FSW: Anime Theater: Hajime no Ippo pt. 1

Ippo will punch your expectations in the FACE...and then apologize profusely. He's THAT kind of guy...

Ippo will punch your expectations in the FACE…and then apologize profusely. He’s THAT kind of guy…

  • Title: Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting (aka “Fighting Spirit” in its US release)
  • Year: 2000
  • American Distribution: Geneon put out the entire series under the “Fighting Spirit” title, dubbed and all, and most volumes are easily found on Amazon or similar sites. Prices range from 10-20 bucks per 4-episode volume.

Anime is wonderful for a variety of reasons. It’s fun, challenging, surprising, silly, deep, creative, horrifying, mind blowing and very, very varied. Animation here in the US is wonderful and varied as well, this is true, but in Japan, the art form is used to tell stories not just aimed at kids or adults, but of all genres and depths. The anime industry is as wide as the film industry, at the very least, and twice as creative.

So sometimes, when you’re watching the cosmic beast being fought by the young warrior with daddy issues, or the metaphysically challenging ending of a space opera-style show, or seeing a buff dude get punched through a mountain, you forget anime, and by extension, manga’s, talent for simply telling a story. For like all media, any show or story is only as good as the people making it.

And nowhere is this more exemplified than in Hajime no Ippo, George Morikawa’s masterclass in well-rounded, yet accessible and fun storytelling, set to the very terrestrial sport of boxing. A masterclass in great character design, interesting plots and how one uses such a broad, creative artform to tell a constrained, character-based story.

ROLL AND GOOOOOOO!!

Because only in a boxing show is it a good idea to piss off THAT body...

Because only in a boxing show is it a good idea to piss off THAT body…

Makunouchi Ippo is an amiable, patient, goodhearted, but weak-spined milquetoast of a boy. Spending his free time helping his mother run the family fishing business (his Dad is long dead), he spends his early mornings hauling tons of fishing equipment to and from the family boat, before he heads off to school, where he is the subject of beatings and ridicule by the local thugs.

That all changes when one day, during one of his daily beatings, a passing jogger sees his predicament and steps in. Effortlessly avoiding the thugs’ attacks, and scaring them off in the process, Ippo is mesmerized by his immense confidence and power. The man, Takamura Mamoru, is a boxer at a local gym, and brings Ippo to said gym to wash up and recover.

tumblr_lvhyu6JJ2B1qixmfdo1_500

Hint: it involves looking like Lou Ferrigno’s emaciated cousin.

However, a simple aggression-release punch on a sandbag shows a rather startling secret; Ippo punches like a fucking mac truck. Turns out years of carrying exceedingly heavy boating equipment have gifted Ippo with extraordinary upper body strength, and more importantly, an unbelievably destructive punch. So, a couple episodes of development and “proving himself” later, including one match against the man who would become his idol/rival, and Ippo is taken under the wing of Kamogawa Genji, the coach at the gym. And alongside the mellow Kimura Tetsuya, outlandishly goofy Aoki Masaru, skilled but aloof rival Miyata Ichirou and Godly talented (though supremely/hilariously dickish) Takamura, Ippo begins to make his way into the world of professional boxing, where maybe he can one day find what it really means to be strong.

Street Song

So, that all sounds very Rocky Balboa, but let’s get into the nitty-gritty of things. Looking at the show, it seems like your very typical “underdog” tale. Ippo comes up against other, similarly determined foes; rookies out to make a name for themselves, or even experienced pugilists continuing on their own road, and it’s up to a constantly improving Ippo to put them down and make his way to the top of the rookie ladder, and eventually the Japanese championship.

But it is in these conflicts that the show finds its greatest soul. See, in any given underdog story, it is tempting to make the opponents faceless goons, obstacles with a head that the main character can overcome. Generally speaking, you can count on these oppositions to be either unrealistically cruel or condescending, oafish meatheads who you wouldn’t root for anyway, or pompous, self-assured dickbags who deserve a good pounding. Look at the opposing teams in ANY sports movie ever to see my point.

Except for Drago. Drago is awesome.

Except for Drago. Drago is awesome.

Not here. HnI‘s greatest strength is its cast of well-rounded, endearing characters. On both sides of the cast. Here’s an example; early on, we meet Jason Ozuma. Jason is an African-American soldier stationed at an air base near Aomori. A fish out of water in many ways, Jason shacks up with a kindly family who owns a local boxing gym. He spends his time at said gym, training and just being an all-around good dude. But the place is a little rundown, and the owner and his wife (who Jason affectionately refers to as “Mama-san”) are a little low on money. So, to repay their kindness and test his own skills, Jason enters the rookie boxing circuit, not only to make money for himself, but to bring prestige and recognition to the people who care for him, and the gym they run

That is an underdog story all on its own. And yet, that’s one of the OPPONENTS. That’s someone the main character has to beat. With such well thought-out and sympathetic back stories, each fight is given an incredible amount of heft and weight, which makes each fight not only thrilling because of the violent spectacle on display (and it is spectacular, more on that later), but also because you feel for everyone involved. Imagine a show where you like most of the villains as much as the hero, and you’ll get why this works.

A street punk looking to make himself a man worth looking up to. A Russian athlete looking to make money to care for an ailing mother. A former world contender looking to regain his self-worth and personal fire. These are just some of the tales being brought to bear, and it works spectacularly. The show is imbued with a sense of heart and character that is nearly unmatched in any of its contemporaries, or even most anime in general.

Go! Go! Go!

Luckily, the stellar main cast is more than up to the challenge of keeping your interest, through all this emotional heartiness. Ippo is…well, truth be told, he’s a little generic, but it works here. He’s your typical spirited, but humble young shounen protagonist, always struggling to get better and prove himself. The intensiveness of his mentality is occasionally touched on, to interesting effect, but overall he’s pretty standard.

On an unrelated note, he also possesses the POINTIEST ELBOWS IN ANIME HISTORY.

On an unrelated note, he also possesses the POINTIEST ELBOWS IN ANIME HISTORY. Seriously, they’re like picks…

Faring much better are his supports. I think this would be the right time to tell you that Hajime no Ippo, among its many strengths, is a truly hilarious show sometimes. The interactions between the characters, particularly the jerk-ass trolls in the main group, are regularly laugh-out-loud funny. This is helped by the artists’ habit of giving the characters some truly astounding “giant head” moments, with shouting and surprise around every corner. Sure, there are a lot of dick jokes and the like, but for each of those, you get a hilarious prank on Aoki, or Ippo interrupting Kimura’s practice, or literally dozens of other moments.

Anyway, moving back to the characters, first among the supporting cast is Takamura. Takamura is a delightful deconstruction of the “ace” character. His skills are above reproach, this is true. He truly might be the perfect boxer, and easily the strongest character in the show. But he is also a tremendous prick, constantly ripping on his fellow pupils and making their lives difficult. He’s a jerk, but he’s so damn funny that you love him for it.

Aoki and Kimura, meanwhile, are generally “those two guys” in the cast. The ones there either to be the butt of the jokes, or to provide commentary. But like all things, Hajime does this better than most. Aoki is a showman of the highest order, a genuinely skilled boxer who turns his matches into farces with his ridiculous attacks and habits. He is the most common buttmonkey on the show, and it is WONDERFUL seeing the slightly thuggish doofus get torn down time and again. But it, as mentioned, never reaches cruel levels, so we feel as though we are laughing more “with” than “at”…

Kimura, meanwhile, is the slightly more respectable of the two. Also genuinely talented, he plays the straight man to Aoki’s more broad stylings, although he too is frequently made fun of. Kimura is actually the star of the show’s one OVA, Kimura vs. Mashiba, in which he actually gets a great deal of character development, and one of the best matches in the series. Both characters are a wonderful balance to the more earnestly kind Ippo and the more wildly vicious Takamura.

Aoki brings...a lot to the table. For all kinds.

Aoki brings…a lot to the table. For all kinds.

Rounding out the main group are coach Kamogawa and young Miyata. Miyata…well, to be honest, he’s interesting as a character, and he does get some great fights and development, but he’s mostly there to be Ippo’s rival to strive for. And in this capacity, he works fine, and even makes himself a little likable as time goes on. Kamogawa is, of course, grouchy teacher extraordinaire, the man who keeps this band of nutballs on track to the best of his ability. He’s right there to give his advice, and beat Takamura upside the head if he gets too out of line, and his presence is always appreciated, shouting advice from the sidelines during matches and providing much exposition.

The antagonists…well, that would be way too large a point to get into here, but just to put out a few. The kindly Ozuma mentioned above gives the show its first truly weighty plot line and fight. Mashiba Ryo is the closest the early series has to a genuine villain, being the darkest and most antagonistic opponent Ippo fights. But he’s also given one of the harshest backstories in the series, and later on, his serious nature is mined for comedy gold of the highest order. Sendo Takeshi, the quintessential “thug from Osaka” type character, nonetheless remains endearing despite, or perhaps because, of his incredible boorishness, and the utter destructiveness of his punch makes him a good foil for Ippo.

I could fill another two paragraphs like this, but I’ve said it above already. They’re almost all interesting, thrilling characters, and their matches are equally thrilling. Also to a one, they all have supremely good voice acting, with Rikiya Koyama’s Takamura, Masahiko Tanaka’s Mashiba, Wataru Takagi’s Aoki and the late Kenji Utsumi’s Kamogawa being just a few standouts.

No Pain Trance Continue…

Despite all the good the cast does, it would mean nothing if the show was boring to watch. After all, this is a boxing anime, meant to showcase the thrill of the sport in an interesting way, and luckily, like on all fronts, the show delivers. The intense sound and fury of a boxing match is delivered in close-up, painstakingly animated detail, as characters weave in and out of, and take head-on, each other’s shots.

Sweat mist flies away from battered and bruised bodies as punches come out like canon fire. The pugilistic exchanges are nothing short of jaw-dropping as, for all their personality outside the ring, characters go at each other with an almost animalistic ferocity. When someone takes a punch to the liver or the chin, the meaty crunch of twisting muscles and bruised flesh lets you know how serious the shot is. And the occasionally out-there techniques keeps even THIS from becoming any kind of stale.

But, it would be a disservice to just call it “thoughtless beating”, as the show also gets well into the mind-games boxers play with each other, as well as philosophy and science behind the sport as well. It’s so thorough that you actually may learn a little something about boxing just from watching the show. Not that you’re going to be an aficionado or anything, but still, there’s something to be said for the writer showing his true passion for the sport through his intimate knowledge of it.

Moving to the technical aspects, HnI is a solid bag with excellent elements. Animation is generally good, characters all look distinct and animate well, but it’s all merely window dressing to lead to the fights. During calm, everyday scenes, characters are simplistic but fun. But when the gloves come on and they’re in the ring, Morikawa shows his talent for drawing bodies. Each boxer’s musculature is meticulously drawn to their specifications, from Ippo’s densely packed frame to Mashiba’s lanky, hunched form, everyone looks fantastic. As a matter a fact, it’s almost too good, as when you measure it against the more simplistic faces, it’s kinda jarring. As mentioned above, some truly entertaining SD and over-the-top moments make for an impressively creative visual style.

Also, occasionally terrifying.

Also, occasionally terrifying.

Far more universally lovable is the soundtrack. The soundtrack was done by one Tsuneo Imahori, who many of you may recognize from a little anime called Trigun. Me, I recognize him from his work in The Seatbelts, alongside Yoko Kanno, as well as his work on Gungrave. But even with all that to love, Hajime no Ippo is his masterpiece.

Pounding and intense during training and fights, quite and melancholy during somber times, and completely silent when necessary, Imahori’s work ALWAYS perfectly compliments what’s on screen, either by supplement or absence. My favorite off the soundtrack is Irradiation, a pounding mix of guitar and drum that is attached to the idea of putting epic effort into ANYTHING in life, at least in my mind

The music doesn’t fail during the many humorous or more low-key moments in the show, as the very carnival-esque goofiness of Is it Candy demonstrates.

The king of all mood tracks has to go to Vagabond though, an intensely deep and intimate guitar number that gives incredible weight to all the scenes it’s attached to. The music is as responsible for the flavor of scenes as the visuals, and this one is a real scene setter all on its own.

Every song off the soundtrack serves its purpose well, and really cements Imahori as a genius at what he does. He may not appear as often as some of his contemporaries, but if he can make it this special every time, I kind of want him scarce. To keep the magic strong…

I CAN’T, HELP MYSELF, DREAMING THE SAME DREAM…

Finally, we almost reach the end of our journey, but before we conclude, I must say a bit about the opening and ending themes to the show. They are, to a one, extremely enjoyable tunes that do a tremendous amount to get you pumped for the show, or to play you out of it. I’ve already saturated this article with vids, so I’ll only go through my favorites.

Shocking Lemon’s Under Star is an incredibly pumping song, a little heavy on engrish, but unbelievably catchy and exciting. It’s a great opener to a show like this, and it’s appearences in the show proper are just as appreciated. Seriously, it’s on my top favorite anime openings ever.

Mori Naoya’s Yuuzora no Kamihikouki, meanwhile, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, being a heartfelt closer that speaks to the effort and dreams that drive the characters on the show. It provides a uniquely touching and soothing contrast to the rest of the show’s music, and it easy listening in or out of the show.

Finally, Saber Tiger’s Eternal Loop is a beautifully engrish power ballad that feels like it should be at the end of a Rocky movie for its intensity, but is great fun all on its own. “Confuse the prace to live with da prace to death” indeed.

Just because the others aren’t here is not a slight; they’re all great themes, worth listening to, and hell, they all frequently show up in the actual episodes themselves as background music during climactic scenes (Opener 2 “Inner Light”, by Shocking Lemon, is particularly used in this way). It’s rare that openers and closers so well compliment the show they are attached to, so here’s to small miracles.

GO! HAJIME!

Even when you finish the mammoth, 76 episode main series, there’s still the above mentioned OVA focusing on supporting character Kimura that is really good and worth a watch, and the TV movie that takes place after the conclusion of the series, involving a deadly new opponent for Ippo, a former surgeon with intimate knowledge of the human body…and how to break it.

What can I say that I haven’t already made abundantly clear here? I love this show. Hajime no Ippo is a work of tremendous joy and soul, my love that should not be. In my sea of supernatural battlers, surreal comedies and dark fantasies, Hajime no Ippo is an incredibly fun, incredibly interesting and incredibly human tale that deserves to be seen by anyone who likes story and characterization above all else. It is the finest of its kind, and if you have any kind of sense, go out and start watching it right now.

———————————————————————————————————-

The Breakdown

Visuals: Unique, if simplistic faces join with painstakingly detailed bodywork and smooth, viscerally satisfying animation to create visual spectacle that does justice to the story. The intensity is offset by the incredibly goofy faces made during comedic moments, but it all works in spirit to the show. 30/33

Sound: A spectacular cast of Seiyu join with a masterful soundtrack by Tsuneo Imahori to form an audio experience as enjoyable as the visual one. Pounding guitars, banging drums and memorable performances all add to the sound and fury of an already furious show. 33/33

Content: A tremendous amount of episodes, full of fun characters, amazing fights and interesting stories. Easily worth the immense investment, this is how to use the artform to tell a very down-to-earth, but endlessly enthralling story well. 33/33

Verdict: A Feast for the Inner Fire in all of us, 10/10

Gold Award

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