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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

OK, what with the reveal of Season 4 of Ring ni Kakero 1 happening just today I still can't forget that I was in the middle of reviewing the other seasons that had been made already. So with that let's get into Season 2...

I had not mentioned it in Season 1's review, but "Ring ni Kakero" translates roughly as "Put it All in the Ring", which is completely fitting for this story, as every main character is always willing to put everything they have into their matches... Well, except for Kenzaki, but that's because he's just that good. I feel that the translation was appropriate to mention now mainly because this season adds a subtitle, Nichibei Kessen-hen, which is even more Japanese to take in. Anyway, the subtitle is a very tough thing to translate, as it can be taken literally as "The Pacific War Chapter" or you can be loose with it and call  it the "Japan vs. USA Chapter" (Sentai translated an episode of Eyeshield 21 that has the same name as this season as the latter, so I'd go with that).

This second season is another 12-episode anime that aired on TV at late-night, this time as part of 2006's Spring anime season line-up. To explain the story would require some slight spoilers, but to be honest the ending sequence at the end of every episode in Season 1 kind of spoiled a bit so oh well: At the end of Season 1 Ryuji fought Kawai in the finals and won, and immediately afterwards it was revealed that there would be a World Jr. Boxing Tournament to be held in Tokyo a few months later. The team that would represent Japan, called Team Golden Japan Jr., would be made from the finalists and semi-finalists of the Champion Carnival, making the team comprised of Ryuji, Kawai, Ishimatsu, and Shinatora. Right after that US Jr. boxing champion Black Shaft breaks his way in and challenges the team to a 5-on-5 battle, as he felt that Japan didn't have any worthy boxers. Kenzaki also appears and says that he's joining the team since the injuries he got before the Carnival had healed.

So there you have it: It's Team Golden Japan Jr. vs. Team USA in a challenge match. But Shaft isn't taking the Japanese seriously and rather than gathering the best Jr. boxers the USA has, which is what his team will be made up of at the World Tournament, Shaft instead gathers a makeshift group that have absolutely nothing to do with boxing but instead are actually highly dangerous. There's Monster Jail, a California Death Row inmate who stands at over 7' tall or so, Miss Chanell, a mysterious woman (?) from Illinois with hypnotizing eyes, Hell Mick, the leader of the New York division of the Great Angels motorcycle gang, and Mr. Whitey, the so-called "Emperor of the South". Now if you think that this group sounds outrageous... That's because it is. In fact, in the original manga Mick was the head of the Hell's Angels NY gang and Mr. Whitey was actually a Ku Klux Klan leader (in fact, his name was N.B. Forrest, named after the first Grand Wizard of the KKK; he had his name changed in the 2001 re-release of the manga). As ridiculous as this sounds, and it is, it makes sense in a way, as Shaft obviously isn't treating Japan seriously and Kenzaki even says that what they're going into isn't a challenge match but rather a war. To Team USA's credit, though, these non-boxers do still fight within the rules when the matches are going on, so don't go expecting to see weapons and the like used during the in-ring matches themselves.

Now, yes, this is once again just completely ridiculous and it can make you wonder if this is how Kurumada really thought of America during the 70s. If anything, though, this makeshift group can be represented as the evil people of America, with Shaft's actual Team USA being the representation of the good people, and it's up to Team Golden Japan Jr. to take them out. It's really like the opposite of a character like G Gundam's Chibodee Crocket, who represented America's love of sports, the Wild West, and the country's general cockiness with the rest of the world (don't deny it, we can get pretty cocky). In fact, G Gundam director Yasuhiro Imagawa openly admitted that he was a big fan of the Ring ni Kakero manga and was heavily influenced by it when doing G Gundam, and it definitely showed. Anyway, this makeshift Team USA is honestly really entertaining to watch: Monster Jail is just a giant and imposing figure but with the last moments he's on screen you see that he really has a nice side to him and you can't help but like him. Chanell is definitely the oddest of the group and that is mostly what makes her worth paying attention to. Hell Mick is cocky and brash and ready to kill, and actually almost seems like one of those early villains from Fist of the North Star in that he's a giant bully that has power. Mr. Whitey, though originally a racist KKK leader in the manga, is made into simply a womanizer who thinks only about himself; he's actually very similar to Bryan Hawk from Hajime no Ippo, and much like Hawk you just want to see him get beaten up in the ring. And then there's Shaft, who is still just as entertaining as he was in Season 1. As completely wacky as this group looks, they are overall entertaining to watch.

And I can't talk about this show fully without bringing up Don Juliano, the Italian Jr. boxing champion. In this season Shaft gets into communications with Juliano and has him and his group even come to Japan to watch the matches. It's not really indicated if they were brought in for backup or just simply for Shaft to show off his connections, but if you can't tell from Juliano's name, in this title the Italians are portrayed as mobsters, specifically that they follow the mentality of the "Sicilian Dandy" and Juliano himself focuses on what's "cool". Hell, Juliano even shows that he has a baby son, which even shocks Shaft, and talks about how his son will take the reigns after Juliano's time. But after Season 1, this kind of portrayal shouldn't be surprising and much like the other international champions Juliano and his second-in-command Dinobaze are both entertaining to watch.

Just about everything I said about Season 1 can be applied here, as most of it is the same: Music, storytelling, voice work, etc. There are a few changes, though, and one of them isn't a good one. But let's start with the more obvious one: The animation has been improved. It's kind of obvious that Toei was pleased with Season 1's reception and decided to up the animation budget for Season 2, as everything just looks nicer. The fights are a bit smoother, the people in the audience animate a lot more often than they did in Season 1, and overall everything does look nicer. The bad part, though, is that Toei went with a different director for this season, and it does show in that while everything is nicer looking and animates better, the fights themselves just don't seem to have that same feel that they had in Season 1. The director for this season is Yukio Kaizawa, who had also worked on One Piece, Hell Teacher NubeDigimon Tamers, and even directed the excellent opening animation to Sonic CD... But he also directed Digimon Frontier, which wasn't that great in the end. It's a not badly-directed show by any means, but this change in directors did result in a "feel" that just isn't quite the same in this season. Also, there's an extension to two of the fights, but here it feels more like "filler" than the actual extra development that Season 1 gained. Overall, though, the season itself is still very nicely done.

The new voices brought in are really fitting, and I should give credit to the voices that I didn't mention last time but still gave credit to. Takaya Kuroda, who voiced Lin in the King of Fighters series & Kazuma Kiryu in Sega's Yakuza series, voices Don Juliano with all the style and "coolness" that Juliano loves to talk about. Hikaru Modorikawa (Scorpion), Toshiyuki Morikawa (Napoleon), Hiro Yuuki (Helga, Scorpion's second-in-command), and Naoki Imamura (Monster Jail) also voice their characters excellently and I've heard someone joke that it took so long to animate this title mainly because it took this long to get the perfect cast together, and I can't disagree. I will also give credit to Takahiro Kawachi, the voice of Sun Ce in the Dynasty Warriors game series, who voices the announcer you hear for each match. It's up to the announcer to accurate describe the action that's going on as well as keep emotions high, and Kawachi makes a really great announcer. He was also in Season 1, but I was already giving great credit to other voices then. Finally, to continue off of the "guest voices" that Season 1 had, all of the fights in this season feature ring calls/introductions by Lenne Hardt, whose distinctive ring calls for fights in Japan, most notably for the now-defunct PRIDE, have made her a living legend in the MMA industry. Hardt's ring calls sound awesome and it really lends a cool bit of legitimacy to these fights, even if her inclusion results in a bit of an anachronism in the series, since Ring ni Kakero 1 takes place in 1980 & Hardt didn't start doing ring calls until 2000... But how cares? She's awesome!

The opening theme is the same as before, but the ending theme is different. Here it's "Shining Like Gold ~ Omoide no Kakera" by Marina del ray, and it's the complete opposite of "Asu he no Toushi" in that it's a really slow song that talks about the emotion these characters feel while being in the ring, and it makes a great compliment to the opening theme. I also have to mention the sole insert song used starting halfway through this season, "Strike Anywhere ~ Chikai no Toki". It's also performed by Marina del ray (they have been doing songs for pretty much every anime based on a Kurumada manga, and these two are also written by Kurumada himself) and is a really upbeat song the makes for a nice listen when fights are starting to finish up. It also gives Black Shaft the chance to be a part of a slightly exclusive club by being a "showstopper". A showstopper is a character who is able to put a complete stop the main character's momentum, resulting in the music, usually an insert song, being abruptly stopped. I personally love showstoppers, as the sudden stopping of the music is a really great way to push the severity of that situation.

Ring ni Kakero 1: Nichibei Kessen-hen is a really great anime, but it unfortunately isn't quite as good as the first season. While the animation is a good bit better and it shows, the change in directors results in this season having a different feel that just isn't as good, though it's still enjoyable & doesn't kill the series' momentum in any way. Also, this story arc is more of a transition arc than an actual arc of importance; it's mainly a way to give Black Shaft larger importance, and while I do love seeing Shaft get a larger focus the story itself isn't quite as good as the Champion Carnival Chapter. I haven't fully watched Season 3 yet so I can't review that one quite yet, though I will do it soon, but I will say that throughout these past two seasons there were appearances from a mysterious group called the Shadow Clan, and they get a much larger focus in Season 3. Look forward to that review, but first I'll probably cover that Pilot Film I mentioned in Season 1's review...

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