Are games allowed here or do you want to focus on other media? Either way, for whatever reason, most things I’m a big fan of fall into this category.
I’ll also do a comic for starters: Baki the Grappler
The pitch: an ongoing martial arts manga by Itagaki Keisuke, published serially since 1991. What began as a straightforward fighting action-adventure piece has over time matured into reflection on fighting and masculinity itself: explorations of power, defeat, fatherhood, what it means to improve yourself and how that fits into a historical context, and more— all while continuing to deliver exciting action presented with passion and some of the most technically proficient art in the medium (ironically, more on that in why it’s a tough sell). The explicit thesis of the series is “strong is beautiful”.
The author himself is a life-long martial artist and former JSDF soldier; even though he is now 63-years-old, just recently he participated in a friendly spar with active, pro MMA fighter Asakura Mikuru for example! It goes to prove the adage of “write what you know”, because alone in its vast genre, Baki is something I have successfully recommended to many martial artists and gym-heads with no other interest in manga; it simply “feels” right.
That’s not to say the comic is realistic. Just the opposite: I value the action part of Baki for being so very unpredictable. If you have ever passingly enjoyed a few chapters of some shonen battle manga, you owe it to yourself to read Baki once because you will genuinely fail time and again to guess how the story goes, or the outcome of fights. In an incredibly formulaic genre, this alone is a great treat.
I would add, if you like Japanese pop culture (and chances are you do, on this forum) that Baki is up there as one of those incredibly popular, influential older works that is not yet equally well-known in the west. The series is echoed and homaged in so many other places that after reading it (and comparing the dates) you’ll have that retroactive shock of “so that’s where that comes from!”. By now everyone knows that, say, Guile and Rose from Street Fighter are copied from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, but there’s not yet widespread awareness that Gouki/Akuma is straight out of Baki, among others.
Tough sell because:
If you are into manga but have never read Baki, what you have probably heard about it is that it has “bad anatomy”. This is the worst possible descriptor of it, and actually insulting; especially past the first series, the art looks exactly as it’s meant to. It is stylistically hyper-masculine, hyper-violent, depicting impossible inhuman ubermenschen whose features blend Greek sculpture and ukiyo-e woodblock prints. That said, I have to admit a lot of people find it ugly: give it a fair chance, and definitely don’t mistake it for “bad anatomy”; you are not going to find any artist who makes that criticism because you cannot draw figures like this without mastery of drawing still life. The protagonists of this story could not be anything but grotesque muscle-freaks, and outside the character designs, Itagaki’s paneling, expressions, and especially his portrayal of force and motion are master-class.
The vast majority of it is not available legally in English. That’s not unusual for manga but for reasons of ancient internet drama too niche and too boring to discuss, even the unofficial sources suffer from extremely uneven quality, both in translation and scan legibility. Here in 2020— and at long last— it is possible to read the entire mainline series in English, but you need to be fairly savvy at acquiring scanlations (the back third of the original series is only available as scripts on 4chan archives, for example) and you will go through many rough patches with a certain egomaniacal terrible “translator” who often inserts memes and made-up BS. (The ask: learn Japanese (j/k))
I keep stressing it, but Baki is macho in the extreme and 100% sincere about it. If you cannot at least tolerate manly men’s fist-discussion of manly manliness, I don’t know if it’s for you. Conversely, the same probably goes for if you’re uncomfortable with homoerotic imagery, or gore. Welcome to the true man’s world. We’re also talking Japanese manliness, so expect nationalism and xenophobia; I won’t spoil why, but unflattering mockeries of every US President since Clinton appear as characters.
Similarly, Baki has no self-restraint. It started one-upping itself 30 years ago and never stopped, so the further you go into the series the more ridiculous it becomes. I don’t want to mention any particulars because they’re truly joyous to be surprised by, but it’s a story with no respect for your suspension of disbelief, unafraid to go over the top and then do a backflip. For some, the juxtaposition of the self-serious tone with insane events is actually charming, but for others distasteful.
The ask: read the entire mainline series, which goes like . . .
グラップラー刃牙 , AKA “Grappler Baki” AKA “Baki the Grappler”
バキ , AKA “New Grappler Baki”
範馬刃牙 , AKA “Hanma Baki” AKA “Baki Son of Ogre”
刃牙道 , AKA “Baki-Dou” and the so-called “Baki-Dou (2018)”, which is the current, ongoing story arc
If you so desire, it’s perfectly fair to start with “New Grappler Baki”, the second series and then flashback; because of those scanlation issues, a lot of English-speaking fans started there, and in hindsight it starts on (one of several) highpoints for the series as a whole, which really demonstrates many of its best qualities, while working well as an independent story.
Do NOT, however, watch the recent 2018 Netflix animated adaptation: it’s one of their typical, low-quality mostly 3D CGI joints. It’s fun for fans to finally hear these characters with top voice-acting talent and such, and there’s novelty in the fact that it picks up exactly where the previous 2001 anime finished, but I would hate for its janky video gamey 3D to be your first impression.
This has turned out quite long, but just a couple more fun notes . . .
If you know the recently popular manga “Beastars”, which is a furry high school drama, its author is credited as “Itagaki Paru” and publishes in the same magazine (Weekly Shounen Champion) as Baki. Mangaka are traditionally secretive about their private lives, and Itagaki isn’t a rare surname, but people got to wondering, because the two series are so different in tone and subject but both in the same magazine, wouldn’t it be funny if their authors are related? And eventually they fessed up: Paru is Keisuke’s daughter, and she’s since published a few short comics about life growing up with her meathead dad. 😂
That unconventional PS2 fighting game Brandon mentions so often, “Garouden Breakblow Fist or Twist”, is a licensed adaptation of a martial arts novel of the same name, previously adapted to manga form by, you guessed it, Itagaki. The aforementioned Baki character who inspired Gouki appears as a secret unlockable in the game, with the unique trait of being able to snap your neck in one hit during the match intro.