Oh boy, this is an anime that I really wanted to do a piece on, but I wanted to wait a little so that I could get used to this whole blog-posting thing... That is, until Toei dropped the whole "Masami Kurumada Project" thing that will be revealed at Jump Festa. And since Ring ni Kakero 1 seems to be a large focus for Toei in regards to this "project" I can't just wait anymore. It's time to talk about the one anime that I would love to see licensed for North American distribution more than any other title!
As I said in my Fuma no Kojirou: Yasha-hen review, Ring ni Kakero was the first manga to be considered a giant hit for Shueisha's Weekly Shonen Jump magazine (or at least a hit that wasn't due to infamy or had an even more popular anime going alongside it). Creator Masami Kurumada made the title as an homage to the legendary boxing manga Ashita no Joe, and since its debut in 1977 it's hard to downplay the manga's influence, especially on what one can call "shonen action/fighting manga". Yes, Dragon Ball wasn't the originator of the many traditions, cliches, and tropes that shonen fighting manga have nowadays; it definitely popularized them and, one can argue, refined them, though. Anyway, as popular as the manga was, Ring ni Kakero wasn't given an anime TV series until 2004 (the "1" was added to the title in the 2001 reprint due to the sequel, Ring ni Kakero 2, being serialized in Super Jump at the time) as part of a celebration of Masami Kurumada's 25th Anniversary as a manga-ka (and before people ask "If it was so popular then why wasn't it animated back then?", consider the fact that Kochikame & Golgo 13 weren't given anime TV series until decades later, either). The TV series itself seems to have been produced due to positive fan reaction towards a "Manga DVD" that was pretty much an audio re-enactment of a scene from the manga with panels of the manga used for the video. Then in 2003 there was a 5-minute pilot film that was made alongside the production of the Saint Seiya: Tenkai-hen ~Overture~ movie. I'll talk about the pilot film at a later time, but let's focus on the 12-episode 2004 TV series.
Ryuji & Kiku Takane are the children of a former world-class boxer who had recently passed away. In order to give themselves, as well as their loving mother, a better life Kiku takes her brother and leaves home so that she can train Ryuji to become a boxer like their father. At first Ryuji wants nothing to do with boxing, but after bumping into Jun Kenzaki, a cocky boxing prodigy who promptly offers to buy their father's old gloves, Ryuji decides that the only way to beat Kenzaki is to become a better boxer than him, and through it starts to love the sport his father did. Soon it's the Tokyo Jr. Boxing Tournament, where the final match is between Ryuji and Kenzaki, with the winner becoming the Tokyo representative at the Champion Carnival, where Japan's best junior boxer will be crowned.
The anime adaptation of Ring ni Kakero 1 does something a bit odd for an adaptation of a manga: It starts some volumes into the story. While the thought of that sounds discouraging to newcomers, let me assure you that it isn't really. From what I could tell of those pre-anime portions very little happens that really affects the overall story. For the most part all of the major details that you need to know at that point are shown in flashbacks during the first two episodes, which cover the Ryuji-Kenzaki match, as well as other flashbacks throughout the show. It also very becomes very obvious when watching this show why Toei started adapting where they did: This is where the main story begins. The major characters introduced here, Ryuji, Kiku, Kenzaki, fellow regional champions Ishimatsu Katori, Kazuki Shinatora, Takeshi Kawai and his sister Takako, and the other international junior boxing champions are the ones that stay throught the story from this point on (Shinatora was also in the un-adapted portion of the manga, but his involvement was very minor). Newcomers can go into this anime totally unfamiliar with the manga and still enjoy it without feeling like they're missing something. Yeah, there are some details that are nice from that earlier bit of the manga and some portions could have been covered here are not but overall nothing of any giant importance is lost here.
In all honesty, the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime is actually a very complete package for the most part. The story is a bit simple and the characters might also come off as a bit cliched and simple, but at the same time it must be reasserted that the original manga debuted back in 1977. These characters aren't so much cliches as they are the originals themselves, or at least they are the prototypes to those cliches of characters. But just because the story and characters might be simple it doesn't mean that they aren't any good. While I do enjoy the shonen fighting titles that we do get nowadays, sometimes I feel that their stories and characters might be complex simply for the sake of being complex and not so much because they should be. Sometimes I feel that there is an over-complication in these titles, and seeing something like Ring ni Kakero 1, with its simpler style, honestly feels refreshing and, dare I say, "fresh". The main characters in this anime are just enjoyable to watch and it's easy to get behind and understand them. At the same time the story knows what it wants to be and doesn't try to be more than it has to. This is, simply put, a "Straight-Up Shonen Action/Fighting Anime": You go into this title expecting a fun time and that's what you get.
Now yes, this can also be considered a sports anime as boxing is a major focus as well. But something to remember is that this is from Masami Kurumada, the creator of Saint Seiya. Therefore it would be silly to expect this title to be 100% realistic to the sport of boxing. While the fights do tend to stay within the rules of boxing the strength of the punches and overall style you will see is fairly exaggerated. Fast-paced flurries of punches that are almost invisible to the naked eye (or look like one blow in the case of Shinatora), giant gusts of wind following some blows, cutting of skin and clothes, and images of things like boomerangs, beams of light, lightning, and such are going to be normal fare in this title (the images, though, are simply that: visual accentuation; no one is really getting hit by these things). People coming into this title expecting maybe just slight exaggeration so that there's more of a "punch", no pun intended, ala Hajime no Ippo/Fighting Spirit are more than likely going to be surprised and maybe disappointed by how over-the-top this show goes. I personally did go into this show expecting that, but ended up accepting the style this show used. I have seen plenty of responses online from people who simply call this show crap simply because "Ippo is better" honestly just gets me really annoyed. Hajime no Ippo and Ring ni Kakero are both boxing titles, yes, but it's very easy to see that they deliver different styles; it's not really fair to compare the two. It's like comparing Aim for the Ace to Prince of Tennis, which is not exactly a fair comparison as they deliver two different takes on the same sport.
One last thing to address is the portrayal of other countries in this show. While I don't know if Kurumada chose to do this for simplistic character development reasons or if he was going for a larger development purpose later on, but the other countries in the world are portrayed through stereotypes. For example, the French Jr. champion Napoleon Baroa is a Rose of Versailles-esque pretty boy who loves having a rose with him while German Jr. champion Scorpion is portrayed as an almost militaristic leader of a giant group (in the original manga the Germans were portrayed strictly as Nazis [minus the antisemitism], but this title was far from the only one to do so at the time, as Kinnikuman did the same with Brockenman and Brocken Jr., for example). And, in a precursor to Kurumada's Saint Seiya, the Greeks are hinted at being godlike. Then there's Black Shaft, who is the U.S.'s Jr. champion. If the name doesn't give it off, Shaft is a blaxspoitation-style character, except that instead of heavy jive talk he instead uses heavy "Engrish" and loves to dance with the ladies. While these portrayals could potentially come off as insulting, the show instead is obviously having fun with them. Black Shaft in particular comes off as hilariously entertaining to watch and he actually ends up being, in my opinion, one of the best black characters ever in an anime. Plus, I would argue that Hetalia Axis Powers' portrayal of countries can be a good bit harsher and push the line a bit more at times. What I'll end with is that if you ejoyed G Gundam's sterotypes then you'll enjoy Ring ni Kakero 1's as well.
While I don't normally go too much into the actual people behind a show, for this it is worth talking a good bit about as, like I said, it is very much a complete package for the most part. The "most part" mainly comes from the animation itself, which is a little on the lower-budget side; while it's not completely still images or poorly-done at all times (in fact, when the budget allows it really looks good), it is easily noticeable that Toei still treated this anime as a "test season" to see how well this show does in its late-night slot. Still, director Toshiaki Komura, who also directed the Ultimate Muscle anime and some seasons of Pretty Cure, does a great job with the smaller budget, making every work nicely and nothing is confusing to watch, especially the fight scenes. Toei also brought in character designers Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno, who already showed off their prowess at adapting Kurumada's characters in the Saint Seiya anime, and they do a great job of adapting these characters here. Yosuke Kuroda, a legend of anime script writing and series composition, also does a great job at getting the story told here well; in fact, the anime expands of some parts, giving the anime more overall story than the original manga had in this story arc. Finally, I have to give high regard to music composer Susumu Ueda, who also worked on the Narutaru and Yugo the Negotiator animes. Ueda's soundtrack is somehow able to keep an old-school style while at the same time not sound outdated. It's amazing how many great songs are in this anime.
The opening and ending themes are, likewise, excellent. The opening theme, "Asu he no Toushi" by Marina del ray, is a song written by Kurumada himself and is honestly one of my favorite anime opening themes. The best opening themes give you a real feeling of how the show will feel like and this song does that and more. It's catchy, even addictingly so at times, and gets you pumped up for the episode you're about to watch. The ending theme, "TAKE MY SOUL FOREVER" by Psychic Lover, is also a really energizing song that makes you want to watch more. I have always considered Psychic Lover to be like a new-generation JAM Project, and this song is one of the best examples of why I think that.
I also have to give high regards to the voice cast, as every one of them does a great job of bringing their characters to life. Masakazu Morita, best known as Ichigo from Bleach, does an excellent Ryuji and it's easy to see why he was chosen as the new voice of Pegasus Seiya in the later anime adaptions of that manga. The same can be said for Takeshi Kusao (Ishimatsu), Ryotaro Okiayu (Kenzaki), Hideo Ishikawa (Shinatora), Hiroshi Kamiya (Kawai), Rie Tanaka (Kiku), and those who voice the international champions. But the one who almost steals the show is Takehito Koyasu's performance as Black Shaft; it's obvious that he was having nothing but fun voicing Shaft and it just adds all the more to his lovable character. I also can't ignore the cameos done by Kurumada himself in episode 1 and by Japanese wrestling legend Yuji Nagata in episode 7, who's portrayed as Japan's Jr. wrestling champion; they aren't long cameos, but they are neat to have.
The anime seemed to have done well, as the last two episodes aired as a one-hour special, which I think is kind of rare for late-night anime, and later received two sequel series, both of which I will talk about. As you can see this is a good bit longer than my usual reviews and that's simply because I really wanted to go into detail when talking about this show. It is the anime I would love to see licensed more than anything else, and I think it is easy to see why. There is a great energy & fun to the show and it never really lets go. The simpler style makes it easy to get into and enjoy, and there really isn't anything quite like this title still today. It's easier to treat this show as a traditional shonen fighting title than as a traditional boxing title, and it's easy to see why Andrew Cunningham calls this show "The Giant Robo of Boxing Anime": It's unabashedly old-school & over-the-top and is great fun to watch. This is a show that I feel is horribly ignored by anime fans over here; I'm not saying that everyone should watch it, but at the same time there's no reason why this show has to be seemingly ignored by almost everyone out there. If you're a fan of other Jump fighting titles out there, I'd say give Ring ni Kakero 1 a try, as you might be surprised as how enjoyable and fun this title is to watch and how well the material actually stands up, even 33 years after its debut.