Fighting Spirit Vol.01: The First Step Review

Fighting Spirit is perhaps a title most hardcore Anime fans aren’t particularly familiar with, but if you were to refer to the series by its Japanese name, Hajime no Ippo (The First Step), then I’m sure that would get a different reaction. You see the Manga isn’t just popular in Japan it’s practically a national institution, created in 1990 by Morikawa Jyoji and serialised in Shukan Shonen Magazine the story is still going strong today, having recently reached the 70-volume mark. However, despite this popularity the wait for an Anime adaptation would prove to be a long one, but it finally hit Japanese screens in 2000 courtesy of Madhouse and ran for 76 episodes, ending in 2002 with a feature length TV special appearing in 2003, so there’s plenty more to come from Fighting Spirit in the US.

This first volume introduces us to Makunouchi Ippo, a gentle, considerate sixteen year-old who has become a self imposed social outcast at school because he’s always helping his mother run the family fishing boat rental business. Naturally his shyness and lack of popularity means he’s easy prey for the local bullies, but one day he is rescued by a professional boxer named Takamura and taken to the local gym where he receives not only treatment for his wounds but also his first exposure to the noble art of boxing. Wishing to be stronger he decides he wants to become a professional boxer, but first he has to persuade Takamura and the gym’s elderly owner Kamegawa that he has the strength and willpower to make it as a professional sportsman. He is immediately put to the test in a three round sparring match with the gym’s top junior fighter, Miyata. This is no light challenge and Ippo soon realizes he’s going to have enough difficulty just remaining conscious until the end of the first round let alone pull off a shock defeat.


What’s so special about this series then? Well nothing, and everything at the same time. On paper this is just another sports drama with a tenacious underdog defeating the odds to become a contender, but it’s the characterisation that makes these Shonen Manga adaptations so special and even in this first volume Fighting Spirit introduces us to a great collection of characters. At the forefront is Ippo and Miyata, naturally Ippo represents the direct brute force approach and gritty never-say-die spirit which has been the basic tenet of boxing dramas for many a year, whereas Miyata is a calmly assured member of the boxing elite. He is graceful, not forceful and uses his superior movements and pinpoint accuracy to tactically break his opponents down and clinically deliver the crushing blow. The central point of this initial batch of episodes is the sparring match between these two contrasting individuals and it’s gripping stuff because it doesn’t fall too deeply into the usual trap of ramping up the melodrama as Ippo takes a beating but refuses to give in. Instead it’s played semi-comic as the completely untrained Ippo develops some amusingly obscure techniques to fight his opponent and the bemused spectators start to take cheeky digs at the gym’s golden boy, Miyata for not being able to dispose of this rookie in record time. When Miyata does start to up the ferocity of his attacks his coolly assured façade begins to falter as this useless newcomer just keeps getting back up and sucking in his blows, the panic that sets into this brilliant young boxer, who has probably never faced many difficult fights before, is absolutely priceless and I hope these two will be having many more interesting match ups.

Ippo’s gym is a treasure trove of impishly funny characters, the owner Kamegawa is a wily old dog who sees all the angles and immediately sets about creating a rivalry between Miyata and Ippo to spurn them both on further. Takamura provides plenty of comic relief as the gym’s number one fighter and Ippo’s kind hearted mentor, well, he’d like to be a mentor were it not for the fact that Kamegawa is always on his back and everyone at the gym considers him to be something of a blockhead with a bizarre outlook on boxing, it’s not surprising considering he looks like a pimp and has some worryingly outgoing habits in the male showers. Competing with Takamura in the comedy stakes is Aoki and Kimura, a good natured but mischievous duo who see Ippo’s naivety as fair game for their little pranks, naturally with Takamura shadowing the boy these three characters end up bickering like schoolchildren as the successful professional considers these two lousy boxers to be unfit role models for the pupil he personally discovered. Given the runtime of the series I am sure plenty more great characters will appear, but for now this rowdy bunch is more than enough to ensure that the drama never gets too overbearing.


The action certainly isn’t too shabby either; fight scenes are reasonably well animated and the basic technical aspects of boxing are imaginatively explored yet simplistically conveyed, meaning Fighting Spirit works as a great introduction to the sport. Although the action is wildly exaggerated, with characters moving faster than the eye can see and punching bean bags into the sky the brutality of boxing is drilled home with an almost tangible realism for an animated series. When Ippo views some boxing matches for the first time he is absolutely petrified by the images of men dropping like potato sacks after receiving punch after punch, likewise the animators haven’t shied away from shedding a little blood and mashing up some faces when the fights get more serious. This is all within the confines of a TV anime series of course, so it’s nothing too vicious and naturally the characters can take a much more severe beating than an ordinary human being, but the violence does seem just a touch more realistic than the usual Shonen action series.

In my (admittedly limited) experience of the longer running Anime shows they usually take a while to get going, but Fighting Spirit has provided a pleasant surprise by hitting the ground running with this first volume. In just five episodes it has already established plenty of targets, personal goals and some interesting relationships between the characters to hook even the most finicky anime viewer. It’s great sporting escapism and I for one can’t wait to see the next installment.

Episodes

While I have tried my best not to reveal too much about each episode in these synopses, please bare in mind that the second episode and onwards may feature spoilers for the episodes prior.

Round 1. The First Step: No time is wasted in introducing us to the hero, Makunouchi Ippo, a quiet anti-social youngster who is dedicated to helping his mother out in his spare time. Unfortunately his habitual politeness and shyness has attracted the attention of the school bullies and one day after Ippo recieves a savage beating from three thugs a passing boxer named Takamura steps in to frighten the hooligans away. Not knowing Ippo’s home address he has no choice but to take the unconscious youngster back to his gym to treat his wounds, when Ippo awakes he is filled in on his whereabouts and even given some handy tips on how to swing a hard right punch. This proves to be a fateful tutorial because Takamura discovers that Ippo has got a devastating right hook, it seems the years Ippo spent carting heavy fishing equipment back and forth have built him up into a pint sized superman.

Round 2. Fruits of Labor: Although Ippo is adamant he wants to become a professional boxer the fact remains that this gentle, self effacing youngster doesn’t have an ounce of the killer competitive instinct needed to make it as a professional athlete and Takamura is reluctant to help Ippo take up the brutal sport. So to discourage him he sets Ippo a professional-level challenge; he has seven days to perfect a technique for collecting ten falling leaves from a shaken tree using punches alone. At first Ippo is confident that this challenge will be a doddle, but on his first attempt he realises that the first leaf falls out of his grip once he reaches for the second leaf. This means Ippo must develop a technique to rapidly snatch the leaves out of the air, something which becomes the building block for the development of the most important punch in boxing: the jab.


Round 3. Tears of Joy: Ippo’s very first sparring match has begun, but he is totally outclassed by the cool assurance and superior skills of his seasoned opponent Miyata. Can our hero’s dogged tenacity and freakish physical strength defy the odds and see him through to the end of this three round match with his consciousness intact?

Round 4. Shadow Boxing: After proving his worth to old man Kamegawa Ippo finally becomes a fully fledged member of the local gym, but the enrollment causes descension among the ranks as good natured pranksters Aoki and Kimura start bickering with Takamura over who will train the rookie. Naturally the three imbeciles have made all the wrong assumptions because Ippo is taken under the wing of old man Kamegawa, a brilliant but brutal taskmaster who wastes no time in stoking the flames of rivalry that are burgeoning between Miyata and the newcomer.

Round 5. Three Months to Counter: With the rematch of Ippo Vs. Miyata looming in three months time Kamegawa ups the intensity of his pupil’s training so Ippo can develop a technique to counter Miyata’s devastating counter punch. The rookie also needs to perfect his own finishing punch, the uppercut but the training is proving too grueling and unsurprisingly, Ippo’s self doubt is beginning to get the better of him. However, he finds inspiration in the most unlikely of people.

Presentation

Presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio this is a very fine transfer, the image is generally sharp and colours are bold and crisp with practically no cross-colouration in the image at all. Add to this strong contrast and brightness levels and you have a nice detailed picture, some scenes may appear soft but this is down to the animation style rather than the DVD itself so it would be unfair to fault Geneon here. Considering the number of episodes on the disc the compression is also solid, although a little chroma noise and some very faint mosquito noise do creep into the frame at times there’s nothing out of the ordinary really and you’d have to be sitting with a magnifying glass to notice most of it. As for film artifacts, there are a few infrequent nicks here and one or two moments when the image feels a little dusty but overall this is a transfer that you really have to start nitpicking to find any faults with.

It’s quite common for anime DVDs to have what is sometimes referred to as a Hybrid Transfer, this means they are generally progressively encoded but still exhibit some signs of interlacing. Fighting Spirit fits into this category, so if you view the film on either your PC or a progressive system you will find some scenes are clearly interlaced. Another by product of this are some pretty obvious jagged lines around edges during camera sweeps and pans, which is probably my main gripe with the image, other than this I’m very pleased with the job Geneon have done.


I’m a bit anal about watching Anime in its original language, so naturally even though Geneon have provided Japanese/English/Spanish DD2.0 stereo tracks which are equivalent in audio quality, I opted to primarily listen to the Japanese and it's a nice, solid track with some thumping bass kicking in once the boxing starts. Dialogue is focused solely on the center channel and remains consistently clear and audible throughout and Kenji Utsumi’s rather eclectic score is handled well.

I can’t say I’m a fan of English dubs in general, so I wasn’t exactly impressed by the one on this disc, but I’m sure if you’re more used to them then you’ll find this is a decent effort and the script does remain faithful enough to the essence of the Japanese dialogue, the Spanish dub also seems to do the job, although seeing as I can’t speak a word of the language I chose not to listen for too long.

With a Spanish dub being present I was a little surprised to find that there are only English subtitles present on the disc, presented in the usual easy to read yellow font with no spelling or grammatical errors to note.


Extras

With five episodes crammed onto the disc Geneon can be forgiven for skimping on the extras, all we have here is an amusing 3minute blooper reel from the English dub, trailers for Space Captain Herlock, Gad Guard and Master Keaton and the Spanish End Credits.

Overall

Fighting Spirit is widely considered to be one of if of not the finest sports drama of all time and after this volume I’m inclined to believe the hype. The length of the series might deter casual anime fans but for the hardcore fan base, this is a must buy. I can only hope the standard set in Volume 1 is matched not only by the upcoming episodes but also by Geneon, who have provided a fine presentation on R1 DVD.


Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
2 out of 10
Overall

8

out of 10

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