Reviewby Theron Martin, May 24th 2009
KenIchi the Mightiest Disciple
DVD - Season 1 Part 1
“Weak-Kneed” Kenichi has a deserved reputation for cowardice, but upon entering high school he resolves to change that by joining the school's karate club. Seen as worthless by the uppity club members, Kenichi despairs about ever learning anything until he befriends Miu, the cute, bespectacled new student who has curves in all the right places. He soon discovers that she also conceals monstrous fighting skills within that pretty frame and behind that cheery disposition, so when she learns that he seeks proper training she directs him to Ryozanpaku, the dojo where she lives with her grandfather and five other masters of assorted forms of martial arts. Despite varying levels of enthusiasm towards the proposition from the masters, Kenichi soon finds himself as the dojo's one and only disciple, which forces upon him grueling training but does ultimately teach him a thing or two about defending himself. Although Kenichi ultimately seeks only to protect himself and others, an initial success in using what he's been newly taught only leads to an escalating series of fights as local gang Ragnarok tries repeatedly to either take him out or forcibly “recruit” him.
In the iconic 1984 movie The Karate Kid, teenager Daniel LaRusso hooks up with a hot girl at his new school but finds himself bullied by martial arts-proficient students. After discovering that a figure he knows well is actually secretly a karate master, he seeks training from said master so that he can defend himself from the bullies – and, perhaps most importantly, has no martial arts ambitions beyond being able to protect himself. Turn one master into six (of various different types of martial arts rather than just karate), make the hot girlfriend a martial arts master, too, and drop the surrogate parent/child relationship formed between master and student and you essentially also have the premise of KenIchi the Mightiest Disciple. In fact, the only other major difference, premise-wise, between the two is that KtMD takes itself far less seriously. It is a crucial difference, too, because much of what goes on in the series is entirely too ridiculous to be taken seriously.
Not all of it is ridiculous, though. The lessons Kenichi learns from the masters, and the fights that he has with various bullies and Ragnarok members, do delve into some of the specifics of how certain martial arts moves work and their tactical applications in certain situations and against certain kinds of enemies, such as how Kenichi is taught to take advantage of someone who favors sports karate in a fight by attacking that person in a way that sports karate enthusiasts are not used to countering. The series also focus on some of the minutiae of martial arts basics that too often get overlooked in many martial arts-related anime, such as the importance of footwork and balance in any kind of maneuver. Emphasizing that martial arts are no different than any other weapon when it comes to the morality of using them, and that learning how to fight can actually create as many problems as it solves, are additional nice touches, as is not making Kenichi out to be some kind of prodigy and showing that he does what he is out of necessity and an earnest desire to protect rather than the Naruto-like burning obsession to become the best.
Get beyond those points and one substory about a bad guy and his former boxing career and the series is awash in silliness. The superhuman skills and training regimens of the masters are over-the-top to the point of self-parody, such as the seeming torture devices designed to “loosen up” Kenichi or the especially harsh endurance training. The masters themselves are playfully presented archetypes with one or two defining characteristics each, such as Appachi's childish enthusiasm and total inability to show restraint, Shigure's soft-voiced approach and habit of hanging out in weird places, Shio's tough-guy routine, Akisame's pragmatism and bizarrely unconventional training methods, Kensei's money-grubbing lechery, and Hayato's seemingly gleeful habit of playing up his intimidation factor. The evil looks they take on when contemplating harsh training methods for Kenichi is always amusing, as is Kenichi's father's wrangling with his beloved gun Sebastien. Less welcome is the smarmy, alien-looking Tochumaru and Kenichi's early behavior, as his cowardice is overplayed to the point of annoyance. He gradually becomes more likeable as the series progresses, however.
The fan service element is embodied in Miu (and, to a much lesser extent, Shigure), whose character design gives her very generous curves and a tight-fitting fighting outfit in which to show them off. She arguably looks more appealing when not flaunting her figure, however, and it is to the series' credit that the writers found a satisfying balance of cheery sweetness and toughness in her. This kind of character can – and has – been done so much worse elsewhere.
TMS Entertainment, a Japanese company probably best-known to American fans for its production of the Lupin III and Detective Conan/Case Closed franchises, provides the artistry and animation for this one. It is a generally attractive effort, with each character getting his or her own highly distinctive look, although it does suffer from occasional minor quality control lapses and does not always seem to know how to properly and consistently draw the outline of Miu's breasts, especially in side shots. Many of the super-bulky supposed high school-aged fighters also look much, much too old, but this is hardly a problem limited to this series amongst fighting anime. Balancing that out is Miu's appealingly cheery face; based on face shots alone, she's one of the prettier anime heroines out there. The animation handles the fights reasonably well by focusing on specific moves, although it also takes many of the typical series animation shortcuts.
Music director Joe Rinoue has little other soundtrack production experience in anime, but he establishes some solid credentials with this effort. It is lively, highly adaptive, and varied, rarely missing the mark whether enhancing funny, dramatic, or action scenes. The adult contemporary-styled closer “Kimi Ga Irukara” may fail to impress, but upbeat opener “Be Strong” captures all of the energetic and enthusiastic spirit of the series, getting each episode off to a rockin' start.
Funimation's English dub is no slouch, either. English dubs of anime are often at their best when their actors get to ham it up, and this one offers plenty of succulent pork. The casting is rock-solid, too; Carrie Savage is exactly the right pick for Miu, Sonny Strait is delightfully giddy as Appachi, and Josh Grelle does a fine job in the anchor role of Kenichi. Many of Funimation's other regular male VAs also get their opportunities to have a little fun. If there is a flaw in the English dub, it's that the script sometimes goes a little too far with rewording things, but it flows well enough that this is not a big issue.
Extras on the two thinpacked disks, which come within a narrow slipcase, are limited to clean opener and closer. Thirteen episodes in all are included, however.
The first quarter of KtMD is hardly great anime viewing, as it has an annoying start and some irksome habits, but eventually it becomes surprisingly entertaining in its sampling of various forms of martial arts and the tactics involved in using them efficiently. It's cheesy and often silly, but fun.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ English dub, musical score, exploration of the tactics and basics of martial arts moves.
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