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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Theory Musing: The Three Pillars of Sports (Boxing) Anime & Manga

First off, Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Tropical Depression Sandy sure was a powerful force of nature, wasn't it? Living in Central New Jersey, I think I was lucky to have nothing more than a loss of power for roughly 30 hours, because driving around yesterday really let me see just how much stuff was uprooted and destroyed, and I know that the coast is in even worse condition. Luckily, I spent the time I had without electricity by relaxing, reading some Prince of Tennis (only 1.5 volumes to go!), and, by way of a laptop with limited power, I watched some episodes of Hajime no Ippo, which I have been getting through slowly-as-hell for the past few years (I finally made it to the third opening!). Me reading sports manga & watching sports anime, though, is really just a continuation of what I had done just a few days earlier, when I offered to appear on ANNCast's most recent call-out show and talk with Zac about sports anime, specifically how there seems to be a split of opinion between the more realistic titles (stuff like Touch, Ashita no Joe, Monkey Turn, & even Hajime no Ippo) and the more "over-the-top" fare (stuff like Ring ni Kakero 1, Prince of Tennis, Team Astro, & even Blazing Transfer Student).

There was more stuff I had thought about bringing up, but most of it would have been simply name-dropping. One thing I had thought about mentioning, though the chance never really came up during the conversation, was a personal theory I have on how sports titles are made up & categorized. Admittedly, though, this theory only really has been fully thought out in terms of boxing titles, but I think it can be applied to other sports, and possibly even sports titles in general, but for now let me ruminate "out loud" about what I like to call "The Three Pillars of Boxing Anime & Manga".

The main idea of the "Three Pillars" is that, when it comes to sports anime & manga, there are three main aspects/focuses that exist: The character-based drama, the action-packed adventure, & the career story. In choosing what titles would be the "Pillars", I mainly had to consider titles that established these aspects and debuted early enough where they could actually be considered trail-blazers. Therefore, when it came to boxing there were three that easily came to mind: 1968-1973's Ashita no Joe, 1977-1981's Ring ni Kakero, & 1989-Present's Hajime no Ippo. Each of these three titles represents one of the aspects of, at the very least, boxing manga & anime, and all three of them have inspired other titles in the same genre, or at least sport. Looking back there is no title boxing title before Ashita no Joe that is like it, Ring ni Kakero was one of the first manga to really focus on being highly exaggerated, & Hajime no Ippo's immense focus & detail on showcasing the lives & careers of its boxers is something that very few titles have tried to emulate.

Ashita no Joe was truly something special when it debuted. Joe Yabuki himself was meant to be someone that people who were living in the slums of Japan could relate to, and the overall story of how one person can get out of a rough life and find a way to a better tomorrow is now a story element that is somewhat common. But where Joe truly excelled, in terms of sports titles, was that the focus was not simply on the boxing matches themselves, but rather it was mostly about the characters. Joe, his trainer Danpei Tange, and even fellow boxer Mammoth Nishi were essentially the "good guys", but at the same time Joe's rivals, Rikiishi Tohru, Carlos Rivera, & world champion Jose Mendoza, weren't "bad guys", but rather were simply realistic characters that rivaled Joe in his goals, first being defeating Rikiishi and then becoming a champion-level boxer. The fact that actual funerals were held in Japan after the deaths of two specific characters are simply the biggest proof of how big of an impact this title has, not just in anime & manga but also Japan itself. Ashita no Joe, without a doubt, is the "Pillar" of character-drama.

Though the title is highly underrated, underappreciated, and underknown outside of its homeland, in Japan Ring ni Kakero is a highly-influential title. Before RnK most shonen manga was focused on being realistic and bound within the realism of their focuses; Team Astro was a notable first move away from that, though. After RnK debuted, manga started becoming more fantastical & unrealistic, and by the mid-80s shonen manga was known for having adventures featuring all sorts of outrageous elements. RnK's crazy type of boxing was so new to readers that people named it a new genre: "SF/Sci-fi Boxing". Though the manga was created as an homage to Ashita no Joe, and there are elements of Joe all over it, Masami Kurumada knew that simply copying its style wouldn't do justice to Joe, nor would it allow him to create something all his own. So what Masami Kurumada did, by introducing exaggerated elements that still allowed for some basis in reality (unlike Team Astro, which literally did whatever the hell it wanted for the sheer spectacle of it), made Ring ni Kakero impactful in many similar ways that Joe was. Even if you haven't seen or heard of Ring ni Kakero before, you likely know of some of the homages to it. G Gundam's general style, GaoGaiGar's Broken Magnum & Phantom, Prince of Tennis' Tezuka Phantom, SRW's Jet Magnum & Phantom, and even Dudley's (from Street Fighter III) Rolling Thunder & Jet Upper, to name a few (hell, Dudley in general is a reference to the "Three Pillars" by also having Joe's Cross Counter and his Rolling Thunder literally being Ippo's Dempsey Roll). Ring ni Kakero has definitely earned its spot of the "Pillar" of action-packed fights.

Of the "Three Pillars" only Hajime no Ippo is still running. In fact, Ippo debuted eight years after Ring ni Kakero ended, but at the same time there isn't any other boxing manga before it, or even after it, that has focused so heavily on the actual careers of its boxers. I do know of the manga B.B. Burning Blood, which predates Ippo by four years, but I don't believe B.B. was actually about careers, but rather was more in the style of Ashita no Joe, which I'll get to later. The fact that creator George Morikawa is such an avid fan on boxing that he has apparently acted as a second to actual boxers in actual matches is really the main reason why Ippo is the uncontested, undisputed champion of career-focused boxing manga. Ippo is so beloved that to American anime fans it's almost considered a scion that seemingly has no flaws. Admittedly, Ippo is excellent and I do love watching it, but at the same time the title does have its flaws, just like any other title. It's absolute praise sometimes gets to the point where if a boxing anime is announced that isn't a new season of Ippo fans might complain that the new title is being made "instead of" more Ippo, though the only case where those fans might have had a point would be with Rainbow, which features some boxing and was animated by Madhouse, which also made all of the Ippo anime that is out there. Still, having that kind of fanbase just shows that, even though it didn't debut until well after its fellow "Pillars", Hajime no Ippo is, without a doubt, the "Pillar" of career story.
And that's my theory of the "Three Pillars of Boxing Anime & Manga". Though all three debuted as manga, this theory also applies to anime, since boxing anime is generally based on manga and is rarely an original creation. Essentially, the main gist of this theory is that any other boxing manga is taking elements from at least one of these three titles. For example, the previously-mentioned B.B. is likely about a boxer's career, which "takes" from Ippo, though retroactively, but is, from what I can tell, more of a character-based drama, much like Ashita no Joe. Mitsuru Adachi's Katsu! takes the man's usual focus on slice-of-life & character relations & mixes it with boxing. Find almost any boxing title out there and you'll likely find that it is utilizing elements from any of these three titles. Note that I'm not knocking any of these other titles, though, but rather I'm just showcasing the innovators & inspirations that these other titles came from. I always love knowing about history, what was popular back in the past, and what were the innovators of what's popular now. Now, could this theory also apply to other sports? Probably, but that's also the fun of this theory, as it makes one think about how it can stretch out and apply to other genres & sports. For example, one could think of the "Three Pillars of Baseball Anime & Manga" as Touch (character drama), Team Astro (action-packed matches), & Major (the career story).

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