Tetsuya Saruwatari is a manga-ka known for his crazy action manga. In North America Riki-Oh is known for its crazy violence & cult-classic live-action movie & Dog Soldier is known to be one of those titles that's so crazy-violent & insane that you'll either hate it or love it. But the manga Saruwatari is most known for in Japan is Tough, which chronicles the battles that Kiichi Miyazawa ("Kiibo" for short) goes through in his goal to become the proper successor of Nadashin Shadow Style, a secret assassination art. Recently it was announced that Tough will be ending soon, but I'm not going to be talking about that title, per se. Rather, I'm focusing on the original title that Tough is a sequel to: Koukou Tekken-den Tough (officially translated as "High School Exciting Story Tough", even though it actually translates as "High School Iron Fist Legend Tough"), where Kiibo is a high-school student and training with his father, the previous successor of Nadashin Shadow Style. In 2002, while the original Tough manga was finishing up, AIC & Spike (now a game company) teamed up and made a three-episode OVA based on the first major storyline in Tough. How is this OVA and does it hold up roughly ten years later? It's great and, yes, it definitely holds up.
Kiibo & his father Seiko (Kiichi calls him "Oton" for short) are training, with Kiibo repeatedly not being able to quite take on his father evenly. What Kiibo doesn't know, though, is that Oton once fought the the legendary pro-wrestler Iron Kiba in a death match; Kiba had been taking on all sorts of fighters, from all ranges of styles, in order to prove the superiority of professional wrestling. During the match Oton took out Kiba's left eye, and ever since then Kiba has been waiting for the right moment to get his revenge. After getting into a scuffle with one of Kiba's wrestlers, Kiichi sees how tough and dangerous a pro wrestler can be, and Kiba puts a "target" on Kiichi by telling all fighters that if they can defeat someone who uses Nadashin Shadow Style then they can take on Kiba himself.
Almost right away you can tell what the main appeal of Tough is: Hardcore fighting, specifically of the grappling type; traditional fighting is still used, as there are palm thrusts, punches, & kicks, but the major focus is distinctly on grappling and submissions. Kiichi has three main opponents, Kiyomasa Samon, Shingo "the Reader" Aoi, & Iron Kiba himself, and all three focus on grappling for a submission and/or slamming Kiichi into unconsciousness. This OVA is also not afraid to be violent, as there are shots where hands are punched, resulting in the webbing between the fingers being busted open (complete with the bone showing), blood flows regularly in every fight, and even the submissions shown look downright painful to be in for even one second. Luckily, the title also throws in a fair share of comedy, with Kiibo being sarcastic, his friends being blunt to the point of comical, & even the heavy use of blood is made fun of in an early scene in episode 2 where Yoshiki Takaishi, who was trying to kill Kiichi, forces a knife out of his side with his muscles, before realizing that the knife was keeping the blood in and a giant spray of blood spurts out, resulting in Kiibo calling an ambulance for Takaishi. Of course, the comedy is only there to complement the rough fights, so I think it goes without saying that this title won't appeal to those who don't like violent fighting.
That's not to say that there isn't any character development, though. Throughout the OVA you really do get a feel for what Kiibo's priorities are, Oton's stern but loving care for his son comes through really well, and you even get to understand Iron Kiba's motivations by the end. There's also a sub-plot going on where a news reporter and her chief keep trying to get the full story between Kiba & Oton, but this plotline really doesn't go too far outside of giving some more detail behind some of the characters. Still, Saruwatari knows that crazy fights can only go so far, and he does a great job at keeping the characters memorable and the story engaging.
One might wonder, though, if this OVA is good for newcomers or if it's solely for the fans. Well, admittedly, some early parts are kind of glossed over; for example, Kiichi's friend Kuroda is shown to be a friend right away, and the fight that they had previously that resulted in them becoming friends is shown as a flashback for roughly one minute. At the same time, though, there really aren't any slow moments in this title, as the pace maintains a good speed and never really goes into a lull. I can't say for sure how long the Iron Kiba story arc lasts in Tough, and with the manga being 42 volumes long I can probably say that it's only the beginning, but even if a couple of parts do seem glossed over I still feel that this title would at least be a good introduction for newcomers; the original manga was partially brought over by Viz, but chapters were skipped over in the release, & scanlations only go so far. The Tough sequel manga, on the other hand, is generally caught up with what's out in Japan, so watching the OVA first and then going straight to the later Tough manga is probably the easiest way to get into this series.
Outside of the cool fights & pretty memorable characters another big selling point is the animation, which is just amazingly smooth & detailed. AIC really put a lot of effort in making this title look amazing from an animation standpoint, and even now it still looks great. Characters' faces get into crazy styles, brought to you by Fuminori Kizaki (director of both Afro Samurai animes), the fights are smooth & fast, even when submissions are locked in, and everything just looks amazing. It's kind of shocking that this OVA was directed by someone who hasn't done that much overall direction, but Yukio Nishimoto (director of The Galaxy Railways, but generally a storyboarder & animation director) does a great job here. The music is done by Kou Nakagawa, who did the music for Basilisk, Miami Guns, & Shonen Onmyouji, and he really brings about a Hollywood-esque feel to this OVA; the music just really sounds like something you would hear in a Hollywood action film, and it really works for this title. There is no opening theme, but but the ending theme is "Private Emotion" by Lapis Lazuli (which was lead by Hiroshi Kitadani, of JAM Project & One Piece's "We Are!" fame), and much like Nakagawa's score Lapis Lazuli's hard rock style just fits perfectly with Tough. In fact, they even did an insert song, "Get Over the Limit", that fits in just as well; hard rock just works really well with Tough.
The cast also does a really good job, and I mean this for both the Japanese & English versions so I'll be listing both at the same time. Kiibo is voiced by Mitsuo Iwata (Jay in Ehrgeiz, Mike Sounders in GaoGaiGar) & Mike Sinterniklaas (Guy in GaoGaiGar & founder of dubbing studio NYAV Post), and both actors pull off a similar style of Kiibo but with slight differences, with Sinterniklaas' version being a good bit more sarcastic & joking, while Iwata's take is more serious, but not much so. Oton is voiced by Masakatsu Funaki (Fei-Long in Street Fighter II - The Motion Picture) & Dan Green, and both take are very similar; tough & deep, but still caring and soft on the inside. Iron Kiba is voiced by Norio Wakamoto, who pulls off the role with no trouble, & Sean Schemmel... Yeah, Kiba is voiced by Goku, but it's not like you wouldn't notice it, as Kiba sounds nothing like Schemmel's Goku. I really like to be surprised by actors, & Schemmel's performance as Kiba really makes me glad to know that there is more to the man than just Goku (& Gaston from Berserk, since he did those characters in a similar style). Shingo Aoi, Kiibo's second opponent, is voiced by Takehito Koyasu & Alvaro J. Gonzalez, and here is where I really have the say that I prefer Koyasu's performance; Koyasu makes Shingo sound crazy & psychotic, which is how he's portrayed somewhat, while Gonzalez's take sounds more like your usual bad guy, which Shingo really isn't. The Japanese cast is rounded out by the likes of Tomokazu Sugita (Kuroda), Fumihiko Tachiki (Samon), & Miyuki Sawashiro, while the the English dub is rounded out by the likes of Tom Wayland (Kuroda & also ADR Director), Rachel Lillis, & David Moo.
The Tough OVA was licensed by CPM back in 2004, who released in an awkward way. They renamed it as Shootfighter Tekken, likely to try to fool people into thinking it was related to the video game series, & the released it one episode at a time. I can understand the reasoning behind doing one episode at a time, since each episode is 45 minutes long, meaning that it would either be one episode at a time or everything at once, but at the same time this title was always going to be a niche; it's action, but it's brutal & more of a MMA-style, which wasn't all that popular yet. Nowadays, this title could be a bit of a cult hit, especially if you could get it on a channel like Spike (sheer coincidence with the company that helped make this OVA, right?). CPM's translation was also a bit weird, as they called Nadashin Shadow Style "Nanshin Shadow Style", and they oddly subbed Kiichi's nickname as "Keybo" and not "Kiibo"; granted, the second thing is a bit of a nitpick, but the Nadashin/Nanshin thing is just weird, as this also applies to the dub & I think even Viz's manga release used the "Nanshin" translation. Finally, for some reason only episode 3 features anamorphic widescreen video, while the other two are letterboxed; oddly enough, it looks like Japan only got two DVDs (& VHSs) released, so I'm almost thinking that, somehow, Japan didn't get the last episode yet we did. The good thing, though, is that this OVA is still downright cheap to purchase, as you can buy the complete collection release, which comes with a paper-thin artbox, brand new for only $10 online.
The Tough OVA is only going to appeal to a niche audience who likes brutal & crazy fights that don't go into the supernatural, but what you do get is an OVA with great production values that still stand up well ten years later, and the fact that it has both a great Japanese cast as well as a very impressive English dub it's well worth watching twice. And if you're still hankering for more Tough you can always look for the sequel manga; it starts off with a big surprise regarding a main character and goes into a more MMA-focused direction, but it's still an awesome battle manga.