Now when I say that no one gave a damn about this show this year, I mean ABSOLUTELY NO ONE! The idea of a third season of the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime was hinted at back in early 2009 when Masami Kurumada posted an image on his blog that showed a new song he was writing for something called "Ring ni Kakero 1: Sekai-hen". Nothing else would come from this until that December when Toei announced Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow at Jump Festa 2010. The big change from that announcement would be that the anime would air on Animax's PPV service rather than TV Asahi, where the past two seasons originally aired. It would also debut in April 2010, about 4 years after Season 2 aired, and have two episodes made available for a limited time in April, May, and June, totaling 6 episodes, half the length of the previous seasons.
Now when the internet blogs started talking about the then-upcoming Spring 2010 season, almost all of them utterly bashed Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow before it even started airing, simply because it either looked too old-school (what kind of reason is that?), was a boxing anime that wasn't Hajime no Ippo or simply because it was a sports anime (...), or because it sounded over-the-top and ridiculous but wasn't a parody (huh?). Finally, the show debuted in Japan... And the entire community of people who seem to make it their mission to rip almost every single anime that airs in Japan, especially if it's brand new, absolutely ignored this show. Not one "raw" of Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow ever came about while the show was airing in Japan. That personally shocked me, as anime that were airing on the same exact service as this show were being ripped and made available, yet this show was being ignored. And one has to remember that this doesn't just affect fans in English-speaking countries, but actually affects every fan around the world. Without raws, no fansub group of any language can work on it. While I try not to condone fansubs and heavily encourage buying anime DVDs, this complete ignorance around a single anime that ends up affecting fans, both actual and potential, around the world is just amazing. In the end I had to buy the Region 2 DVDs Toei released in order to watch this show. While I am happy to be able to watch the show in some form, I had to spend roughly $240 to buy all three DVDs. While I can say "At least it was for a show I liked", that money could have gone to other things... Like maybe anime that's being released here in North America.
And it's a shame that this show was ignored, too, as Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow is not only an excellent season of the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime series, I found it to be the best season of them all so far! But enough talk about raws, fansubbing and expensive Region 2 DVDs, let's get to the actual show.
After defeating Black Shaft's makeshift Team U.S.A. in the "Nichibei Kessen" Team Golden Japan Jr. decides to disband due to the harsh battles the boxers went though: Shinatora takes up Kendo again to please his father, Kawai returns to performing piano concerts, Kenzaki lives his usual life at his mansion, and Ryuji and Ishimatsu continue their individual training. One day, though, Ryuji runs into a mysterious girl who immediately attacks him with a fighting style that's heavily reminiscent of boxing, cutting him on the cheek in the process. He's able to stop her, but not before he calls herself "Shadow". Upon reaching the gym where he lives at, he talks to his father figure Zoroku Omura (who's been in the previous seasons and is Ryuji and Kiku's father-figure) about the girl and "Shadow", which prompts Omura to explain the history of Shadow. During the Taisho Era of Japan boxing was introduced to the country and the first Japanese boxing gym was founded. One of the students, though, was able to adapt boxing into a killing technique, and after he killed an American soldier who was also a professional boxer the Japanese boxing community kicked him out and pretty much removed him from the history books. The man would end up turning this new form of boxing into his own martial art, and called the group that followed him the Shadow Clan, though this part is mostly a rumor.
Later that night Kiku runs into some mysterious men who also call themselves "Shadow", who knock her out and kidnap her. One of the clan's members stays behind to offer Ryuji a chance to save her sister, and later on Ishimatsu finds out about what happened and chases after Ryuji. Ryuji is lead to the Shadow Tower, a five-floor building (each floor is named after a mythical beast [Suzaku, Seiryu, Genbu, Byakko, and Phoenix]) that doubles as a series of challenges that Ryuji has to pass in order to save his sister. This challenge from the Shadow Clan will bring Team Golden Japan Jr. back together, reigniting their goal of winning the World Championship.
Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow is an interesting part of the story in that this is the first story arc that involves fights outside of the boxing ring; I do know of a later story arc that also has fights outside of the ring, but that's not for a while. In fact, the coach knows that Ryuji might not be able to take on the Shadow Clan with his own power and gives him the Kaiser Knuckle, a brass knuckles-esque weapon that increases his strength tenfold. Now, before people start wondering, let me say right now that Ryuji does not use the Kaiser Knuckle in traditional boxing matches; Ryuji is a person who fights fairly and only uses the Kaiser Knuckle outside of the ring and only when it's needed. Anyway, the first half of this season is a rescue arc where Ryuji and Ishimatsu invade Shadow territory in order to save Kiku. You could call this a precursor or prototype to the kinds of rescue arcs that would end up being seen in titles like One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, and by Kurumada himself in Saint Seiya. Whereas most rescue arc that would come later would be known for having some length to them, though, Shadow's rescue arc is done within three episodes. This saves the second half for a more traditional 5-on-5 challenge between Team Golden Japan Jr. and the Shadow Clan's five best fighters, including their leader Sousui, who has a link to Jun Kenzaki. While some might scoff at the thought of a boxing anime having fights outside of the ring, the anime does handle it nicely and Ryuji does utilize his boxing style is a really nice way outside of the ring, keeping with the spirit of the style.
The really cool thing is that each half is different from the other in feel. The rescue portion has a darker feel and is much more of a traditional shonen fighting title. Hell, Ryuji ends up using the Kaiser Knuckle only because the Shadow Clan isn't afraid to cheat, whether it's because one "Shadow Boxer" (yes, that is the term and Kurumada's use of an English word for the clan's name is more than likely solely for that reason) wears metal armor or another handcuffs himself to Ryuji and has diamonds where his knuckles should be... You know, that actually sounds kind of awesome from a fighting standpoint. If there's anything that the rescue portion teaches you, though, it's this: Don't Piss Ryuji Off! Honestly, Ryuji when he's pissed off is just someone you don't want to fight, and it's cool to see this kind of raw emotion from Ryuji. It definitely helps this portion of the story.
The second half is much like the previous two seasons, except with matches that go by much faster but are just awesome. Really, while Season 2 slowed down the fights so that it could be told in 12 episodes, Season 3 is much better when it comes to pacing out matches. Yeah, they can be over pretty fast in comparison to the other seasons, but this seems to be more in line with how the manga handled fights generally. But even though these matches aren't as long, they are much more enjoyable to watch. Overall the pacing for this season is really tight and it never feels like anything is being dragged out, but at the same time nothing ever feels rushed.
Another reason the fights here are much better is because Toei decided to give this season the best animation the series has had so far. This season is the complete and utter opposite of the Saint Seiya Hades Inferno and Hades Elysion OVAs, which also aired on Animax PPV but had very minimal budgets. Here the fights are very fluid, and this counts for both portions of the story, with the highlights being Ryuji's fight against 100 Shadow Boxers on the first floor of the Tower, and pretty much the last two episodes in almost their entirety. Honestly, those last two episodes alone pushed this season from being simply equal with Season 1 to being the best of them all. Whether it's Kawai delivering his new Jet Upper attack for the first time, Ishimatsu delivering the Hurricane Bolt for the first time, the end of Ryuji's match with Sousui, or even Kenzaki's entire match with Yuuki (it's only about a minute long and I re-watched it immediately after it ended) the animation you see is just amazing in comparison to even Season 2's improved animation. While it's not going to be considered some of the best animation you'll ever see, it really was great to see Ring ni Kakero 1 with such fluid animation. The bar has been set for Season 4, and I hope Toei keeps at it. Another thing to mention is this season's use of actual blood. The previous two season's used mostly red-tinted "saliva", though Season 2 had very small amounts of blood, but this season really keeps with Kurumada's general use of blood. There are some scenes in the rescue portion especially that really only work because they show actual blood, and even the second half fights benefit greatly from this. It's a small detail, but it definitely helps.
|I just love how they kept the "JET" effect... It's beautiful.|
Toshiaki Komura returned to the director's chair after Yukio Kaizawa kept it warm for him during Season 2, and that also helps make the fights so excellently done. Komura just does this series better, and hopefully Hiroshi Ikehata can deliver something similar for Season 4. Susumu Ueda returns for the music, but the only new tracks are themes for the Shadow Clan, which are appropriately creepy, a musical variation of the ending theme, which sounds great, and a new final battle theme. The opening theme, yet again, is "Asu he no Toushi", but Toei decided to use the second verse this time so that it sounds somewhat different and I commend them for that. The ending theme is "Asu he no Hishou ~ flap your wings~", yet another excellent song from Marina del ray, and has more of an "inspirational message" sound to it, which I like. There are also five insert songs used during the second half of this season, but "Strike Anywhere" from Season 2 is nowhere to be found. Instead we get the character songs, performed by their respective seiyuus, that were made back when Season 1 was airing, but were never used in the anime until now. Even though I loved "Strike Anywhere" these character songs truly fit in perfectly with the characters they were made for and hearing them play at the climaxes of each fight (or, in Kenzaki's case, play throughout the entire fight) just comes off as perfect.
There are only two "new" voice actors to talk about, as every major character from the previous two seasons return. First is Bin Shimada, who also voiced Broly from the DBZ movies, Paptimus Sirocco from Zeta Gundam, and many other roles, as Rock-san. Rock-san was introduced in the early parts of the manga that weren't animated as a comic relief member of the gym Ryuji and Kiku live at. He was also in Season 1's story in the manga, but wasn't animated into the show. He has little importance here too, but it's nice to see him kept in (though he looks more like a Kochikame character), and Shimada makes him really likable. The other is Takahiro Sakurai, voice of Yuhei Azuma from Cross Game, Cloud from the many Final Fantasy VII-related titles, and Dragon Shiryu from the last two Saint Seiya Hades OVAs, who voices Sousui. Now, the Shadow Clan members Nobi and Nene, who have a larger focus this season, had a couple of small appearances in Seasons 1 & 2, and Sousui himself also appeared in Season 2, but this season is where they get the focus and Sakurai is as perfect a voice for Sousui as the others have been for their characters. I also have to give a special mention to Takeshi Kusao, who really beings out his best Ishimatsu this season; when he screams out "Hurricane Bolt!!" you just truly feel it and you can tell that Kusao has been waiting a while to finally scream that attack out. Finally, the last line delivered this season is from Team Greece member Apollon, who is voiced by well-known seiyuu Shinichiro Miki, and though it's only one line you can already tell that Miki should be a really good choice for a Kurumada character from Greece. Thinking of it from the time this episode first aired, it kind of gave away that there would be a Season 4, as Toei would most likely not have a well-known actor like Shinichiro Miki voice Apollon if it was only a one-line deal.
Overall, Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow started off very solid and was definitely up there with Season 1's quality, except that the animation was way better, but those last two episodes just take the over-the-top level beyond anything you've seen before here, which should be expected at this point in the series, and the excellent animation quality behind them, even when compared to the previous episodes, really come from out of nowhere and make this season the best so far. After finishing up this season, though with no subtitles, I am truly looking forward to Ring ni Kakero 1: Sekai Taikai-hen this upcoming April. If Toei can at least keep the animation quality the same as this season, if not better, and if Ikehata can deliver fights that are as enjoyable as Komura's then Season 4 could easily become the new "best season". This will be the first time in Ikehata's career that he is a "Series Director", though his episode director resume doesn't look bad at all, so here's hoping for the best. Since the DVDs started getting released there has been a really slow stream of fansubs coming out for Season 3, mainly in Chinese and Spanish, so hopefully English subs can come out one day still... Or maybe my dreams can finally come true and a company licenses the Ring ni Kakero 1 anime in all of its seasons.
Make it happen, Region 1 Anime Industry!