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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Champion Joe 2: Heroes Get Remembered, But Legends Never Die

It could be called "The Dreaded '2'"... Anime that gets a sequel/continuation with the number "2" in the title have generally had a tough battle, especially if it's picking up after a part of the story that's usually considered the absolute high point. Fist of the North Star 2 could never reach the heights that the original TV series did, some don't quite love Genshiken 2 as much as the first season (and that's not including the Second Generation anime), & no one really talks about Strike Witches 2. Still, some anime manage to rise to the occasion & even surpass the first time around. Gunbuster 2 (a.k.a Diebuster) has sometimes been named better than the original, Chihayafuru 2 apparently maintained the high standard that the first show delivered, & City Hunter 2 is generally considered the best of that franchise's TV series adaptations. So, after a near-decade time gap & new anime studio at work but with two of the main names returning, does Ashita no Joe 2 (Champion Joe 2 over at CrunchyRoll) crumble under the weight of the first half's iconic status or does it manage to maintain that quality? Well, I'd argue that this TV series maintains that excellence of execution... In fact, it may even be better.

[SEMI-CAUTION: I'd say that this review includes spoilers from Champion Joe 1... But it's such an iconic spoiler that I'd guess most of you have already heard of it before. Still, uh, spoilers... I guess.]

It's been six months since Joe Yabuki & Tohru Rikiishi had their rematch, this time in a professional boxing ring. Though he won the match via KO, a blow to the temple from Joe in the sixth round followed by his head hitting the ring ropes on the way down, combined with the hellacious weight loss regimen he went through just so that he could fight Joe, resulted in the death of Rikiishi via brain hemorrhage. Joe hasn't boxed since then & even left the Tange Gym after the match, with no one knowing where he's gone. After an encounter with Wolf Kanagushi though, who retired after Joe broke his jaw & became a yakuza bodyguard, Joe starts getting the itch to box once again. He'll fight for Wolf, Rikiishi, & all of his best opponents, and hopefully can one day go up against the World Bantamweight Champion, Jose Mendoza.

Let's get the 500 lb. gorilla out of the way first & foremost, especially since it's been asked more often since CrunchyRoll started streaming the show: "Can I watch Champion Joe 2 without having seen the first half?" It's a very fair worry as the Mushi Pro TV series from 1970-1971 is not available legally (fansubs have gone past episode 52, though, if you're desperate) & Tai Seng's DVD release of the 1980 compilation movie is out-of-print & demands high prices on the secondhand market now; you can still buy it digitally over at iTunes for $9.99, but it's dub-only. Luckily, having watched this entire sequel, I can say that one can safely go straight into Champion Joe 2 if one really wants to. As you watch the show the story does often go back to parts of the first half (namely Joe's arrest, meeting Rikiishi at juvie, the end of the Joe/Wolf match, & the Joe/Rikiishi rematch story) via flashbacks that fit the moments they are used in perfectly. Essentially, instead of throwing all of this backstory at the viewer at the start as one giant "info-dump", Joe 2 calls back to the first half when it actually relates to the present story. So while enjoying the second half of the Joe story the viewer can also learn about what happened prior in a way that keeps everything flowing excellently from a storytelling perspective.

In other words... You can watch Champion Joe 2 right now over at CrunchyRoll with little worry about not already knowing what happened in Champion Joe 1. Now, allow me to explain why you should absolutely watch this TV series in the first place.

In my review of the compilation movie I brought up how Joe was more of a character drama, with the boxing being more of a means to an end. Well, Joe 2 definitely puts the boxing more to the forefront than the first half, but in turn mixes the character drama into the various aspects of the sport. When Joe returns to the ring after killing Rikiishi it's quickly shown that he still has psychological damage that he can't simply get past: He can't deliver strong blows to anyone's temple, since that's what lead to Rikiishi's death. Afterwards, Joe realizes that the fact that he's still a growing "boy" (he's only in his late-teens, after all), combined with this trained body, has resulted in his weight naturally increasing to the point that he may not be able to continue being a bantamweight boxer; in turn, Joe resorts to the same hellacious weight loss regimen that Rikiishi went through. Finally, the story also goes into the risks of simply being a boxer & the permanent damage the sport can do to the body & mind. Nowadays boxing is more regulated & safety conscious, but Joe takes place in an era where boxing was much more rough & dangerous. For example, boxing now only lasts 12 rounds, at most, because of the days when 15 to even 20 rounds were considered normal, which lead to matches that could potentially kill boxers, & the fighting itself was much more loose. Joe's matches have all sorts of open-palm shoving & distance-keeping, tripping, & in general the fights feel much more "raw" than they do in the likes of more "modern" titles such as Hajime no Ippo.

Still, even with the boxing taking a larger focus, it's the characters that make the show. All of the major returning characters end up developing & becoming better people than they were in the beginning. Joe Yabuki, though always selfish & a bit of an asshole, is shown to be a much more well-rounded human being than the violent & brash orphan that he started out as. I'm sure parents who once worried that he would influence children in the wrong ways all ended up looking at him with love. Tange, though still loving the drink, is far from the drunkard with nothing to live for in this show. He has drive, passion, & knows that he, Joe, & Nishi all became better people by meeting each other. Mammoth Nishi, in turn, develops in a different way by retiring from boxing a quarter into the show due to a broken hand. Though staying on as Joe's second in fights, Nishi ends up working at Hayashi Groceries, the local market, & ends up becoming an upstanding citizen. Nishi in particular is one of the (extremely) few flaws I have with the story, mainly because he's such a likable character that you really want to see his matches & cheer for him, yet you never see a single one; he retires without the viewer ever seeing what he was capable of. Finally, Yoko Shiraki goes through the most development next to Joe, but at the same time it's the most subtle of them all. She becomes a large part of not just Joe's career but also his life, helping him realize & overcome his problems; in turn, Joe starts being kinder to her, though she still gets on his nerves at times. The relationship between Joe & Yoko is probably one of the better subtle developments I have seen, & it just continually makes both of them worth your attention.

A much better compiled image than in the movie, right?

With this being a TV series the lesser-pushed characters from the movie get more presence here, and even a few that weren't included in the movie get reintroduced here & given focus. Nishi's post-boxing job happens because of the Hayashi family, who are mentioned as being already known to everyone but quickly become familiar to new viewers, especially the daughter, Noriko. Noriko is shown to have a crush on Joe, and though the two always remain friends, she herself matures & eventually realizes that Joe is too focused on his ambition to "burn until there's only white ash" to be an actual love interest (though hints still remain). There's also the children that befriended Joe right from the beginning, who were mostly occasional appearances in the movie. Here we see their complete relation to Joe, from going to pachinko parlors with him to simply playing around with him. They keep Joe grounded & make sure that he never loses his easy-going nature, while Joe acts as a proper role model for them, keeping them happy & far from going down the "wrong path". Wolf also makes a literal handful of appearances (once at the start, once half-way through, & once more at the end), showcasing a potential path that Joe could have gone down had he never returned to boxing. At the same time, though, Joe believes in Wolf and feels that he will eventually find a reason to be a better person. You also see a number of the residents of the Namidabashi Bridge area, where Tange's gym is, & all of them maintain a sense of vigor & life that always makes them entertaining to watch.

Finally, there are the new characters introduced in this half of the story, & let's start with the non-boxers. First there's Goromaki Gondo, a hired hand for the yakuza who interacts with Joe numerous times throughout the story, always giving Joe some nice sense of direction if he feels lost; there's always a sense of respect between the two that makes it easy to like Gondo. Then there's Kiyoshi Suga, a freelance journalist who works as an informant that can get any information for a price. Yoko becomes a regular "client" for Suga, who helps both her & Joe out by getting them information about Joe's opponents and the like. Similar to Gondo there's a great sense of respect between Suga & Joe, but at the same time he shows a legitimate concern & even potential friendship to our lead, much like the Joe/Yoko relationship, so Suga is likewise very easy to like & it's always a pleasure to see him in a scene. Then we get to Joe's major boxing opponents, all of whom earn your attention & respect.

To combat Joe's hesitation to hit the temple he tells Yoko to "find another Tohru Rikiishi", and her response is with Venezuelan boxer Carlos Rivera. Nicknamed "The Beltless Champ" due to a rumor that Mendoza is afraid of fighting him, Carlos is similar to Rikiishi in that he's full of pride & vigor, but differs in that he's much more upbeat & playful compared to Rikiishi's seriousness & sarcasm. He succeeds in matches where Joe fails due to his mental block, but when finally given the opportunity the fight each other, both Joe & Carlos put on a show that easily becomes a must-see fight. Seriously, the Joe/Carlos fight is not just an amazing fight, but it's easily one of the best fight scenes I have seen... Ever. Not just in anime, not just in animation, but in media. You end up cheering for both fighters equally to the point that you don't really care who wins the fight; it's that good. Afterwards Joe takes aim at winning the OPBF Bantamwieght Championship, which is held by Kim Yongbi, a South Korean soldier who went through a literal hell as a child due to the Korean War & then saw even more horrible things in the Vietnam War as a warrior. Because of the trauma he went though as a child, Kim has no problems keeping his weight in check, making him not just a physical threat to Joe but also a psychological one. Compared to Carlos, who was a rival-type character, Kim definitely fits a more blatantly antagonistic role but still gives an aura of respect that makes it hard to outright hate him.

After Kim, Joe takes aim at Jose Mendoza, who becomes interested in Joe due to his fight with Carlos, but before fighting him takes on Leon Smiley, an American boxer who's ranked #1 in the world. From what I could find out, having never read the manga to this point, Leon is a brand-new character made solely for the anime, technically making his involvement in the story "filler"... But if I didn't know this beforehand I would have never guessed that, because the Leon episodes are just as good as any of the others & the Joe/Leon fight is almost up there with the Carlos fight in terms of sheer quality. Leon himself is also a fun character, talking about how he's going to be "King" & wanting nothing more than a good fight; he even teases Joe by utilizing the cross counter & "Zero Defense" stance (which Joe used heavily in the first half). I honestly think that Leon was a character that Tetsuya Chiba & Ikki Kajiwara originally planned on using in the manga but decided to skip over for the sake of advancing the story; the anime simply gave them an opportunity to finally use him. At this point Joe is seemingly ready to fight Jose, but Yoko feels that Joe lost his "fighting spirit", his animalistic drive, & without it has no chance at beating Jose. To solve this problem she brings in Harimau, a Malaysian tribal warrior who was found by a British anthropologist & taught how to box. Compared to all of Joe's other opponents, Harimau is easily the most unrealistic boxer in the story: He jumps all over the ring to avoid punches, jumps off of the ring ropes for aerial assaults, and can even do multiple spins in mid-air before delivering a rotationally-powered uppercut. Seeing Harimau fight easily gave me images of Ishimatsu from Ring ni Kakero 1 & Blanka from Street Fighter, and it's very likely he was the major inspiration for both characters, among others.

Behold, the direct inspiration for Ishimatsu's Hurricane Bolt!

Finally, there's Jose Mendoza. The easiest way to describe Jose is to call him "perfect". There is nothing that Jose seemingly can't do: He has a loving wife, adoring children, a perfect boxing record, has been champion since he was a young man with no signs of wear & tear, and has no visible weaknesses. For example, when Danpei thinks that Jose's brawler style means that he can't quite take damage, since he always avoids taking punches, Jose literally allows his next opponent (who's a weight class above him) to deliver a series of face & body blows that would easily take out a normal boxer; Jose then proceeds to defeat his opponent with just two punches while showing no damage taken. He can bends coins with just his fingers, his spars never last more than a minute or so because no one can take his punches for long, and he speaks fluent English (he's Mexican, but the show never shows him speaking Spanish). He's simply the perfect boxer & man, something that is at times levied at light novel stories nowadays as a flaw, but here he works splendidly because, instead of being the main character & hero, he's instead the goal for the lead to get past. Still, even with his utterly unrealistic perfection sounding like a problem, it's hard to not respect the man, at the very least. As a young boy fighting in underground matches he fought a promising Japanese pro boxer & destroyed him easily, yet the pro (who would later become regional champion himself) found himself happy when he heard that Jose became world champion. When he interacts with Joe in Hawaii, before a title defense, he outright calls Joe a "yellow sheep" because of his rough & cocky attitude, yet the two still end up finding a mutual respect for each other & look forward to the day they can finally duke it out in the ring. Against all odds, Jose Mendoza is not just perfect but also fairly likable, though you still want to see him get beat up by Joe.

Thankfully, all of this story & character drama is handled at an insanely well-maintained pace. There's never really a moment that feels dragged on, sped up, or even given less attention to detail to. Every episode only lasts about 24 minutes long, including OP & ED, but every single one of them feels like it's going on for longer. The pacing also works perfectly into "quarters", with Carlos' story done at episode 12, Kim's story done at 25, Leon's done at 34, & Harimaru's finishes up right before the final fight. All the while after Carlos there's also story development between Joe & Jose, resulting in a show that never bores & never feels repetitive. Part of that is due to a similar situation as that of the compilation movie, which is the fact that Chiba & Kajiwara were brought on as supervisors; this show was given the seal of approval by the original creators. This excellent pacing & storytelling was handled by four men doing the scripts: The late Atsushi Yamatoya (whose son, Akatsuki, would carry the torch of writing for titles like Buso Renkin, Gintama, & Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro!!), Haruya Yamazaki (Nobody's Boy Remi), Hideo Takayashiki (One Outs, Akagi, & Kaiji), & Yoshimi Shinozaki. These four men did magic with the pacing of Champion Joe 2.

Naturally, only two men could do this show justice from a directorial & visual perspective, and that's the men behind the original Joe anime: The late Osamu Dezaki & his character design partner Akio Sugino. Sugino in particular really shows advancement between the two TV productions. In the original anime he mainly stuck to Chiba's original designs but afterwards got to truly develop his own iconic style with Ace wo Nerae!/Aim for the Ace!, Nobody's Boy Remi, Takarajima (Dezaki's take on Treasure Island), & right before doing this sequel series Sugino worked his skill on The Rose of Versailles. The creation of Sugino's "house style" really shows in Joe 2, especially when you compare some of the character's looks. For example, both Rikiishi & Nishi (especially Nishi) give off a similar feel to that of Takarajima's Long John Silver now, while Yoko really looks more like Sugino's females than that of Chiba's (and Noriko even more so). Still, Joe & Danpei maintain their looks and Sugino's character designs & animation direction really give this show a much more high-budget & crisper look than that of the original 70s anime. Sure, the original anime has a one-of-a-kind visual style to it, and one could argue that Joe 2 may look a little too "clean" in comparison, but without a doubt the show looks excellent & still holds up exquisitely well to this day. Dezaki, in comparison, really pushes his trademarks like crazy in this show, with "Postcard Memories" being used in every single episode & his penchant for triple/quadruple/quintuple repeat shots for emphasis being in full force; for the final fight Jose's entrance through the ropes in literally shown three times in a row! It's absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt a Dezaki production, possibly one of his strongest; he even did storyboards on seemingly every episode under his "Makura Saki" pen name.

Matching up the amazing writing, visuals, & direction is an ideal soundtrack done by Ichiro Araki (his sole anime work, outside of the compilation movie for this series in 1981). Honestly, every single song is created with absolute atmosphere, completely working with the scenes they are used with. Araki delivers happy tunes for slum life, exciting beats for striking moments, beautiful piano pieces, & great instrumental versions of the opening & ending themes. Not only that, but a bunch of them are insanely memorable, sticking in your head well after hearing them & not watching anymore episodes. Interestingly enough, the opening themes give off an odd first impression by sounding somewhat different from one would initially expect from this sort of old-school series. The first opening, "Kizudarake no Eikou" by Takeshi Obo (who did the opening to the first compilation movie), is a somewhat upbeat-sounding song, but the lyrics are more melancholic, giving the song a really neat mix of emotions that works in the show's favor. The second opening, "Midnight Blues" by Ichiro Araki himself, completely changes things by slowing everything down & delivering a semi-acoustic blues anthem. Considering that it's used in the second half, where the battles become harsher for Joe & Jose is the goal at hand, it almost feels out of place... But then you remember that Joe is such an easy-going guy that it ends up being brilliantly placed in the second half. There's only one ending theme, technically, which is "Hateshinaki Yami no Kanata ni", but it's performed twice by the singers behind the openings & each version sounds fairly different from each other. Takeshi Obo's version is a very sweet-sounding soft rock song that, combined with the lyrics, gives a nostalgic feel for the past while knowing that one can't simply go back to better days. In comparison, Ichiro Araki's take on the song is a slower-sounding version (though the full version is actually shorter than Obo's) that replaces the sense of happy nostalgia with a feeling of melancholic acceptance that what's done in the past is done. They keep up superbly with the background music.

The voice cast, naturally, maintains the high quality of the story & production. Teruhiko Aoi & Jukei Fujioka reprise their iconic (& sole) anime roles as Joe & Danpei, respectively. Aoi in particular shows off great range with Joe, especially when dealing with the character's more somber & "fulfilled" moments. They are joined by two other live-action actors making their sole anime performances: Emi Tanaka as Yoko & Jirou Daruma as Nishi. Tanaka's Yoko delivers all of the strength & caring that Yoko's character goes through in this second half, while Daruma's Nishi makes the character all the more lovable & relatable. In terms of other notable returning characters, Wolf is performed by the late Goro Naya (Inspector Zenigata in Lupin the 3rd), who does a nice job with his handful of appearances, while Rikiishi features the return of his original voice from the 70s series, Shuusei Nakamura (Daisuke Shima in Space Battleship Yamato, Muge Zorbados in Dancougar). Rikiishi's scenes are mainly via flashbacks, plus a couple of moments in Joe's imagination, and Nakamura does a good job in his return; his older voice (naturally, ten years later & all) actually works well as the "ghost" of Joe's rival. Finally, Fuyumi Shiraishi (Sachi) & Tamio Ohki (Mikinosuke Shiraki) return from both the 70s series & the compilation movie as well.

Finally we get to the new characters, who all bring their "A-Game". Takeshi Watabe (King Fang in Fist of the North Star, Inspector Arizuka in You're Under Arrest!) & Katsunosuke Hori (Toshio Fukai in Eureka Seven AO) voice Goromaki Gondo & Suga, respectively, and both do very fitting performances. The legendary Norio Wakamoto has one of the very first notable performances in his entire career by voicing Kim Yongbi, and even from his early days he knew how to deliver a chillingly antagonistic performance. In a shockingly cool touch, though, Champion Joe 2 actually features a lot of spoken English, with Japanese subtitles accompanying most of it. A number of native English speakers do minor roles, and even Leon Smiley is obviously performed by a non-Japanese actor (unfortunately, said actor is not listed in the credits or even Wikipedia Japan), but even the Japanese seiyuu used do fitting English performances, mainly because their characters aren't from English-speaking countries. Ryusei Nakao voices Carlos Rivera, and in a world where everyone knows Nakao for his creepy performances of DBZ's Freiza & Bleach's Mayuri it's really cool to hear Nakao speak in his (likely) natural voice as Carlos, who does speak some Japanese. Hell, is English is pretty damn good, too, and the same can be said of Michihiro Ikemizu, who voices Carlos' manager Harry. Finally, Jose Mendoza is performed by the late Yoshito Miyamura, who speaks only in English throughout the entire show until the final fight with Joe, and even then his Japanese is only used for Jose's inner thoughts (obviously so that the show wouldn't have to sub something only he's "hearing"). It's a very classy production in terms of voice work & really just adds to the world that this story establishes.

Personally, I hesitate to call anything "perfect", because everything has its flaws, but this is one of those exceptions: Champion Joe 2 is a perfect anime. The story is to enthralling & always keeps your interest, the characters are all amazingly delivered & remain memorable for all time (not to mention obviously inspiring the creation of other characters to this very day), the music is full of atmosphere & stays in your head forever, the visuals are amazing & to this day look great, and overall any little nitpicks I have with the show are mainly born out of me wanting more. This is one of those truly special shows, one that can't be ruined by anything. I, like many anime fans, already knew how it was all going to end going into this show, yet when that ending came I still shed some tears... Even already knowing the ending couldn't stop me from being attached to this show to the point where I had to let it all out; I didn't "bawl like a child", but I was surprised that my tears went all the way down my face. Truly, this show cannot be missed. I don't care if you don't like sports anime or if you don't like to watch older anime... This show is on CrunchyRoll & has to be seen. As I mentioned at the beginning of this long review (seriously, this might be the longest review I have ever done!), this anime implements the important details of the first half of the Joe story into the second half to the point where newcomers can go straight into this show & when they come out of the other end, episode 47, they will know all of the important details of the story.

Just watch Champion Joe 2.

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