Hajime no Ippo is a lot of ways the most exemplary and pure example of Shounen anime within the entire genre. There are no superpowers; no laser blasts, no screaming so loud that your hair changes color.
Instead what we have is a story about underdog boxer Makanoucchi Ippo and his journey to top Japan’s Boxing league. The manga is shounen jump’s second most long-running series of all time, clocking in at a staggering 1,200+ chapters and still ongoing to this day. It is written and illustrated by George Morikawa, who at an early age was infamous for brawling with other high school students, even somehow managing to get into a fistfight during his high school entrance exam. He had eventually challenged this enthusiasm into boxing and later in life be the co-owner of the JB Sports Boxing Gym as well as acting as a coach and seconds to many young boxers.
Manga of Hajime no Ippo:
You really need to read only a few chapters of Hajime no Ippo to see just how deep his understanding of boxing really is. Every page of the manga has infused a deep love and respect for the sports. It is through this that we experience Ippo’s journey. But, in this modern era where chrome headed superheroes defeat super villains in a surprisingly minimal amount of punches, where a disproportionate number of kids named Jojo go on increasingly bizarre adventures, can a series conceived in the 80s simply about boys who like punching each other really hold up?
Well, let us talk about why you should watch Hajime no Ippo. Although it may not seem like it due to the relatively recent resurgence of sports style anime, sports animes were actually a fairly tough pitch for the western audience right up until relatively recently. Companies were notoriously hesitant to localize sports anime in the West and the reason was right there in the name. Sports anime invariably focused upon sports and that was enough to put off many cat-eared pocky-eating western fans most likely due to preconceptions about sports and the people who enjoy them.
Nevertheless, the thing is a good sports anime is just that. It is a good anime. Series like eyeshield 21 Haikyuu and Slam Dunk are just as enjoyable and dramatic as other A-class shounen series. However, getting past the initial “but I hate sports barrier” can be a tough sell for many people.
What is Hajime no Ippo about?
Yes, Hajime no Ippo is about boxing. However, that really is just a framework for a beautifully nuanced and exceptionally well-executed hero’s journey to take place and on that journey, you will witness some of the most tremendously eruptive victories and losses this side of anime as well as meeting some of the most likeable and endearing characters within the genres as a whole. The first of which is our main protagonist Makunouchi Ippo. Ippo is the walking punching embodiment of the traditional Japanese hero. He is quiet he is polite and he never challenges the status quo. Even when facing his opponent, he never has any kind of negative thing to say about them nor does he ever try to present himself in a way that could be conceived as cool or aggressive. The most threatening he never gets is giving his opponent ever so slightly menacing glare. Even then, I think I find the Blue Eagle from Muppets more intimidating.
Main protagonist Makunouchi Ippo:
At first glance he is not exactly ideal material for a story where major themes involve beating your opponent into unconsciousness, but where Ippo’s character starts to become interesting as when you see just how genuinely good and decent a person he is. Ippo is not trying to be nice, he just is. He bows to the audience after winning, he fights, he works doubly hard to help out his mom with her fishing business. Rather than hate or begrudge his opponents, he nearly always tries to see the good in them and often idealizes them even after defeating them. There does not seem to be a single hateful or negative bone in Ippo’s entire body. It is a lot of fun, watching the innocent good spirited hero go up against a cavalcade of boxers, who most certainly are not. The other big way the show gets us on Ippo’s side is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in the book and get something that so many animes still get wrong. The slow progression of the hero’s abilities the course of the show. When we first joined Ippo in episode 1, he was as far from a professional fighter as you can imagine. He was bullied at school and his quiet nature means that he does not have any friends.
Ippo’s first punch:
Upon being saved by Takamura and he has brought to a boxing gym. There we witness Ippo’s first-ever punch. What is important about this scene is it is letting us know that Ippo is starting from absolute zero. He does not possess any kind of innate talents apart from the above-average upper-body strength naturally acquired from working on his mom’s fishing boat. From here, we ever so slowly watch people build up his repertoire of moves and techniques. He is so unskilled at the beginning that his first few wins really genuinely come across flukes.
However, slowly we watch him expand outwards, mastering the jab, uppercut, blocking, footwork, head movement, dodging, countering. Eventually incorporating it all into his signature peekaboo style and then eventually evolving that into his iconic Dempsey roll. One of the most stunningly, devastating attacks in all anime. Trust me, it will happen and you will lose your mind.
Allowing Ippo to slowly develop his abilities like this not only makes every victory seem all the more rewarding but also gives us a window into Ippo as a character. He is not the brightest or most quick-witted but he is passionate about what he loves and does his best to see the good in people. It is this positive innocence, which is beautifully contrasted against some of Ippo’s opponents many of whom are deeply dark and damaged people. Many shows nowadays and particularly the ones based on light novels, seem to skip this part of the character’s developments. When that happens I always, feel like we have missed a fundamental part of their growth as a character.
Establishing a character’s limitations and having them steadily rise past them can do wonders to save an otherwise average show. Take, for example, one of my guilty pleasure 2006’s Kenichi- history’s strongest disciple. It is not a fantastic show by any measure but the one thing it absolutely nails is the progression of power. It is like ten episodes before we even see the protagonist win a proper fight and when we do, it is like ‘Holy shit. Did he just win?’ This kind of patience and investment gives a very tangible feeling to your protagonist. It makes each victory actually matter and every defeat even more devastating.
Ippo’s first defeat & depression:
In fact, one of my favorite arcs in all of Ippo is after Ippo suffers his first major loss. I was really surprised with how the show dealt with his disappointment over a fight and we watched the young boxer sink into depression and really doubt himself for the first time. Shounen series always seemed terrified of letting their heroes take a good hard genuine loss. It is as if the industry is trying to create a generation of John Cenas. Lettering our heroes to lose on occasion, we get to see a more vulnerable side of them. Moreover, in Ippo’s case, it just makes us root for the little person all harder.
Do not get me wrong, he is still the hero and he still wins a lot but the few losses he does take ground his character and inject real and tangible tension into both the story and the show’s exquisitely brutal boxing matches. The boxing matches are of course the main attraction here. It is inside the ring that all the major movements of characters’ lives happen and you could quite cynically mind. You would boil the show down into just an ongoing series of boxing matches, which might not sound like the most interesting, or revolutionary plot structure. However, what really matters is the way that people execute on the idea.
Each boxing match is in a sense its own narrative arc taking anywhere from two to eight episodes to conclude. These arcs are divided into two distinct sections be build up to a match and match itself. What you might be surprised about upon first viewing Hajime no Ippo is just how long we spend in the first of these two sections. The buildup, which takes place entirely outside the ring. It is here we really get to know the characters. In fact, there is nearly a slice of life element to these sections as we watch the characters go about their daily lives including training jobs and socializing. It can be a lot of fun but it is also the time in the show where the stakes are set.
Sawamura vs Ippo:
Let us take a look at one of my favorite buildup from season 3. Ippo versus the sinister and violent Sawamura. At first, Sawamura does not seem like anything out of the ordinary. However, upon viewing the tapes of his previous fight, we see not only that he is an exceptionally skilled fighter but also that he is a violent and brutal person. On top of that, Sawamura also announces that he has the perfect counter to Ippo’s Dempsey Roll.
At that point, the show has done all it really needs to establish a reasonable amount of tension for the place but where things get truly compelling is when we start to dig into Sawamura as a character and were painted the picture of a deeply damaged individual. One who is, unfortunately, upbringing has left him completely incapable of relating or empathizing with people around him. Boxing is the only part of his life that makes sense and even in that, he regards himself as an outsider. Only by defeating Ippo and proving that he is the best can Sawamura really find acceptance.
The character is given further nuance by the presence of his old grade school teacher, who initially introduced Sawamura into boxing. Now, he fears that the sport has only nourished his natural desire to hurt people and through this character, we really see what Sawamura is. Someone who never really had a chance to become anything other than the violent monster he now is. We both despise and pity him for it and thus a tense dynamic is formed within the audience. Making things even more compelling again is the contrast between Sawamura and Ippo. At this point of the show, the audience is well familiar with Ippo’s good nature and gentle heart. Watching him go up against the deeply broken Swamura creates an atmosphere that cuts like a razor. Which brings us to what is essentially the centerpiece of the entire show and its universe- the boxing matches themselves.
The buildup of Hajime no Ippo:
I think one thing that is interesting to note here is that while a lot of Hajime no Ippo’s buildup section involves a lot of dialogue between characters. It is very little in the way of animation or visual design. However, within the matches themselves, the show switches gears and begins telling its story largely through the visuals as Ippo’s dialogue. In addition, to some stunning effects. The weighty brutal fights have been translated perfectly. Each movement of the boxers is communicated with real weight and purpose. Each potential attack carries with it a tangible feeling of a force. In addition, when one lands there is a real lasting sense of physical consequence to it.
One of the biggest ways the show does this is by slowing down time to a crawl and letting the tension build to a peak. Moreover, just when things become unbearable, the action explodes in a visceral burst force. Not only does this infinite help out with the pacing and timing of each fight but Madhouse has used these sections of slow time to focus on all these subtle little angles of the boxers body motion. It really emphasizes just how much force behind each attack.
Visuals of Hajime no Ippo:
An attention to detail like this lets the punches of Hajime no Ippo back a harder punch through these super-powered laser blasts of shows like Dragon Ball Z. The show also uses these moments of slow time to convey to us exactly what a boxer is thinking in that moment and watching them try to figure it out each other’s next move and act accordingly adds a crucial layer of strategy and mind games to the matches. The show also makes good use of these little visual motifs that really drive home the physical storytelling. For instance, I love the use of the dense burst of white mist that is used to convey momentum velocity and impacts. Much to my delight, the matches will often drive into ludicrous visual metaphor territory such as suggesting Swamura’s fist is actually a pistol or that fighting Vorg is like fighting a pair of wolves. Obviously, this is more than a little ridiculous but it makes for a fun watch and does help convey the situational storytelling of each fight as well as doing a lot to explain the unique narrative to each and every match.
Backing up the unique visuals is some absolutely stellar sound design. Sound design is something I do not see called out a whole lot. It is something that when handled right can add an incredible amount to a scene. All the most dramatic moments of Ippo are elevated with some really creative and impactful audio. Punches explode with the sound of a jet engine and boxers shift their way to the sound of screeching tires. In addition, it has all scored with some of the most beautifully dramatic music industry.
Building up tension using silence:
Furthermore, the show also knows exactly how to use near silence to build tension to an unbearable level. Only then to let the action resume with an intense cacophony of dramatic noise. This is bold and confident sound design and something I would really like to see more of in other shows. The major other things that you about the fights of Hajime no Ippo and I cannot stress this enough, it is how each fight is essentially its own narrative. We have two characters both of whom are going to be in very different places in their lives by the timeless last bell rings.
Moreover, it is the journey there that the real heart of the series the narrative variety between each individual boxing matches is exceptional. Know two fights ever feel the same and each new opponent is a puzzle for Ippo to solve. Some fights particularly those featuring Aoki can be hilarious displays of physical comedy. While others like Ippos title fight against Sendo can be near existential battles against this seemingly impossible. Each fight has a constantly shifting momentum. In addition, every time new hit lands in that moment it shifts and re-contextualizes that fighter’s chance of winning. What can seem like a shore victory one moment, can quickly turn into a disastrous battle to stay conscious. Such as, Ippo’s fight from season one where a far less talented boxer fights dirty in order to drain Ippo’s stamina, causing what should be an easy fight to become a desperate struggle against the odds.
Slice of life?
Once if I conclude, we go straight into the buildup for the next fight and this is essentially how the show works. You have your set up through slice-of-life slash training sections as well as your payoff in the matches themselves. This might sound formulaic but trust me, does not need to be a bad thing especially when it is executed as well as this. Not only that it is a formula the show is constantly tinkering with and even subverting. In addition, in fact, one of the major ways it does this, is it takes the focuses instead on members of what in my opinion is one of the strongest supporting cast of any large shounen series. Some of these will be from Ippos constant cycle of unique and interesting opponents. Many of them have their own fully fleshed-out backstories and own reasons for fighting. Such as the aggressive and overly confident Sendo who naturally feels like he could be the main character of an entirely different boxing anime. But it just so happens that he exists in Ippo’s world.
Sendo vs Ippo:
His fan-base are rabid in a way that Ippo’s simply are not. And the subplot about him buying kids a Sega Mega drive is endearing as hell. The show also is not afraid to switch track and make Ippo’s opponent the underdog such as the sympathetic Naomichi from season 2. If Nao cannot defeat Ippo, may have to face retirements. The show does a good job of changing up the and keeping Ippo’s opponents interesting. But where the supporting cast really shines is in Ippo’s loveable hooligan punk gym mates. While they start off as merely background characters, each one slowly starts to develop their own narrative arc. Before long, each one is getting their own multi-episode matches. It is here that the show is really able to have fun with our expectations.
All of Ippo’s gym mates are in a different weight class to him. Therefore, they never really crossed the barrier into being actual rivals. Nothing Ippo does directly affect their own personal journey, nor anything they do really affect Ippo’s. And I really think this helps to find them as their own characters on their journey. Aoki and Kimura, for example, have been boxing for far along with Ippo. But on top of dealing with the fact that both may be in the twilight of their boxing career, they also must deal with that they both take far more losses than Ippo and Takamura. This brings an entirely different dynamic to their story arcs. Their matches are not so much rooted in para-fantasy but more just the journey of these characters. When either one does achieve victory there is an actual feeling of surprise. We know on an intellectual level that Ippo is probably going to win most of his fights purely by virtue that his name is in the title. Both Aoki and Kimura, we have no such guarantee and the threat of defeat is always real and looming.
Watching these two struggle creates an entirely different dynamic to Ippo’s story. It gives a pacing and texture to the show as a whole. And their backstory as Yankee hooligans is one of the most hilarious and enjoyable arcs of the entire show. Head trainer of the KBG boxing gym is the iron-fisted coach Kamogawa. Watching him mercilessly beat the boxers into shape is constantly entertained. A great degree of comedy is derived from his exchanges with Takamura. But the way to care for and respect each other is really heartwarming. If they are talking down by the riverside before Takamura’s title fight does not have you well up even a little then you, my friend, are an unfeeling monster who needs to be ostracized from society as quickly as humanly possible.
The coach is also the focus of one of my favorite and unique arcs of the entire show, which is a flashback to post-world war 2 America occupied Japan. And mere three episodes it tells the stunning story of how the coach became a boxer. A complicated love triangle and culminates in easily one of the greatest and most stunningly clinched matches of the entire show where there are no weight classes. And Kamogawa faces off against a massive American born general. This brings us to my absolute favorite character of the entire show Takamura. Story arcs focus on him are rare. We usually get maybe one or two a season. But when we do, holy hell, do they burn the house down.
As a character, Takamura is as far from Ippo as you can get. He is loud, vulgar, offensive and insanely overconfident. And still, you cannot help but love the guy. He takes on all life’s challenges head on and refuses to view the world in any way but his own. On top of that, he is so naturally gifted that many of his matches are played for laughs as he dismantles Japan’s heavyweight division with a comedic bravado. But, it is later on, when he steps onto the world stage that his story really begins. For the first time, Takamura faces opponents that are on his level. And it is here where you get to see the character really shine. Unlike Ippo, the show does not portray attacker more as an underdog, but as a superhero, one that you really really want to believe could never lose. But it is this fear that gives his fights an edge and tension simply unmatched by any other and no better example of this than the exceptional setup and pays off his monumental world title battle with the monstrous champion Brian Hawk.
There is also some really great comedy to be found in the interaction with Ippo and his gym mates. Ippo was a nice and pure boy but his gym mates sure as hell are not. And it is hilarious watching them do everything they can to mess with the guy. I think in the hands of a weaker writer, these scenes could quickly grow tiresome, but a lot of this stuff had me grinning like an idiot. Helps in no small part by the real and genuine friendship that grows between Ippo and the others over the course of the show. Yes, they torment each other but there is a real bond here. And by the end of it, all this group of idiots had named themselves to me in a way that few or their supporting casts do.
All that said, we are at that point where I feel it only fair to talk about what I consider some of the shounen’s shortcomings. Ippo’s main rival Myata while being a decent character in his own right pales in comparison to many of Ippo’s other rivals. And considering he is essentially the Vegeta of the show, that is more than a little disappointing. The pacing of the show can be at times grueling especially in the lead-up to a big fight there is even one instance where the character leaves the locker room to head out at the start of the episode. And by the end of the episode, he still has not reached the ring to begin to fight. Now that said, I never felt like the show was wasting my time and a degree of that is just how well the show builds tension. But yes it can be a little frustrating.
Like the regular shounen series here are very few female characters. And what are there are usually either mother figures or love interests? But I suppose considering that this is a series set in a men’s boxing league in the 80s Japan, perhaps that point is a little mute. But, still given how prominent women’s martial art has become recent times, it would be an interesting avenue to explore. If you want to check out a sports manga that actually does this, then I highly highly recommend the exceptional Teppu by Moare Oota.
Teppu tells the story of high-school student Natsuo Ishido and her journey into women’s MMA. The art is gorgeous; the fights are stunning and the hate-filled and mean-spirited Natsu is a startlingly different kind of protagonist than you might be used to. I will probably review the manga in the future, but for now, know that it is probably one of my favorites within the last 5 years.
So all that said, there is still one other aspect of the show we need to cover. There are shows that say something new and different and can potentially re-contextualize how we view shows of these type as well as narrative storytelling in general. So, the question becomes, how does Hajime no Ippo do this? How does Hajime no Ippo evolve the shounen genre? The answer is quite simple. It does not. Even at the time of conception, boxing series like Ashita no Joe had already taken Japan by storm. And even an ardent fan of Ippo I’d have no trouble saying that there are very few truly original things about it.
In judging it by this standard, you can easily miss the best thing about it. Hajime no Ippo is not an advancement of the show and genre. It was a celebration of it. A show that intricately understands the core fundamentals of the shounen genre. And through mastery of these fundamental exemplifies the very best of what shounen will be. All the struggle, friendship, soaring, victories and crushing defeats- it is all here and it is all handled with a love and care that can only come through someone with a deep and enduring love of the genre as well as the sport upon Hajime no Ippo is based. No, I do not love boxing, but after experiencing Ippo I understand exactly why Morikawa does. But more so than ever, that this is a show of it slowly surpassing one’s limits and reaching for that major milestone. And it is this honest and open communication that is the driving force behind a show that encapsulates the very best of what shounen has to offer.
And this my dear friends, why you should watch Hajime no Ippo.
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