Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 9th 2007
Hajime no Ippo
DVD - Champion Road TV Special
The title match with Sendo is over, and now Ippo for the first time finds himself a defender rather than a challenger. It isn't a mindset that the humble young fighter is used to, and before it can set in, he's faced with the prospect of his first title defense. Sanada is a powerful boxer in his own right, but also has on his side a grizzled cornerman who just happens to be an old rival of Chief Kamogawa. To make things even worse Sanada's also a wealthy medical student and idol to nurses like Ippo's sort-of girlfriend Kumi, a fact that a certain trio of troublemaking boxing comrades won't let poor Ippo forget. With his love-life (kind of) in trouble and, even more damaging, the pressure of being champion finally beginning to register, can Ippo triumph over an opponent whose knowledge of the human body can be used to destroy just as easily as to heal?
Right from the opening, with Ippo weaving in a vacuum of black while X-ray shots reveal the intricate interplay of his muscles, the central appeal of this feature-length TV special—and the series as a whole—is obvious. Sure, this is a series about boxing, which is essentially the spectacle of two sweaty men beating the holy sh-- out of each other, but Fighting Spirit succeeds because it effortlessly balances pure testosterone with infinitesimal technical detail and successful character-building. Cast-wise, the film wastes no time in getting everyone back into their everyday routines. They all get their moments to shine, from Kumi and Ippo's cute, clumsy relationship, to Takamura's Ippo-hazing. Even Miyata and Mashiba get slivers of screen time. Sanada gets his own time in the spotlight, and proves to be—as per usual for this series—a sympathetic opponent with clear, understandable motivations for fighting.
Naturally, as enjoyable as the character by-play is in its own right, it's all buildup to the fight. And oh what a fight. From the opening bell to the moment that the loser hits the canvas, it's a full thirty-five minutes of bone-crushing adrenaline; an interminable series of reversals and counter-reversals that keeps you continually on edge. Satoshi Nishimura's background in action pays off (remember Trigun?) as he pulls out all the stops, demonstrating an almost preternatural grasp of the timing and execution of action scenes; it's a nonstop blaze of lightning punches, stop-and-go slow motion, intern-o-cams, and flying sweat and blood. He knows exactly when to let the electric guitar blaze and when to stop all sound, pause the action, and let a blow sink into his characters' and audience's bones. The use of a doctor as an opponent makes explicit the literally gut-twisting effects of the blows, allowing you to feel the pain, while observers' comments and the fighters' own internal monologues explicate the strategy and technique on a literally blow-by-blow basis, without once intruding on or even so much as pausing the pulse-abusing tension. It's simultaneously educational, utterly absorbing, unbearably tense, and soaringly cool. Eat that Rocky.
Even if this is a feature-length installment, this is by no means a stand-alone work; familiarity with the television series is a must for full enjoyment. Each blow that Ippo utilizes is heavy with history and defeated opponents. And without knowing who everyone is, the character moments are just a bunch of ugly guys messing around, deprived of both humor and import.
Speaking of ugly guys, the character designs are rough-edged enough that, while possessed of a certain old-school charm, they will make many wonder just where all the drawing talent involved went. Until the shirts come off, that is. Just as the boxing technique is exhaustively researched, so is the musculature of the characters. You can practically feel every strand of muscle, every tendon, every sinew. The heightened budget results in increased detail levels and fluidity all around, which includes touches like Kumi's carefully coifed hair and a beautiful snowy park, as well as face-distorting impacts, squirting blood and breaking bones.
For this series, Satoshi Nishimura once again teams up with guitarist and occasional Yoko Kanno collaborator Tsuneo Imahori. Imahori can tease a surprising number of emotions from a guitar, and mixes things up with a nice variety of other instruments. It all ably supports the various moods of the opening half—helped greatly by Nishimura's willingness to keep the music in the background—but his real skills only become apparent when the fight gets underway and he lets loose with the electric guitar. It hasn't the impact of say, the Trigun opening (and its enormous debt to Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog"), but combined with Nishimura's skillful soundtrack manipulation, which includes communicating physical strain via mechanical sound effects like jet engines and creaking cables, it's a force to be reckoned with.
This has never been a dub-lover's title, something that hasn't changed even this far in. The English lacks the intensity and raw immediacy of the Japanese, noticeably lessening the series' crucial tension. The quieter moments work fine, but the fights definitely suffer, and Sanada loses almost all of his subtle menace. The changes to the original script are kept to a relative minimum, but those that do occur occasionally gloss over some of the original's finer points. It's the kind of work that, while far from horrible, has enough of an effect that dub fans who find themselves tuning out may want to switch over to the Japanese just this once to see if it makes a difference.
As will surprise no one who has followed the series up to this point, there are no extras. There is also no Spanish language track, as there was for the TV series.
This special isn't for those who either haven't watched, or didn't like, the original series (shame on all of you!), but it will thrill the fans. It's all here. The off-the-wall humor, the wild secondary cast, the hints of romance, and most of all, the absolutely superb boxing action. While not be on par with the Mashiba/Ippo fight from earlier in the series (which has to make any self-respecting list of the greatest anime fights ever), Ippo's title defense is still one of the most exhilarating 35 minutes you're likely to spend with an anime series any time soon. Somewhere out there, there is a law against this series, filed under "fingernail abuse."
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, and capable of promoting unhealthy adrenaline levels.
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