Anime Theater: Hajime no Ippo pt. 2 (New Challenger)

This image is obviously symbolic of Ippo's desire to see the true face of God...and punch him in the friggin' head.

This image is obviously symbolic of Ippo’s desire to see the true face of God…and punch him in the friggin’ head.

  • Title: Hajime no Ippo: New Challenger
  • Year: 2009
  • American Distributor: None to date, due to the underwhelming performance of the first season here in the states. A release seems unlikely, so get thee to Google…

They say that there’s nowhere to go but down when you reach the top. Having hit the apex of your intention, gotten everything your sick little heart desires, there’s really nothing left for you but the crashing low of disappointment and eventual loss. I don’t believe in that, I actually believe that one simply need sit in their top position, and if that’s not possible, find another ladder to climb. Apparently, that latter proposition gives me a lot in common with Makunouchi Ippo.

Yup, that clumsy-ass lead in was all to get us back into the world of professional boxing and the Japanese athletes, goofballs and general eccentrics that occupy it. After Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting ended in 2002, we had to wait a full SEVEN YEARS for the sequel series. Although the TV movie and the OVA in between provided substantial morsels to snack upon, a true series was what we wanted. And we got it with gusto, with 2009’s Hajime no Ippo: New Challenger, a show that although lacking some important pieces of the perfection of its predecessor, is still a top-notch, non-stop hit parade of humor, heart and hardcore boxing shenanigans.

Also, more Aoki, such as this scene where he appears to be cosplaying as Elliot Gould...

Also, more Aoki antics, such as this scene where he appears to be cosplaying as Elliot Gould…

Second Verse, Similar-in-a-Number-of-Ways to the First. Kind of.

The show wastes absolutely no time getting us back into the swing of things, and I use the term “swing” quite intentionally. The very first scene is actually taken from the end of the TV movie, Champion Road, in which Ippo proceeds to Dempsey Roll Sanada Kazuki’s ass right into the waiting arms of unconsciousness. After establishing that it’s been mere months since the first season, we’re thrust (rather jarringly) back into Kamogawa Gym, where Ippo, Kimura, Aoki and Takamura are still up to their old shenanigans, even as Miyata gears himself up for his title match with the OPBF champion, the very blonde and very, very Australian Arnie Gregory, a fight which could end up finally getting him noticed on the world stage.

His original name was "Steve McPaulHoganIrwinson Outback" was considered only slightly too obvious.

Arnie’s original name was “Steve McPaulHoganIrwinson-of-the-Outback”, which was considered only slightly too obvious.

It’s here that New Challenger shows its first little quirk; it has very little of its main character. Oh sure, he’s all over the group scenes, the build-up episodes, and the episodes featuring Itagaki (more on him later), but besides a relatively token match against an old friend from season one, all the really impressive fighting in the series is left to Ippo’s gym mates and assorted old rivals, including the above mentioned Miyata bout and our first look at world-level boxing in the form of Date Eiji’s match with world champ Ricardo Martinez.

Not that this is bad. Actually, it’s a really good thing in many ways, not the least of which in how it livens the personalities of the cast. Although this is Ippo’s story at its core, it’s also an ensemble piece in many ways, a feel much better translated when we get to see more of the people surrounding him. And said cast actually grows this season, with the addition of young boxing prodigy Manabu Itagaki, a rookie with genius-level talent that almost borders on bullshit-tier but is balanced by his youthful naivete and lack of traditional knowledge, which actually plays a part in his first bout.

Also, he's kawaii as FUCK.

Also, he’s kawaii as FUCK.

His entry to the series is sudden, but serves to illuminate an interesting point that had yet to be touched upon, namely Ippo’s own influence on the next generation of boxers. Although not as deficiently worshipful as Ippo’s own borderline man-crush on Miyata, Itagaki is shown to have a deep respect for his senpai, looking up to him as an example of everything a boxer is supposed to be. It serves to show that even though we spend most of our time following Ippo and pals through life, they are not an island, and their actions are affecting the world around them, giving their actions some amount of context.

Itagaki, despite not being as outwardly goofy as his peers, fits snugly into the madcap antics of the gym, said antics having lost none of their entertainment value in the intervening years. The constant stream of visual gags, dirty jokes and ridiculous character interactions is just as golden as it was in season one, sometimes even more so. Ippo’s dinner with Itagaki’s pun-crazy family, yet another in a series of over-eventful beach trips and an almost-painfully hysterical incident involving Aoki, Takamura and a black marker are particular highlights, showing that although we come for the boxing, we stay for the characters.

Still Rolling, Still Going

But, even the sparkling characterization would be lost without the boxing, and I’m thrilled to say that the throw downs are still just as pulse-pounding, frenetic and chest-thumpingly awesome as they ever were. Matches are still measured, strategic affairs punctuated by explosions of pugilistic brutality, with hits coming hard and fast and loads of screaming announcers and wild turnabouts.

New to the series is a stronger focus on the more technical aspects of the art, namely the importance of dodging and impact-deflection in the ring, and weight management out of it. The former is shown beautifully in Date’s match with world champion Ricardo Cruz, the world’s only living superlegend and the man who put Date down like a dog last time he reached for the title. Date has been working his way toward this guy since last season, and the match does not disappoint, going from tactical back-and-forth to brutal, bloody slugfest. It shows the audience just how much further the main cast has to go if they ever want to be at this level, by giving us not only Date at his best, but illustrating in no uncertain terms the power of the man who is king of the world boxing circuit.

The superman exists, and he is Mexican...

The superman exists, and he is Mexican…

The latter involves Takamura’s very first world championship match, against Junior Middleweight Champion and professional psychopath Bryan Hawk. Takamura has been shown to be many things throughout the season: powerful, wise, selfish, gifted, hilarious and a complete douchebag. But this is his best moment, both as a boxer and as a character, and hits home just what kind of man you need to be in order to be, well, someone like Takamura.

The buildup gives us a glance into his past as a young thug of unfathomable, yet unrefined talent, his fateful meeting with Coach Kamogawa and the origin of his drive to be the absolute best. We see him suffer for his passion, the crushing, destructive lengths he goes to for his weight management and the blood and tears of his endless hours of training. We see Takamura not as the idol of his peers, or the frustrating pupil of Kamogawa, but as a man with his own drives and dreams. It gives wonderful dimension to his character, as well as his relationship with his teacher, and when the gloves go on and the brutal, bloody battle begins, it’s easily as involved as anything the show has ever done. It helps that Hawk, every bit as physically powerful and gifted as Takamura but with frighteningly unorthodox fighting methods and an utter lack of morals, provides a magnificent challenge not only to the boxer, but the man himself. Oh, and did I mention he’s a monstrous lunatic?

Also, did I mention he's about as mentally stable as a sack of potatoes?

Pictured: The mental stability of a potato.

The problem here is, those two fights are…pretty much the highlight of the series. Granted, there are several smaller fights, numerous little sparring incidents and more than enough other exciting happenings to keep this well worth watching, but in terms of the well-conceived characterization and thrilling matches that hooked us in the first season, there’s precious little to be found here. In all fairness, this can majorly be chalked up to the vastly decreased episode count, with 26 episodes in this season compared to the 76 of the first. Still, the loss of character building, of seeing not only the heroes but the rivals built into full, interesting individuals before a fight, is a loss that really hurts the mood, even if it does sometimes improve the pacing.

New Age Retro

Seriously, his eyebrows look like snickerdoodles glued to his forehead.

Seriously, he look like someone glued snickerdoodles to his forehead.

On the technical side of things, New Challenger definitely takes advantage of the new technologies that have emerged since the early 2000’s. Characters are now far cleaner and more detailed looking, and everything animates quite well, especially in the ring where mangaka Morikawa’s painstaking body artwork is rendered with amazing fluidity and care. The downside here is that it all almost looks too sanitary, if that makes sense. Hajime no Ippo is a very…vintage looking manga, what with all the angular faces and broad shoulders and copious amounts of eyebrow. And the grittier, sort of dirtier art of the more hand drawn-looking first season somehow felt like it fit better. There’s nothing wrong at all with the animation, it’s more of a mood thing, but perhaps that’s just personal taste.

What I will take a stance on is the music. Now, let me make it clear: from an objective standpoint, there is nothing wrong with this soundtrack, it has all the guitar riffs and horns and such that one would find in an action series. But Yoshihisa Hirano’s soundtrack is, ambience-wise, such a drastic step down from the previous season that it just feels limp and lifeless by comparison. Tsuneo Imahori’s season one score was a masterwork of acoustic guitar riffs, electric chords and drums mixed into a jazzy, almost urban mood that although unconventional, gave a metric shit-ton of personality to an already personality-filled show. I realize that there is nothing objective about what I am saying, but I don’t care. Imahori’s score was a masterwork, and to replace it with this generic nonsense is a really hard blow to the series.

Luckily, voice acting hasn’t missed a step, with Kiyasu Kohei’s Ippo remaining as earnestly endearing as always, while Takagi Wataru’s Aoki is still a walking goldmine of lethal comedic brilliance. But it’s Koyama Rikiya and Utsumi Kenji, as Takamura and Kamogawa respectively, who get to really stretch their legs here, with Takamura’s flashback episodes and overall character arc really letting the two add a bit of emotional oomph to their roles. Same for Date’s Aizawa Masaki, who manages to ooze both agonizing determination and tragic obsession as the (relatively) old champ gunning for the top. As for newcomers, Namikawa Daisuke gives Itagaki the average “youthful buck” treatment, while adding just enough young zest to make his more headstrong moments endearing instead of annoying. And Ohtsuka Akio’s deep but gravelly voice sounds magnificently repugnant coming out of the vicious, violent Hawk, submerging the champ in an aura of animalistic, vaguely sexual and always threatening menace.

Fitting with the far shorter length, there’s only one opening and ending this time (compared with the first season’s three each). Although not reaching the epic blood rushing levels of Inner Light or Under Star (ROLL AND GOOOOOOO!), opener Hekireki by Last Alliance is a catchy number with some energetic bass guitar to get you revved up, while Engrish…something-ballad 8 AM by coldrain is easy to listen to, but largely forgettable.

Top Contender

I made no secret of my abiding love for this show’s first season. It was an amazing mix of character development, excitement and humor that struck me from nowhere and became one of my absolute favorites. So perhaps going into this expecting the same was unfair to the show. Still, I can’t help but keenly feel the loss of that special zing that made season one so incredible, especially in the music and storytelling details.

But, and this is a huge but, that does not mean this is bad. Hell, it’s incredibly far from it. It’s an absolutely worthy follow-up, which doesn’t miss a beat story-wise from its predecessor, and still gives you a seemingly endless parade of great action, great characters and great fun. If you liked the first season, then by all means find this and watch it immediately, and ignore the nitpicks of the grumpy old man who’s set in his ways…

———————————————————————————————————-

The Breakdown

Visuals: As in season one, the simplistically drawn, yet still distinctive faces belie the intricately rendered musculature during fights, while animation overall has been improved. In addition, some more unique looking boxers allow for some visual variety, but the whole thing feels almost too clean for its own good, lacking some of the sweat and grime that the series basks in. 29/33

Sound: Strong vocal performances across the board, particularly from Koyama and Ohtsuka, are barely supported by a soundtrack that, although serviceable, pales in comparison to the previous effort, leaving the ambiance technically proficient but lacking in soul.  25/30

Content: A shorter length means less time to spend on individual boxer’s stories, and Ippo being sidelined might turn off some fans. But what we do get is very high in quality, with Date and Takamura’s arcs being among the series’ finest, and every match offering the requisite “holy shit” moments that keep you coming back. Some of the flavor might be gone, but what’s here is still some prime cuts of meat. 30/33

The Weight: Strong backstories for established characters, and some of the funniest scenes in the anime: 7

Verdict: A smaller fire that still burns just as hot: 9/10

Gold Award

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