Recent years have seen no slowing down from the controversial yet widely enjoyed isekai sub-set of shows and comics. Stories where some hapless soul from the real world (almost exclusively Japanese teenagers and salarymen) find themselves simply spirited away to some new world aren’t new.
Conversely, since Sword Art Online popped on the scene nearly ten years ago now (scary), isekai morphed from an occasional trope to a full-blown sub-genre that seemingly supports half of the anime industry! Can’t blame newcomers and the establishment alike for wanting to try their hand at ‘another world’, making a buck along the way, but when word broke that a Baki isekai manga would launch last fall, a mixture of confusion and interest welled inside us.
Baki is a cultural manga institution well over 100 volumes deep that’s finally seen some overseas interest thanks to the ongoing and surprisingly competent Netflix anime adaptation. One would assume the Venn diagram between ‘Baki’ and ‘isekai’ portends a thin circle… however…
You have to excuse us for not using the full manga name in the title, but there is only so much we could do: the Eiji Murai-penned Baki isekai manga has the title Baki Gaiden – Retsu Kaioh isekai Tensei Shitemo Ikkō Kamawan! (which we’ve translated as ‘Baki Side Story – Retsu Kaioh Doesn’t Mind Reincarnating In Another World’). Now you know why.
Nevertheless, we held a copy of the first volume and read every page. A little background; it doesn’t star young Baki himself but his self-serious but warm-hearted pal Retsu Kaioh, a master at Chinese Kenpo. While this story probably isn’t hard canon, it does explicitly take place after a certain climatic event in the main series’ fourth iteration Baki-Do, and at least imparts some plausibility on what’s surely an editorial-room conceived spin-off.
Whatever its origins are, the idea of a Baki isekai manga is intriguing on its face, and throwing Retsu Kaioh in as the lead, frankly, works. Retsu is a character who takes both his training and the history of his Kenpo martial art very seriously, and his declaration towards the end of this first volume that he’ll ‘introduce Chinese Martial Arts’ to this unknown world where strange creatures and magic exists makes for an interesting sub-premise that gives the comic more push than just ‘Baki man fight lizard guy.’
He does fight a lizard man, during which my favorite moment of the first volume occurs: Retsu snickers as he pontificates to said lizard man about how people eat alligators where he’s from.
And since we are talking about a Baki isekai spin-off manga, artist young’n Eiji Murai does make an effort to emulate the twisted and contorted faces that define original Baki creator Keisuke Itagaki’s signature styling. The results are certainly admirable, though muted; We doubt anyone in the world could quite capture Itagaki’s patented grotesque magic, often bordering on a body-horror that permeates through sheer muscle mass alone, but Murai’s pen abridges the style without containing any of the impact.
It does its job, and Muai’s certainly got the potential to grow as an artist as the comic goes on, but ultimately Vol. 1’s art could best be called ‘serviceable.’ Though, we’ll happily note that his emulation of Itagaki goes beyond just drawing muscle boys, and employs the same genuine attention to martial arts detail as the main series does.
Vol. 1 of Eiji Murai’s Baki Side Story – Retsu Kaioh Doesn’t Mind Reincarnating In Another World doesn’t look exactly like Baki, and it doesn’t carry Baki’s insanity or weight, yet. It stumbles onto its core idea (Retsu Kaioh proliferating Kenpo in an unknown world) towards the end of the volume and it could go places from there. Vol. 2’s preview shows Retsu Kaioh taking on a gigantic hydra, something we’ll assume he’ll do in complete serious if this is to be a Baki isekai manga, which I’d like to see play out immensely.
However, you can’t judge a first volume based on what could happen in volume two, but the come away here has us seeing the pieces lay out on the table. Newcomer Eiji Murai hasn’t perfectly utilized what creator Keisuke Itagaki established, but he has created something rather entertaining, with potential for more.
You can read Baki the Grappler Vanilla on Comixology.