Editor’s Note: This piece was written collaboratively by Eric McAdams and Thomas Loughney.
“I want to taste defeat.”
This is the mantra spoken by five death row inmates at the beginning of Netflix’s BAKI, the second anime adaptation of Keisuke Itagaki’s manga Baki the Grappler. Instead of retreading the origins of Baki Hanma, a supremely talented martial artist and high schooler, the new series picks up right where the 2001 original left off, with these inmates inexplicably drawn to Japan. They are drawn by a raw, primal instinct, which magically tells them that there is someone in Japan strong enough to defeat them.
This is the kind of chest-pounding nonsense that defines BAKI — a hypermasculine show about hypermasculine muscular men punching each other, hypermasculinely. And make no mistake, it is exclusively men. Following strict traditional gender roles, the men live to fight one another and the women are scarce and largely simple sex objects. This naturally sounds like a setup for a typical misogynist, heterosexual story.
So why is it so undeniably, irrefutably, obviously homoerotic?
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Because We’re Men, Baby
Everything in Baki — themes, characters, dialogue, relationships, love, death, sex — is hinged upon the masculine mode. Every creative and in-fiction decision begins and ends at manly-men man hangups. The characters of BAKI are not normal people. They’re not even normal martial artists, as they’ve been heightened and stylized to a ludicrous degree. Virtually every major character is a man driven by a desire to enact and receive violence beyond human possibility. It is the ultimate display of bravado: to be such a devotee of power that they crave to kill and fall in its name. There is nothing else — no diplomacy, no middle ground, no reasonable debate. Everything that exists in the show is contextualized within this masculine drive.
In a world where the only measure of value is masculinity, it follows that the only objects of awe, respect, and affection are men. Existing within that ideological framework, how could there not be homoeroticism? Itagaki takes great care in his portrayal of male anatomy. Never cartoony, it is instead warped and lengthened, an uncanny funhouse mirror of power and speed. The characters endlessly praise one another’s muscles, and it doesn’t matter what horrific crimes a fighter has committed if he exhibits valor in the ring. These men are odd to look at and odder to listen to, but they love each other and the fact that they get to fight one another. When they lock eyes in combat, they look at each other tenderly, hungrily.
These homoerotic touches sneak into conversations and fights alike, so long as they can masquerade as martial arts techniques and philosophies. Baki forces a man to fight him naked, so he can be sure he doesn’t have any hidden weapons. Another character uses sand to turn invisible (just go with it) and uses the opportunity to “terrify” his opponent by hitting him from unexpected angles, whispering in his ear, and fondling his testicles.
Ready to Bust… Some Heads
For how horny he and his fellow combatants are, Baki doesn’t actually fuck… until he does. But before we can talk about Baki’s sex life, we have to talk about his dad, Yujiro Hanma, because that’s just the kind of television show this is.
Yujiro, who might as well be named Daddy Issues, is the most powerful thing on Earth, literally making entire governments bow to him with his fighting prowess. He represents the world order, the unwritten laws of combat and manhood, and in the 17th episode he surprises Baki and his girlfriend Kozue while they’re in bed together, seemingly for no reason other than to remind his son that strong men fuck women, and they fuck women all the time. He then disappears.
After his father’s words of… wisdom, Baki considers, then rejects his father’s premise. Rather than “take” Kozue, at Yujiro’s recommendation, the two of them make a conscious decision to have sex with each other. This, however, is not without its caveats. As they move past foreplay, Baki has an epiphany. “Sex is like combat!” He exclaims. While he’s careful to note that there is a level of nuance — fighting is about doing what your opponent doesn’t want, sex is about doing what your partner does want — the goal is the same: pleasure.
That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? These men are their own sovereigns — no loyalties, no societal machinations, no material goals. They share one motivating factor: it makes them feel good to fight other men. So follows, their only meaningful relationships can be with other men, as they are the only ones facilitating further combat. Love can only bloom on the battlefield, because the battlefield is the only thing that exists.
Look at Hector Doyle, a death row inmate that ends up engaging the most intimately with his opponents. He has a fight with a Chinese kenpo master, Kaioh Retsu, and appears to be losing badly, but after his opponent is drugged into unconsciousness by a surprise third party, Doyle watches over his would-be killer’s unconscious body, almost bleeding to death through the night. Upon waking, Retsu is so grateful that he rushes Doyle to the nearest hospital, literally running on water to do so. Of course, they don’t act as each other’s saviors so they can go on to live long, fulfilling lives — it’s so they can keep beating ass. As Doyle says, “it’s not settled.” Their affection for one another is genuine — the show gives us swelling music and lingering shots of the two gazing into each other’s eyes (words do not do the sexual tension justice) — but it’s predicated on their shared devotion to bloodsport and the masculine code.
Interestingly, Doyle is also the character who exhibits the most visible queerness, albeit restricted by the rigid, masculine mode. His extensive body modifications invoke transhumanist theming, though the blades hidden under his flesh serve only to further his combat capabilities — not help him achieve a more fully realized self-conception of his body and performative aesthetic. Similarly, when he dons makeup and a feminine secretary outfit, it’s just so he can move efficiently to his next target. It’s not a set-up for a transphobic joke, it’s purely a way for Doyle to move more easily through the social space. There is, undeniably, a queerness to him, but it is always beholden to bloodshed, to combat, to “being a man.”
To reduce Doyle to a “queer-coded villain,” however, would be to misunderstand the rules of this world. BAKI’s moral center is inconsistent at best, and the code of masculinity, as in life, is constantly rewritten. This is how these men are allowed to push up against the boundaries, but never break them. The only anchor is the truth of strength, and the ability to wield it. He and the world of BAKI exhibit queerness, but only insofar as it can adhere to the performance of power. Perhaps that’s why Doyle is written off the show when he casts his devotion aside.
After a failed attempt on the life of Katsumi Orochi, Doyle finds himself captured in Katsumi’s dojo. He awakens from his beating, only to be knocked unconscious again — and again, and again, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. Orochi’s goal is for Doyle to accept defeat, but Doyle refuses to relent. Eventually, Orochi tires, and decides to try a new tactic. He tells one of his students to hand Doyle the victory. When Doyle awakens, all he needs to do is accept the win and leave, but instead, he forfeits. This is it! The breaking of the cycle! Not only has Doyle known defeat, he has voluntarily accepted it.
Important, too, that he does so for a fight he has just been told he has already won. What follows is truly the closest this series comes to homosexual romance: before Doyle departs from Japan, the two men share an intimate moment. He asks Orochi to teach him a karate move, so he’ll always have something to remember him by. Orochi obliges, and — as one last gesture of care — tosses Doyle his black belt. Somewhere, Tom Loughney weeps.
Instead of letting him sail off into the sunset, however, BAKI immediately puts Doyle’s newfound ideology to the test, and, happily, he sticks to his guns. Rather than fight to the death against an ambush he clearly can’t counter, he lets himself drop into the ocean, living in defeat once more. For his trouble, he’s blinded and robbed of the belt he was gifted by his friend. Shortly after, he’s unceremoniously scooped up by prisoner-slash-bounty-hunter Biscuit Oliva, never to be seen again. He accepts a path beyond what the laws of BAKI allow, and is punished for it. This world has no use for someone like Doyle, and how could it? In a world defined by shows of strength, what purpose could a conscious non-combatant fulfill? He simply cannot continue to be visible in this world, and therein lies the problem — every gay little thread BAKI’s ideology tugs at is too frail, too frayed to lift the whole. They are inherent to the weave, unmistakably, but pull too hard and they snap right off.
The Taste of Defeat
Queerness is a truth of society. It’s here, everywhere, always and forever. But its full realization is incompatible with BAKI’s framework, even though that framework cultivates a particular homoeroticism. The world of BAKI cannot help but exhibit these tendencies when it only values men and the interactions between them, yet it also holds those same desires back. Tragically, the only way out is to drill so deep in that you succumb.
“I want to taste defeat” is, at once, compliant with BAKI’s hypermasculine value system, and a plea to escape it. It captures the self-destructive nature of this dogma, the waste of man. Without realizing it, BAKI facilitates queerness, but the only answer it provides aligns queerness with defeat.