I like to describe certain events as “crimes” of fandom; developments such as “we never got a US release of Macross: Do You Remember Love?” which make me say “there is no justice in this world!” So it is that one of the biggest “crimes” of US anime fandom is the fact that the “sports anime” genre habitually fails to catch on here. For an introduction to sports anime, read my sidebar on the subject in Issue 11 of Otaku USA Magazine because I don’t feel like repeating myself!
Most of the great sports anime titles were simply never released in the US on account that they were too lengthy, too old, or both. The majority of sports anime titles released in the US have been shorter series which by and large were awful. I didn’t exactly shed any tears over the woe begotten fate of the sports anime genre in America when absolutely nobody bought Hoop Days or even sports anime heavyweight Slam Dunk, both of which happen to be about basketball. Sorry, but I don’t consider Slam Dunk a good series at all. Dragging on even longer than the worst parts of DBZ, I’m convinced that the only reason any native English speaker even tolerates Slam Dunk or the soccer-focused Captain Tsubasa is because of how important they were in establishing yaoi fandom. Clearly, everyone can tell that the characters in those anime suck• one way or another!
But there was one great sports anime title that was released in the United States, and its failure to catch on with audiences despite universal critical acclaim and praise from a small yet highly dedicated fanbase is a downright crime of anime fandom in my mind: Hajime no Ippo (literally translated, “The First Step”), or Fighting Spirit as it was known for its US DVD release. If I had to pick one and only one sports anime title to show someone as a representative of the sports anime genre, this would be it. It’s from this decade so it doesn’t “look old” the way many would deride the classic sports anime titles of the 1970s, it’s got an awesome soundtrack from Tsuneo Imahori-perhaps you may recognize the name if I said he did the music for Trigun while also working with Yoko Kanno on various titles including Cowboy Bebop-and the protagonist, Ippo Makunouchi, isn’t some cocky, unlikeable jerkface who’s less interesting than the supporting cast. The series is about boxing, which to those “in the know” conjures up memories of one of the single most beloved anime titles of all time in Japan: Ashita no Joe (“Tomorrow’s Joe”), which is often cited as the Japanese animated equivalent of the Rocky films. But I think Ippo better fits that comparison, since it too is a story about underdog triumph that is much less bleak in its outlook than Joe while simultaneously being substantially more authentic in its portrayal of the technical aspects of boxing.
Total authenticity would only be interesting to actual boxing fans, of which I personally am not one. Thankfully, the fights in Hajime no Ippo are depicted using a sort of hyper-realism in which the techniques are by and large all genuine-if you want power beams and nuclear explosion mushroom cloud effects in your boxing matches then I highly recommend the criminally-overlooked Ring ni Kakero-but they’re rendered in a very amped-up fashion. Ippo may be a featherweight boxer, but no actual human is as muscularly ripped as the characters in this anime, let alone ones weighing 126 pounds. Every blow landed results in a series of massive air current disturbances that suggest as though the victim was leveled by the Takizawa Railway Train Punch, and suitably heavy smashing sound effects are played to correspond to this. No actual human being could sustain the level of punishment dished out within the fights of this anime, and the manga gets even bloodier!
Be forewarned: since the series is based on one of the single longest-running manga in history, the anime doesn’t cover everything. But before you start hunting down the fan translations of the manga which are essentially caught up with the Japanese releases, you should know that the sequel series, Hajime no Ippo: New Challenger, is currently airing in Japan! There may have been a few changes as far as supporting character voices, and yes I do like the music in the first series much more, but New Challenger is every bit as good as the original. I cannot wait to finally see the Takamura vs Hawk fight in animated form.
I could talk all day about why Hajime no Ippo never caught on here, but it’s actually pretty simple: it was too expensive. Even if you don’t factor in that it was one of the first anime series to be digitally fansubbed and distributed via BitTorrent, the original series spanned 75 episodes and two follow-up specials (the last of which never got released here), and so even at 5 episodes per disc that worked out to 15 individual DVD volumes for the main series alone. That plus the two TV specials each at a suggested retail price of $30 works out to roughly $500 for just the first series, a price which even diehards like me couldn’t afford. Those curious to see what all the positive press was about were no doubt put off by the size of the commitment they were potentially about to undertake. If you’re like me, you don’t want to buy a show and then not finish it, and the sight of all those single DVD volumes is awfully intimidating. I think that was truly what kept Fighting Spirit from catching on in the US.
Well, that and the fact that there’s nothing in it that deliberately goes out of its way to draw in female viewers who now comprise a substantial portion of the anime and manga purchasing audience. In fact, I know a lot of guys who refuse to watch the show because a lot of the humor is blatantly homoerotic (if you think this contradicts what I previously said, note that girls prefer the gay to be more subtle); pixilated male genitalia is generally something you’d only encounter when watching Japanese porn-which is all substandard and should be watched by nobody-and one of the main running gags of the series has to do with the sheer amount of pixelation required to cover up what Ippo’s packing. Cue elephant sound effect and possibly scenes of naked, non-“bishie” men groping one another. Oh rats, I just scared everyone away from watching the show. Tell you what: if you feel concerned about what that makes you if you watch a cartoon in which there might be some rare moments of locker-room hijinks, just watch Godannar as well as this. Any implied peepee content will therefore be vastly outnumbered by explicit punching and lady boobs/crotch. Everybody wins!
Nowadays, every disc of Fighting Spirit can be found in the bargain bin of RightStuf.com for $5 a shot, so that’s $80 for everything that was released here. Even now in the age of thinpaks and season sets, $80 normally only gets you about 13-26 episodes worth of anime. So take the first step already and watch this entire show. I watch anime all the time, and I can say without hesitation that this is easily one of the top anime series of the last ten years. But everybody’s BEEN saying that and yet people STILL don’t watch it. What’s it take to convince you people, anyway?