn’t matter to him in the slightest that she was a married woman: he wanted her, so he took her.

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

But Emi’s characterization also reminds us that some women happily play along with patriarchy. She was attracted to Yujiro’s ferocity, not repulsed by it, and loved how easily he dispatched her husband while claiming her for himself. In Episode 12 of Baki Hanma, Baki confronts a disturbing reality while fighting the caveman Pickle: even though his father murdered his mother, a part of him can’t help but admire his indisputable strength. “There’s no denying it,” Baki says to himself, “every last inch of him is faultless.” A physically impressive man possesses an aura that sometimes allows him to, quite literally, get away with murder. Because of this, toxicity is neither a liability nor even an obstacle to gaining prominence in certain circles. For many men, it’s an asset, a tool to be wielded to terrible effect.

This is the key to understanding a strongman like Donald Trump, or influencers like Andrew Tate, or the cultural moment in which we currently find ourselves. Since powerful men—be they athletes, celebrities, or politicians—can get away with heinous behavior, an effective sleight of hand can be harnessed to profitable ends ad nauseam: practically anyone can appear to be powerful, especially to naïve teenagers, just by performing misogyny. Churlish defiance of anything, even basic decency, is eagerly interpreted as manliness by immature or otherwise insecure males. It’s why neither Trump’s indictment for attempting to overturn an election nor Tate’s arrest for alleged human trafficking have destroyed their respective careers: as long as they project an air of bravado, they’ll retain plenty of devoted followers. So, too, will Hanma Yujiro continue to induce both fealty and fear in the hearts and minds of millions around the globe. As we see in the climactic face-off with his son, he is worshiped by the masses not because he is good natured, but simply because he is strong. The ability to bend the cultural and political institutions that shape our shared reality to one’s will is a display of strength that invariably attracts a sizable portion of any population. 

Yujiro declares that strength is all that matters

Like other larger-than-life personalities, Yujiro arrogantly considers himself beyond reproach, beholden to no moral code other than his own. The inability of domestic and international law to restrain his actions does nothing to dispel him (or those who know him) of this unwavering belief. His disregard for the considerations of others manifests in surprisingly disturbing ways, like his insistence on approvingly patting Baki’s head despite the boy’s objections. Itagaki Keisuke offers us no poetic justice for Yujiro’s misdeeds, no comeuppance remotely proportional to what he deserves. Sure, his son went toe-to-toe with him as a worthy opponent (and gave him a good kick in the crotch), but this was actually the fulfillment of his greatest desire. His own flesh and blood being the only person capable of injuring his otherwise invincible body feeds his ego and reifies his sense of superiority. 

Due to either psychopathy or a conscious effort on his part, Yujiro exhibits an unwillingness or outright inability to feel, much less express, guilt. He’s completely remorseless: not only does he refuse to apologize to Baki for killing his mother, he won’t even offer him an explanation for why he did it; he becomes indignant when his son dares to ask him about something he considers his personal business. Although this was the spark that eventually ignited their fiery feud, Baki seems to forgo this demand of his father after the punches start flying. The chance for this neglected boy to finally bond with his dad, even under such strange circumstances, proves too enticing for him to pass up. Even though, as previously mentioned, Baki outwardly protested being patted on the head, he couldn’t hide how badly he sought his father’s approval. Here is where Baki reveals the ultimate payoff for performative masculinity: the evasion of accountability. Our need for a patriarch, a real or symbolic father figure, often compels us to overlook the wrongdoings of powerful men. This is why shaming those who abuse this need for their own ends never really works—they’re shameless! The only thing they respond to is a show of strength.

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

The outcome of the ultimate quarrel between father and son as depicted in Baki Hanma is pretty fitting, more or less. Baki’s earlier bout with Pickle prepares readers and viewers for ambiguity, for differing interpretations based on technicalities to properly define victory and defeat. This isn’t to say I didn’t find it immensely satisfying. After so much buildup, Baki calling on every technique in his arsenal to contend with the pinnacle of physical force lived up to every ounce of hype it generated. But as much as I love this series and respect Itagaki, I must admit that I’m not entirely at ease with how Baki’s arc ended in the anime. He grew immensely as an individual, in strength of character as much as mind and body, but his father was able to take so much from him while still commanding his admiration. Yujiro murders and maims as he wishes, never at risk of losing fame or fortune because of anything he says or does.

But this is what makes Baki art. In a fictional world where the impossible becomes plausible, we must face the same sobering reality with which we are presented constantly in real life: sometimes, the bullies win; sometimes, we don’t get the closure we need, and we have to make do without that apology or explanation we’re so rightfully owed. Through a long, painful journey, Baki finds his own sense of contentment. He didn’t set out to become one of the strongest fighters on the planet, but his inner motivation to avenge his mother and 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 a whole, Baki has more than a few redeeming qualities when it comes to how it depicts men and defines masculinity. It doesn’t encourage boys to be bullies, but it’s also not afraid to preach the timeless adage of talk shit, get hit. It reminds us to never judge a book by its cover: Biscuit Oliva is an inmate who’s as well-read as he is well-toned, a sophisticated connoisseur of fine wine and cuisine; Hanayama Kaoru is a yakuza boss with a strict sense of honor and duty. Plus, believe it or not, Baki actually promotes good health almost as much as it portrays unrealistic recoveries from debilitating injuries! For example, Baki’s half-brother Jack Hanma serves as a cautionary tale against steroid abuse and other pitfalls on the lonely path to vengeance. Finally, considering that the main characters comprise several different nationalities, it’s genuinely pretty wholesome how universal being a dude really is, on a fundamental level.

 In closing, there’s more depth to Baki than those who haven’t experienced it probably realize. On the surface, its emphasis on raw power, submission, and the competitive nature of maleness might make it appear somewhat reactionary. True enough, plenty of guys are going to take nothing more than a gleeful exaltation of brutality away from their viewing; honestly, I think that can be cathartic at times. But I strongly believe that its prevalence in the present is a sign of progression, not regression. Hanma Baki shows us that being strong doesn’t have to mean being mean, and the pursuit of strength as a man shouldn’t rely on putting down women. Whether we’re martial artists or manga artists, and whether we’re from Japan, the US, or anywhere else, we choose what kind of person we’ll be every day. We don’t have to emulate the worst qualities of Hanma Yujiro in order to be successful, and we shouldn’t look up to those who do. I’m confident that Baki the Grappler will continue to inspire athletes, authors, and all those fighting to better themselves for many generations to come. 

About the Author : Jonny Lobo

Jonny Lobo is a freelance writer with an academic background in film studies. He has written for numerous websites, including Anime Herald and Anime News Network, and is a recurring participant of the Tenchicast! podcast series. He enjoys fishing, leisurely walks, and lengthy discussions with friends and peers in the viewing and critiquing world.

Read more articles from Jonny Lobo

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