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Friday, May 30, 2014

Ring ni Kakero Image Album: This is Where Kurumada Gets His "MoJo", Baby!

You can tell I'm running out of Ring ni Kakero-related productions when I'm reviewing something I, years ago, said I would never review; that's essentially why I decided to "retire" RnK after reviewing the manga last year. Still, time goes on & minds can be changed... And when you find out that the legendary Joe Hisaishi did the music then you just have to talk about it.


If you've seen a Studio Ghibli production then you've heard of Joe Hisaishi, but even if you haven't there's still the off-chance you've heard something featuring his music. A student of anime music composer Takeo Watanabe (Mobile Suit Gundam, Cutie Honey, Nobody's Boy - Remi), Mamoru Fujisawa debuted on his own in 1974 with the anime series Hajime Ningen Giatrus, and in 1981 created the alias Joe Hisaishi in honor of the legendary Quincy Jones; Quincy/Kuinshi can also be read as "Hisaishi" & "Joe" is short for Jones. In 1982, shortly after the original manga ended in Shonen Jump, Hisaishi teamed with Nippon Columbia & Shueisha to create an "Image Album" based on Ring ni Kakero that was released on vinyl, making this the very first product based on a Masami Kurumada manga, predating the Saint Seiya anime by four years. There are 12 songs in this Image Album, so let's take a listen to all of them & see if these songs are not only accurate to the characters & ideas of the manga but also if this album could be considered a bit of a "lost" product of Hisaishi.

And, for the fun of it, I made videos putting each song with footage & images from the anime series. Let's see how well they fit...


"Seishun Jungle"
This catchy tune acts as the "opening theme" of the Image Album, featuring lyrics by Yoshiaki Sagara & vocals by Ichiro Tomita, better known as MoJo. In 1982 MoJo was essentially in the prime of his career, which saw him performing theme songs for many anime & tokusatsu shows, including Battle Fever J, Dai Sentai Goggle V, Tiger Mask II, Albegas, & Tsuri Kichi Sanpei. As for "Seishun/Youth Jungle", it completely fits the time it was made in, but that's certainly not a knock against it because it's absolutely memorable from nearly the first riff you hear at the beginning of the song. The mix of Hisaishi's composition & arrangement with MoJo's voice certainly makes the song an ideal way to start off the album, and had a RnK anime been made back in the 80s this would have easily been a perfect opening theme to use.

Going off that last thought, it's kind of freaky how well "Seishun Jungle" matches with the actual anime opening footage, especially the second season footage the video I made starts with; sure, it's not shot-to-shot perfect, but it matches some moments a little too well. Overall, though, hearing MoJo's song over that footage instead of Marina del ray's "Asu he no Toushi" actually works pretty well.


"Square Symphony"
"Boooooomerang Squaaare!" Yeah, quick note here: Every character theme in this album beings with someone saying the superblow the song is named after. Anyway, it's only natural for the Image Album to begin with the theme for main character Ryuji Takane, and it too is a pretty catchy production. Hisaishi, and the appropriately-named Square Orchestra, gives the song a slight sense of adventure & journeying, fitting in well with Ryuji's progression from outright rookie into the tough junior boxer he is by the time the World Tournament begins. The underlying beat underneath the entire song sticks in your head for a good bit after the song is done, and even in the last third Hisaishi adds in a pretty groovy bass section that keeps the song from being completely repetitive. Overall, "Square Symphony" is true to its title & is a cool start to the non-vocal songs.

Also, in case you're wondering, I did make sure that every video starts off with said superblow being delivered... And the Boomerang Square clip I used was the only one that fit its respective song intro 100% perfectly, requiring no edits whatsoever.


"Thunder Drum"
It's commonly said that, in shonen battle manga, the main character is usually not the most popular or even "best" character. Now, while I would argue that Ryuji is one of the exceptions, this Image Album kind of enforces that belief by having the theme for Kazuki Shinatora be better than the one for Ryuji. There's really no contest here: "Thunder Drum" beats out "Square Symphony" in every single way. The intense & fast-paced drum beat, the guitar parts that linger on notes, & even the synthesized voice saying "Special Rolling Thunder" just all add up to a wildly fun theme. If there's any real notable flaw in the song it's that it kind of just ends; there's no musical equivalent to "falling action" here. On the other hand, it does maintain a sense of steadiness to the song & keeps your attention the whole way through, so the sudden end will likely come down to personal opinion as to whether it's a flaw or just a minor quibble. Regardless, "Thunder Drum" definitely gives a great sense of how awesome the quiet-but-powerful Shintora is.


"Hurricane Boogie"
There are two songs in the Image Album that aren't composed by Joe Hisaishi, and this is the first one; he may have still arranged them, though. This is the theme for Ishimatsu Katori, the "Kenka/Fighting Champion" from Chiba & partial comic relief, and it's a generally fitting one for the character. Composed by Yukio Hirasawa, who I can't find any other info on, the song is heavy on the guitar with a strong backing drum sound, and really does sound like a rock instrumental from the 70s more than anything. It fits the rough & ready style that Ishimatsu sticks to, while also delivering a sense of the more upbeat, silly side to the character. By now you should start noticing that each theme title indicates what kind of song you'll be hearing, and there's definitely a strong "boogie" feeling to the song. Honestly, I wish I liked this song a little more, but overall it's a fitting & enjoyable production. If anything, you can definitely tell the difference when Hisaishi didn't compose it himself. If you want a better Ishimatsu theme there's "Junjou Kenka Champion ~oneway boy~", which was made in relation to the anime & features lyrics by Masami Kurumada and vocals by Takeshi Kusao (the voice of Ishimatsu). Still, not a bad work by Hirasawa by any means.


"Jet Melancholy"
Joe Hisashi is back in the composer's seat with this song, the theme for master pianist Takeshi Kawai, and right away you can tell the difference in quality from "Hurricane Boogie". This theme is full of nuance & it cleverly puts its main beat in the background; you could very well miss it the first time you listen to the song. Even when the song speeds up it still maintains a sense of "melancholy" that stays true to the title of the song, and though it doesn't quite reach the level of "Thunder Drum", Kawai's theme still ends up being pretty cool to listen to. Unlike all of the previous songs, though, this one doesn't quite sound like one you'd hear during a fight that Kawai is competing in; it's purely a character theme. If you want a more action-fitting song for Kawai you can listen to "Ibara no Senritsu ~Melody~", which is sung by Hiroshi Kamiya (the voice of Kawai in the anime). Honestly, the two themes kind of compliment each other slightly; one is calm & composed Kawai, while the other is hot-blooded & fired-up.

On a personal note, I always love that image of the Jet Upper hitting its victim. I just love the the anime maintained the giant "JET" text that appears whenever Kawai does it in the manga.


"Galactica Cyclone"
This is the other song that Hisaishi himself didn't compose, but it holds up much better than "Hurricane Boogie" does. Composed by Shigeru Inoue (no relation to the actor of the same name), the theme for "Superstar" Jun Kenzaki is the first to not really describe itself in the song name; what exactly is the song equivalent to a cyclone, anyway? Well, according to this song, it's a fast-paced beat mixed with a kind of jazzy guitar sound that never really lets up. While Hisiashi wasn't exactly a big name at this point in his career, it almost seems like Inoue at least heard what the main composer was doing for these themes & made sure his sole entry was just as good. Now, to be fair, it may be just a little too upbeat & jazzy for a character like Kenzaki, who's a more stoic & cocky person than the song indicates, but it's still pretty damn fun to listen to. Well done, Shigeru Inoue; I guess you did know how a cyclone-like song sounded.


"Screw Dance"
Now that we're done with the members of Golden Japan Jr., let's move onto the "World Rivals", starting with Black Shaft (a.k.a. "One of the Greatest Black Characters in Anime & Manga History"). This theme actually is one of the highlights of the album, alongside "Thunder Drum" but for different reasons. Whereas Shinatora's theme was hard-hitting & fast, "Screw Dance" is a little slower & relaxed but absolutely engrossing. It's the perfect kind of song to dance to, acting like you're automatically better than everyone else, but it's still subdued enough to not come off as abrasively egotistic; the repeated vocals of "Black Shaft" are just icing on the cake. It's a great song to simply put on in the background while you're doing something so that you don't get agitated & mess up. Hisaishi really hit it out of the park with this one.

Also, in terms of the video I made, don't you just love the image of Shaft with Old Glory behind him? Truly, Black Shaft is the United States of America.


"Sicilian Funk"
Admittedly, upon hearing this song it's easy to wonder where the "funk" is. Also, is funk really the best choice for Don Juliano, the head of the Italian Junior Mafia? Is "funk" to first thing to think of when you hear the word "Mafia"? Well, while this song isn't really as funky as the title indicates, it's still a neat production that does kind of fit the idea of Juliano. There's a sense of rising glory amongst the rowdy beat & sweet guitar licks, but at the same time it almost sounds like it's what the song thinks it is, much like how Don Juliano is focused on what's "cool" & maintaining the image of the Sicilian Dandy. I would say it's up there with "Square Symphony", i.e. it's really solid, & showcases Hisaishi's skills, but isn't quite the best of the album itself. Props for the slightly hidden "Cosa Nostra" voice that pops up in the song, though.


"Devil Fantasy"
First off, I love the way the name "Devil Propose" is said in this song. Second, I'm not really sure what to think of this theme. This is easily the most experimental of the songs in this album, and though it does hit a neat sense of tense atmosphere, while also keeping your attention with a slow burn feel, I just can't really see how this meant to be a theme for Napoleon Baroa (or Valois, as it's supposedly a reference to). There are those moments where a more traditional-sounding beat comes in, but even that sounds decidedly different from anything else on this album. If anything, it does fit the "fantasy" motif extremely well. I'll give Hisaishi points for trying something completely experimental, & it's far from being a poorly-done song, but I'm just not feeling it in terms of being an anthem for Napoleon. He's easily one of my favorite characters from Ring ni Kakero, so I was hoping for something really cool & fitting; I guess half of that works okay.


"Techno Crash"
While this is technically meant to be the theme for "Führer" Scorpion, especially since it starts with "Scorpion Crash", I like to think of this as being a dual-theme for both him & his right-hand man, "Krüger" Helga. I say that mainly because the song definitely hits the "techno" motif well, fitting Helga's obsession with data-based boxing, while also fitting Scorpion fairly well to an extent. The main beat of the song is simple but highly effective, and though it does approach repetitive after a point it doesn't overstay its welcome. In fact, "Techno Crash" is the shortest song in the entire album, clocking in at a few seconds less than 3 minutes; only "Galactica Cyclone" is of a similar length. Similar to "Thunder Drum", though, the song doesn't have any falling action & simply stops at the end. Overall, it's a fitting song for the duo of Scorpion & Helga, but it's far from being one of the best in the album.


"Apollon Dream"
For the final character theme we have the anthem for Apollon, leader of the "godlike" Team Greece. It definitely hits the "godlike" part well right at the start, with the impact of God Dimension sounding as if it came from the gods themselves. After that comes a really slow burn of a song, but it's really atmospheric in its execution. It takes about a good third of the song before you really hit the main melody, but until then there's a really cool & meditative (nay, dreamlike) mood to the song. You could close your eyes & simply feel at peace. Even when the main melody finally begins it only adds to the zen-like atmosphere this song exudes. Yeah, that's right, this song "exudes". While Susumu Ueda's theme for Team Greece in Sekai Taikai-hen delivers on the majesty & divinity of the Greek boxers, both in stature & fighting capability, Joe Hisaishi makes Apollon in particular sound like a savior that gives off an outwardly magnificence. It almost makes you want to aim to be worthy of the Ichor, the literal "Blood of the Gods", that he has control over. There's no doubt about it: "Apollon Dream" is one of the best songs on this album.


"Aoi Tategami"
And so we come to the end of the Image Album, finishing up just like how we began with a MoJo song. In seemingly-proper fashion, "Aoi Tategami/Blue Mane" is the opposite of "Seishun Jungle", slow-paced & reflective compared to its sibling's fast pace & outward exaltation. Though I do wish I knew what the lyrics translated as, what I do know is that this song really delivers on emotion, and that's what really counts here. MoJo really delivers a strong performance here, possibly even better than the one he did for "Seishun Jungle". In fact, it might actually be the best song in the entire album. It's almost like you went through this entire Image Album, and the reward for doing so is a simply excellent farewell. There really isn't much else to say about this song; it stands very strong on its own aural merit.

As for how it fits the video, the beginning of the song actually fits the pilot film footage very nicely in a sort of "looking back on the past" kind of way. Following that it works okay for Season 1's ending footage, but that's mainly because "TAKE MY SOUL FOREVER" by Psychic Lover is a high-energy song, which is the opposite of "Aoi Tategami". What does fit, though, is the Nichibei Kessen-hen footage, as simple as it is. Considering that "Shining Like Gold ~Omoide no Kakera~" by Marina del ray is a similarly slow-paced song, & similarly reflective in execution, it's kind of natural for the footage to match the song well. Hell, even the montage of Golden Japan Jr. kicking ass fits.


I'll be honest: I wasn't exactly expecting too much from the Ring ni Kakero Image Album when I first found out about this product years ago. It was a neat idea, sure, but I was expecting the music to be done by a relative nobody of the time. Of course, I neglected to consider the fact that Joe Hisaishi was still a relatively small name in 1982. After hearing all 12 songs in this album, you can really tell that it's a Hisaishi production, as even the "worst" songs are still better than most other anime music you can listen to. Without a doubt, though, the absolute best songs are "Thunder Drum", "Screw Dance", & "Apollon Dream", and what's best is that all three are really different in execution from each other, so I wouldn't even want to bother ranking them against each other. Unfortunately, this album has become pretty obscure & likely even forgotten in Japan; even Joe Hisaishi's personal website doesn't list this product! After the 1982 vinyl release this Image Album would only see one re-release in 1988 on CD, featuring some "new" thoughts by Masami Kurumada himself; MoJo's songs, though, would wind up on a 2005 "Best of" CD of his work. Considering its rarity, I'm glad that I was able to share these songs with anyone who reads this review, especially for Hisaishi fans who might not have ever known about this album, let alone heard any of the songs.

Please note, however, that this doesn't mean that I'll be reviewing albums or anything of that sort. This was a special case due to its obscurity & historical importance in Joe Hisaishi's career. I also won't be reviewing the Ring ni Kakero 1 Character Songs CD that featured all of the Kurumada-penned themes performed by the anime cast in 2005; I kind of already shared my feelings on those songs in the Shadow review, anyway. Well, time to re-retire Ring ni Kakero on this blog...

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