Sports anime are very easy to get wrong. If you don’t smoothly introduce the rules of the game, it might be hard for newcomers to follow complex mid-match developments. If your main character is a generic “I’ll try my best” type that never evolves beyond that, the audience might quickly get bored. If the show just looks like crap, then it can be very hard to stay invested. Maybe you’ll even lost interest just because you can’t buy into the hardcore drama of the situation, when it’s a match between high school students.There aren’t many series out there that can avoid all these pitfalls to follow through on delivering a wholly satisfying experience. Up until now, I considered the cream of the sports anime crop to be Haikyuu, but today we have a new challenger in the ring: the anime adaptation of George Morikawa’s boxing manga, serialized since 1989: Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting! (although no one ever mentions that random subtitle).
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
It’s an obvious observation that the best sports anime are those that get you to care, even if in real life you don’t. In the real world, I don’t give a damn about sports, literally not a one. I follow no teams, nor players, and the only sports game in my entire life that I can recall watching entirely of my own volition was Game 7 of the Cubs World Series, because I’m from Chicago and can at least appreciate the historical significance.
Typically, there are two ways for a show to eliminate that apathy of mine, which usually work together in tandem. The first would be to place the viewer into the shoes of the main character, at least in the beginning. A sports series will frequently acclimate viewers to the game by having a protagonist that initially knows nothing of the sport, such that every explanation they are given doubles by proxy as an explanation for the audience. As they learn the ropes and the intricacies of the sport, we learn right alongside them, and our investment, to an extent, mirrors theirs.
The second, and arguably more important, tactic would be strong characters. I know, it’s so simple it sounds silly. After all, isn’t every show better with strong characters? You’re not wrong, but it is doubly important for a sports show, because the “plot”, in whatever form it exists, will likely be just some sort of tournament with games upon games of something you potentially have only a basic interest in. I can tell you I didn’t care about volleyball before Haikyuu, and I still today don’t really care. What makes me care about the show is getting to know the people, the struggles they go through and the dreams that they have, not a driving intrinsic value in the game itself.
Hajime no Ippo, as we shall see, takes a tried and true approach to that formula. The main character is Makunouchi Ippo, a high school student living alone with his mother at their bait and tackle shop. Ippo is, to put it nicely, a traditional protagonist, characterized by his kind, forgiving demeanor and endlessly helpful attitude. This leads to him also being somewhat shy and awkward, so he almost daily falls prey to the local school bullies. After one day being saved from his fate by a passing boxer, Ippo is entranced by the man’s strength, and tired of being pushed around, sets his sights on becoming a boxer himself
After this point, Hajime no Ippo immediately sets up what kind of show it’s going to be, and firmly grounds itself in the realistic end of the sports anime spectrum, as opposed to the likes of Kuroko no Basket. Ippo takes to boxing with remarkable grace, but this is because he’s introduced to it just like one is actually taught, mastering the simple techniques first, such as jabs and guards, before building up to more complex ones and later personal specialties, with a professional debut as early as episode 10. That ticks off one check box; we are with Ippo every step of the way on his training to join the pros, so there’s never an issue of failing to understand the game. We only know just as much as he does (and depending on the viewer, maybe more). Any problems with suspension of disbelief, that a nobody could become a professional boxer in the span of a few episodes, are assuaged by the time frame and the setup. The training takes months, not days, and though this could arguably have been communicated better than with a montage, at a point training is training and it’s better to move on to the next plot point. The other piece of the puzzle is that Ippo has very good reasons for being good at boxing, due to his lifestyle. His upper body strength was built up by carrying heavy fishing supplies for years, his lower body strength was solidified by being on a rocking boat all day every day, and he’s good at taking punches because of… the constant bullying. Kind of sad that last one, but it ultimately gives him an edge.
Although Ippo started with his foot halfway in the door so to speak, the show hardly sugarcoats the nature of boxing. It’s not easy for anyone, even the pros. The training is grueling, the dieting can be absurd; it’s not a sport where people can get by on willpower alone. Every successful boxer in the series has to work for it, they have to constantly train and hone their technique, because the alternative is more or less suicide.
Ippo as a character is nice and all, he forms his rivalries as he works up the ranks, has his struggle reconciling his peaceful nature with boxing’s inherent violence and taps into his sheer determination in the hour of need as a hero must, but he isn’t what kept me going. Ippo was interestingly more of a foil for the characters he meets.
While the show is ostensibly the story of Ippo, it’s hardly just the story of Ippo. Everyone Ippo fights, every person he encounters, has their own story, their own goals and motivation to box. Whether it’s to vindicate one’s father, earn a quick buck, or support one’s family, no one is just there. Very rarely does Hajime no Ippo skimp on humanizing the opponents, sometimes to the point of even feeling bad for them. In his debut match, Ippo fights a man named Oda Yusuke. Everyone around him considers Oda a joke, a clown, a boxer about to be forced out of the business because he just doesn’t seem to care. However, the show does not settle for that being enough, setting up an easy opponent for Ippo’s debut. Instead, leading up to the match, we are given just as much, if not more, focus on Oda, than Ippo. Although at first supremely confident in himself, spending his days partying instead of training, as the match draws nearer, Oda is forced to realize how much of a fool everyone thinks he is. No one takes him seriously because he doesn’t take himself seriously, and this match is suddenly his last chance. If he fails here, his gym will no longer sponsor him, and his girlfriend will probably leave him. Faced with this stark reality, Oda hardens his resolve. He turns over a new leaf, and trains like he never has before, because, even though no one expects him to win, right now it’s all or nothing.
Oda never shows up again after his match with Ippo. His total screentime is dwarfed by almost every other character in the series. But there’s no less care given to creating his story, and that is one of the central pillars of Hajime no Ippo’s strength. You’ll meet all sorts of different opponents, some recurring threats, others appearing merely once. There are friendly ones, confident ones, fearful ones, villainous ones, heroic ones, and when they step in the ring, they’re not just boxers, they’re culminations of their lives and experiences up to that point. Just like people in this world, no two fights are ever exactly the same.
Curiously, this attitude of storytelling only really happens when Ippo is in the ring. When boxers fight Ippo, they usually bounce off his own unremarkable character as an avenue for their personal growth. However, when Ippo’s gym mates fight, the opposite occurs. Rather than being a platform for the opposition, their matches are usually a spotlight on themselves; their own path and their own struggle. The simplest explanation for why this is the case is that Ippo has many more matches than his peers, since he is the titular character. If every Ippo match showcased only Ippo, then there would quickly be a lack of things to say, but when a character only has a couple matches to their name, you’ll want to use that time effectively.
While it’s mostly the boxers that get their stories told, there are some very notable exceptions, the most notable of them all being Umezawa. Umezawa is the school bully. The one beating up Ippo in Episode 1. Anywhere else, a character like this would not be a character. He’d be an early obstacle to overcome, and never spoken of again. But Umezawa’s story becomes unexpectedly great. When his gang of delinquents realizes that Ippo has become a boxer, after they swallow their disbelief, they become his biggest fans. But it doesn’t stop there. The show takes place over a span of more than just a few months. The timeframes are years, long enough for Ippo and likewise Umezawa to graduate. While Ippo pursues a career in professional boxing, Umezawa heads off to join the nebulous Japanese workforce. I don’t want to spoil how he comes back into Ippo’s life, or how he decides to live his own life afterward, but it’s a shockingly touching journey, especially for a character that, from episode 1, by all rights should never have become one of my favorites in the show.
Sadly, this perfect picture of humanization that I’ve painted dissolves in the later seasons. In both New Challenger and Rising (the shorter 2009 and 2013 seasons that were released after the initial 75 episode 2000 one), the show starts to fumble, failing to produce characters that feel nearly as real, and who you can imagine living a life outside the ring. Sometimes this is done for the sake of comic relief, which is alright, but slowly, major antagonists are introduced that are so cringe-inducingly “evil” that it’s literally laughable. Brian Hawk is a terrible villain and a terrible character. The strength of Hajime no Ippo had always been in the opposition being somewhat sympathetic. Not whatever this is below.
The series proved early on that it was able to produce antagonistic characters that still felt real, with a gruff and antisocial demeanor but nonetheless human goals and dreams, but it seemingly forgot how to later on. Trying to become a pro boxer because you’re an ex-convict and can’t make much money anywhere else in order to support your younger sister is a perfectly reasonable and believable backstory. Acting like a sex-crazed gorilla is not. I’ve been given to understand that this might partially be a product of the later seasons just being a poorer adaptation, but I cannot personally vouch for that and regardless this is a review of the anime.
The show also falls into a slump with its treatment of romance. Over time, Ippo develops an interest in a girl named Kumi, which is fine in and of itself, and even made somewhat interesting by the fact that she is that younger sister of the boxer I just mentioned, but eventually her presence becomes grating, because it seems like the story just doesn’t know what to do with her. Her relationship with Ippo is always at a standstill; there’s no progression, no actual romantic development, and it uses literally Nisekoi-tier contrivances to keep it that way. By the time we reach Rising it even starts to go full harem, with a particularly painful scene involving three separate women, comprising the majority of the female cast minus his own mother, squabbling over Ippo. Ugh. Part of me feels like even the animation studio didn’t really care for Kumi and her side of the story, because they couldn’t be bothered to even cast the same voice actress between any one of the seasons (while the rest of the cast retained theirs).
Moving away from the characters specifically, it’s a nice change of pace to watch a career sports anime, rather than a high school one, but man, I hope you f**king like tournaments. I’m only half-joking; the entire notion of boxing is that you keep winning your way to the top until a title match, so the series is basically in always something of a tournament setup, and that’s when they aren’t literally doing a tournament. As such, there’s no denying that the plot is something of an endless loop: witness the opponent, train for the opponent, beat the opponent, repeat. Thankfully the pacing keeps things moving. Neither boxing matches nor the training leading up to them ever overstay their welcome, never taking more than 2, maybe 3, episodes, tops. Likewise, fights are almost never interrupted by long flashbacks or lengthy cutaways; once a fight starts, it’s a fight to the end. While they aren’t always entirely realistic, with a couple boxers apparently having eaten the Gum-Gum fruit and the occasional but noticeable shounen presence of moves infused with “killer intent”, each match is grounded enough to nonetheless remain gripping, colored with enough heart and tension to make the result seem dicey, even if when you think rationally, the outcome is almost always a foregone conclusion considering the plot structure as a whole, since invariably things would stall if Ippo lost and failed to continue on.
Hajime no Ippo’s plot can get away with being kind of generic because the animation and sound design work in concert to heighten every beat of the action. On the animation side, aside from some slight recycling of footage here and there, as well as the odd episode that just seemed to be the unfortunate product of a tight schedule, Ippo’s first season by and large looks terrific, with very strong but sometimes shockingly subtle bursts of animation sprinkled about. Sure, there are a fair number of impacts that are just spruced up images, but as one would expect, the match climaxes are absolute highlights, with furious coloring and crazy speed lines and motion motion motion. They make the big fights feel big, and that’s great, but… it isn’t always so extravagant. In fact, the animation is spread out rather evenly, in order for the whole show to be nicely in motion as much as possible, even offhand movements that maybe didn’t need to be well-animated, but who am I to complain? Great faces, too! The type you just don’t get in modern anime, the kind of old-school grotesque ugly expressions that never fail to elicit at least a grin.
You can also get a feel for Ippo’s age from its sense of humor, since it’s a lot of crass toilet humor. Dick jokes, sex jokes, you know, stuff like that. Not exactly my cup of tea, but definitely not the sort of thing you see much in anime these days, or at least not so blatantly. There are occasionally less savory signs of the manga’s age, like a gay panic joke, but thankfully such occurrences are very few and far between.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to visually expect when I moved into the more modern seasons after the first, especially because some of the key art showcased a seemingly drastic change in style, but this was mere misdirection. In fact, it’s almost surreal. Hajime no Ippo’s look and designs are faithfully recreated in all iterations of the show. The quality and frequency of movement, on the other hand, is a little dicier over time. I would never say it looks bad, but sometimes the modern seasons lack punch, no pun intended. Lots more freeze frames, as well as a general lack of detail by comparison. Rising is in an interesting position of having higher highs but lowers lows than New Challenger. New Challenger stays consistent, for better or worse, while Rising, er, doesn’t, as well hosting some hilarious crowd CGI, that was thankfully only prevalent in a small handful of shots.
I mentioned the sound complementing the animation earlier, and it does. I really like the soundtrack, but don’t exactly know how to describe it. It sounds like… like boxing music should? Kind of rock-y, with a guitar and trumpet and high energy, and the first season had this awesome aftermath theme, the first ED, that it’d play after just about every bout. I’m really disappointed that the later seasons never once used it. Speaking of the later seasons, unfortunately New Challenger changes up the musical style, leaning towards more of a dramatic, orchestral feel that just doesn’t fit in the right way. I guess the staff eventually felt the same because Rising goes back to basics and uses tracks from the original, plus of course a handful of new ones, but ones that jive more with the original’s vibe than New Challenger’s.
All the openings by the way are hype and awesome. I love ‘em all, even the third (which is purely instrumental), and the first two have some pretty great Engrish, which is always good for a laugh. Ending themes, wasn’t as big on, aside from the aforementioned aftermath theme, but they weren’t awful; moreso just forgettable.
And with that I’ve pretty much said all I wanted to say, but I guess I should probably mention that Hajime no Ippo is at the moment an incomplete adaptation with several dangling plot threads. However, I feel like if they’ve come this far, at some point they will finish it out and are just waiting for more manga material to be produced. Or at least, I hope.
So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S, Hajime no Ippo receives an A. There was a case to be made for an S, and if I was grading the first season alone, it would have been an S, but both the animation and the writing start to slide in the later seasons. Nowhere near enough to be unwatchable or anything, but enough that I cannot justify my absolute highest recommendation to the series as a whole.
Unfortunately, only the third and final season of Hajime no Ippo is currently available for legal streaming from Crunchyroll, and you’re on your own when it comes to everything else, but don’t let that stop you from checking out season one, because if nothing else, that season alone is tremendous.