By Robert F. Reeves
Anime and manga, two cartoon styles originating from Japan, have spawned an undervalued form of storytelling. To the average viewer, anime may seem like nothing more than girls with huge eyes, with a few giant robots thrown in. While aesthetically, this is true for some anime, there is another level of depth that many people miss completely. Anime can offer dramatic storytelling and action that simply cannot be expressed in live-action shows or movies.
Most anime get their source material from manga, black-and-white comics published in magazines that cater to every possible market in Japan, from businessmen to small children. My personal favorite genres are shonen and seinen, for young boys and adults, respectively. This means my tastes tend to gravitate towards masculine tales of heroic valor. My top author by far is Go Nagai, because he set the standard for anime and pushed the envelope when he premiered back in the 1960s.
Jōji “George” Morikawa’s “Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting!” delivers a one-two punch of blistering action and character development. When the first original shonen manga was published in 1989, it proved to be so popular and long-running that it was created as an animated series for television in Japan, in 2000.
The series begins with Ippo Makunochi, a shy high school student who works in his mother’s fishing charter business. Makunochi is constantly bullied by thugs on his way home from school. One day, he is saved from a beating by a middleweight boxer, Mamoru Takamura, who happens to be jogging nearby. Makunochi is so impressed by Mamoru’s movements and fighting strength that a passion for boxing ignites within him.
Takamura jokingly tells Makunochi that if he can catch 10 leaves falling from a tree after punching it, he can join his gym. Makunochi’s trains relentlessly to catch leaves from a tree. Of course, he succeeds – and manages to catch all 10 with one hand. Thus begins our hero’s journey through the world of professional boxing in Japan.
What I love the most about this series is how effortlessly it combines action with memorable characters. Yes, it’s a boxing anime, so there will be frenetic, violent fights with bloody knockouts. But, the warriors all have their own dreams and demons to conquer both in and out of the ring. Makunochi is a shy boy who never had any friends before Takamura saves him, so he is socially awkward, especially around girls.
Despite this, he is an absolute beast in the ring and during training. Everyone in the gym is inspired by this “Rocky”-type character who rises from nothing to become one of the most successful boxers in Japan. He’s short and in the featherweight class, and his spirit dwarfs most of his opponents. Because Makunochi studies their fighting style, he adapts his training regime to counter whatever attacks they use in the ring. You will cheer for Makunochi every step of the way, because he’s a fantastic everyman protagonist who rises against seemingly impossible odds with old-fashioned training and grit.
The show’s animation is superb. Many TV anime series suffer because of small budgets, but “Hajime no Ippo” delivers with details such as beads of sweat flinging off arms mid-punch. Sound effects like a state-of-the-art jet for boxers’ punches increase the tension and remind the viewer that, while this is a cartoon, there are no super powers – this is boxing. A right hook to the face could leave you permanently brain-injured. Makunochi and his friends face this danger every day when they step into the ring, but they face death with glee, because they are dedicated. If there is one thing this series illustrates, it’s the commitment one must put into sculpting the mind and body to be a true boxer.
“Hajime no Ippo” is a worthwhile viewing experience, because it presents a universal truth – that if you want to be the best at something, you must be willing to shed blood and tears.