Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger may be punch-drunk, but this boxing anime has hooked him.
"It wouldn't be right to just lie down and not keep fighting."—Ippo
Okay, the bell has rung. Time to sit in the corner and regroup.
The first installment of Hajime no Ippo, or Fighting Spirit, was an unassuming sports anime that landed in my review stack without much fanfare. I took one look at it, dismissed it as a "sports" anime (mind you, I have seen little, if any, sports-themed anime to support my snobbish dismissal of an entire genre), and then watched it with bemusement. By the end of Volume One, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Now that Volume Two has stepped into the ring, it is time to backtrack a little and take a deeper look into this series.
Facts of the Case
Young Ippo is still trying to prove that he can hang tough as a boxer. His next hurdle is a sparring match with Ichiro Miyata, a gifted and highly trained student at the Kamogawa Boxing Gym. When the pair first met in the ring, Ippo was flattened with ease. But this time, Ippo has months of physical and mental preparation to aid him.
Fighting Spirit: Debut Match takes us through this pivotal sparring session, continues to Ippo's boxing license qualification, and ends with Ippo's first professional fight. Along the way, we are treated to constant insights into competition, sportsmanship, strategy, and technique as Ippo's mind ponders solutions to boxing challenges. The episodes in Volume Two are:
• Round 6: "The Opening Bell of the Rematch"
Fighting Spirit proves that giant robots and tentacles aren't necessary elements for a classic anime experience. Though the story is completely free of supernatural elements and has no fuchsia-eyed warriors with spiky green hair, Fighting Spirit nonetheless feels right at home in the anime genre.
The venerable Studio Madhouse produced Fighting Spirit, which is based on the wildly popular manga by Morikawa Jyoji. To give you an idea of the popularity of this series, there have been about 76 episodes produced up to this point. That is nearly three times the size of Cowboy Bebop, and nine episodes shy of the gargantuan Robotech, which is one of the most popular anime series of all time. Length does not always equal quality, but it is a good sign if the fan base is avid enough to support 76 episodes.
Now that we're in the proper frame of mind, what makes Fighting Spirit tick? The answer is not a mystery. Fighting Spirit distills every underdog cliché from the last 40 years into pure essence. Seen Rocky? The Mighty Ducks? The Last Starfighter? Teen Wolf? You already know what is going to happen. I'm thinking that Ippo is going to triumph against overwhelming odds, what do you think?
In fact, the story in Fighting Spirit is so simple and so pure that it is no longer about the story. We know or can reasonably predict what is going to happen. The series is aware, even proud, of its generic qualities. With the plot subsumed, other aspects of the show become more vital. Fighting Spirit thrives on two elements: inner dialogue and characterization.
Heavy thought occurs in Fighting Spirit. The action will pause as we hear Ippo's thoughts. Then the angle will shift, pause again, and we hear the Chief's thoughts. When that side has presented its case, the scene freezes again and we hear the opponent's reaction. One punch can take 15 minutes to complete. Finally, after everyone has secretly-but-out-loud said their piece, the action picks back up and we're treated to a satisfying three seconds of action. This may sound rather tiresome, but it isn't. Strategy, attitude, and personality become the focus, which is actually more stimulating than a straightforward boxing match would have been. We may already know or suspect that Ippo will win, but how he does it is a more interesting subject.
The second strength of the series is characterization. Before you know it, the cast of Fighting Spirit expands exponentially, giving us 50+ characters with distinct personalities. We know their histories, ideals, quirks, and bad habits. Ippo's opponents are given enough respect that we come to know them as individuals. With this foundation comes humor, drama, tension…those little things that form into entertainment. Given its simplicity, Fighting Spirit is remarkably rounded. It isn't always the most creative show, but it has a sophisticated approach to interpersonal dynamics that helps you invest in the story.
Lest we forget, the most obvious strength of the show is boxing realism. Fighting Spirit delivers an experience you could only get in anime. For example, an opponent who utilizes the flicker jab is represented by elastic arms that flail about like whips. Energy release is represented by white streaks. These effects may sound corny, but in reality they give us a clear idea of what boxers experience in the ring. When the action scenes pick up pace, it is as invigorating as live action would be.
That is the bottom line: Fighting Spirit gets you keyed up. The episodes passed quickly, like highway grooves passing under my tire. My palms were tightly clenched and I had to remind myself to sit back in the seat. Like Ippo's boxing training, Fighting Spirit concentrates on the basics and delivers a strong showing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a reason why you'll often hear adjectives such as "surprising," "unassuming," or "unexpected" applied to Fighting Spirit: It isn't an impressive anime.
We've already discussed the generic story, but Fighting Spirit's woes don't end there. The animation is spotty at best, with extended still shots, simple animations, and recycled footage. The image quality is fine (even impressive) in its clarity, color depth, and freedom from artifact. But the actual animation is nothing to get excited about. With the exception of highly creative action scenes and better-than-average facial contortions when characters act silly, you might find yourself drawing comparisons to the animation in Speed Racer.
The soundtrack is equally "unassuming." One or two of the songs are catchy in a cheesy, triumphant '80s-song kind of way. Otherwise, the music ranges from nondescript techno to noticeably bad. Sound effects are bare bones. The only place where sound noticeably improves the presentation is in Fighting Spirit's impressive boxing sequences, where the sounds of the crowd and the ring combine to form a realistic experience. It is clear that the crew pours most of its creative energy into the action scenes.
Keeping with the theme, the dubbing will get your attention from time to time as the English vocal cast spouts downright corny dialogue. I'm in the minority, but I think the actors actually get into the spirit of the show. However, there's no getting around the steady stream of cringe-worthy moments. I much prefer the Japanese track, or even the Spanish track (although it is equally corny).
The bloopers extra from Volume One is something different that I found entertaining, but the joke has worn thin with Volume Two. It seems as though Volume One's bloopers were natural occurrences, or spur-of-the-moment horsing around, whereas Volume Two's bloopers are forced. Applause to Geneon for providing an original extra, but the lack of additional extra material is noticeable.
Fighting Spirit has a major image problem to overcome. It comes across as a lazily executed, generically told, corny anime about boxing (which itself will appeal to a limited audience). The truth is that much thought, creativity, and characterization have been poured into Fighting Spirit. Its simple presentation belies an involving story about finding a spark that ignites your life. It is true that some people simply don't care about sports, competition, or chasing a dream, so Fighting Spirit doesn't have universal appeal. However, it has a much wider appeal than you'd think. Overlooking it might deprive you of a uniquely enjoyable anime experience.
Despite proclamations to the contrary, Justice and this courtroom are not always blind. Fighting Spirit has persevered and made its case clearly. Not guilty!
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