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Twenty Years Later: Hajime no Ippo Anime

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As my consistent favorite sports anime of all time as well as one of my favorite anime period, there was no way I wasn’t going to celebrate Hajime no Ippo’s 20th anniversary in every way possible.

The Hajime no Ippo anime started two decades ago, but my relationship with it didn’t begin until at least a decade later. For most series, even those that rank among my favorites, there would be a limited arc to my engagement with the title in question. I’d become interested in it, buy or stream it (the latter option was common enough ten years ago, but not the way it is now), watch through to the end, and reflect fondly upon it. Hajime no Ippo, though, even just the initial 75-episode series, has been a journey that has spanned nearly a decade without reaching its conclusion. That’s because, for the entirety of the time I’ve been interested in the series, it has been out of print and never streamed anywhere.

By the time I had any interest in Hajime no Ippo, Geneon had been closed down for years and, unlike many of their licenses, nobody else had picked it back up. Unfortunately, it had been noted as an underperformer, so it wasn’t a surprise that other companies weren’t quick to jump on it. To their credit, Geneon did release the entire series on DVD, and for an unsuccessful series, committing to dubbing and printing physical copies of 15 singles is worth acknowledging. Collecting a series across that many individual discs with only 5 episodes each is a challenge, though. They did rerelease it in two much larger collections, but coming so late in the company’s lifetime, they were likely much more limited print runs, because they’re much harder to find copies of, and the ones that are floating out there are ridiculously expensive. Given how elusive some specific volumes of the singles are and how much they may be sold for, this isn’t too surprising, but it made the singles the unfortunately more feasible route to slowly attempt to collect the series. Needless to say, official anime streaming didn’t take off until after Geneon was out of the picture and, without anyone holding the license in the US, no streaming service ever had the incentive to license the series for only that platform.

And so my adventure began to attempt to own and watch all of this legendary series in an environment that made it exceedingly difficult to do so legally. As is the case with single-volume releases of most out-of-print series, whether anime or manga, the first three volumes had high enough print runs to be readily available. Past that, availability and prices fluctuated dramatically. To avoid spending an inordinately exorbitant sum of money to buy the entire series at once, I intentionally spread the process out across many years, always putting the next volume at the top of my birthday or Christmas wish lists and buying volumes only when they were relatively inexpensive. This resulted in getting to enjoy Hajime no Ippo for a much longer overall period of time than I would’ve under any other circumstances, but it also meant that I’d only get five episodes at a time before having to wait months for more, often the better part of a year. I’ve appreciated having it be a part of my life for so long, but at this point, I’m ready to just have it all and be able to watch it all the way through and let others experience the same.

Thankfully, just a few weeks before its 20th anniversary, Discotek announced the news the world has needed for the majority of the anime’s existence. We’re getting the complete series in three 25-episode Blu-ray collections starting next year. Being such fresh news, there are only so many details confirmed, but given Discotek’s history, we can confidently expect the highest quality discs anyone could hope for with all the materials that ever existed (perhaps even some new ones) in widely available releases for extremely reasonable prices, and will likely end up streaming on Crunchyroll and/or other official streaming services. For much of the past decade, Discotek has become the savior of an exponentially increasing number of anime fans for bringing us long-coveted titles with a level of care that no other company in this business would come close to, especially given the expectation of unimpressive sales for many of their licenses. I knew that if they continued on their path, they’d eventually rescue Hajime no Ippo, and I knew that would be the moment that I stepped outside the shadow of appreciatively observing their incredible work and occasionally picking up a release here and there to join the many who sing their praises at every opportunity. That it would come weeks before I wrote the Twenty Years Later article I signed up for last year just makes it that much more serendipitous.

So now that my struggle to see the series is finally over and I’ll be able to own and watch it all as easily and efficiently as any other series, I can focus on some other aspects. For example, why wasn’t it more successful in the US, and why was I so desperate to watch it? Sports anime, particularly those that place a great deal of focus on their sport of choice, tend to be reduced to that sole aspect in the eyes of many. Around the time that Geneon was releasing Hajime no Ippo, the American anime DVD-buying market largely dismissed sports anime in comparison to most other prominent genres and themes, and I was guilty of the same. By the end of the 2000s, I had embraced sports anime, and over the past decade, the fandom and market has come around to it as well. Now, we can get new sports series released in extravagant collector’s editions that perform well enough for their sequels to receive the same treatment.

The question that always comes up for people like me is “How can you like sports anime if you don’t like sports?” Fifteen years ago, I would’ve taken it as a rhetorical question and assumed that I couldn’t. Perhaps a similar sentiment permeated much of a market made up of a population that traditionally embodied the antithesis of the jock crowd. But as I became more interested in exploring the medium of anime and all it had to offer, I found that many of my preconceptions about certain genres and themes were only limiting my own exposure; there were great anime of all types, just as there were terrible anime of all types. Why the market has seemingly adopted a similarly open mind I’m less sure of, but I’d guess that the main factors include the ability to easily check out a series for free via streaming to realize that sports anime are just as good as any other, the growing mainstream reach of anime bringing in a much higher percentage of athletes and sports fans, and the fact that many new sports series include a great deal of general anime fan appeal like lovable characters and beautiful “action.”

So how can you like sports anime if you don’t like sports? At this point, it’s more baffling for me to imagine how someone could only appreciate storytelling that focuses on subject matter that would interest them without a narrative. If that’s the case, why even consume stories? Sports anime is all about the characters; if a sport matters more to a cast of characters than anything else in the world, a well-written sports anime can be just as compelling as any epic with the fate of the world at stake. In some ways, it’s the most grounded avenue through which to explore that level of passion, because it exists in every school, town, and city throughout the world. A good anime isn’t one that delivers my interests to me; it’s one that expresses its characters’ passion so deftly that I feel an equal level of passion for those characters. Most sports also present the opportunity to be depicted with the same quality of animation and direction as any action title. It’s not as if I’m a fan of violence in the real world either, but it’s often the subject of the most captivating pieces of animation. Why should sports be any different?

Having achieved this revelation, Hajime no Ippo was the obvious “older” title to supplement my diet of newer releases, as it consistently placed high on lists of not only the best sports anime, but the best anime in general. By this point, as previously mentioned, doing so wasn’t as easy as I had hoped for, but as I slowly watched it play out, it shot past all the other sports anime of new and old that I watched to stand as my uncontested favorite of the genre, as well as securing a place in my top 15 anime of all time.

Hajime no Ippo is a pun of a title, using its protagonist Ippo’s name while also meaning “The First Step.” That title is a perfect encapsulation of what makes the series so special and enduring. Everything comes down to taking that first step, and every success is built on incremental progress. Even after taking the first step, that “one” kanji in “Ippo” serves to always remind you that every step is a single unit, and the character of Ippo represents that as he never stops exerting effort or struggling through each challenge in his path to achieve his goals. He starts from nothing and works his way up, bit by bit. It’s a concept that’s thrown around in shounen manga across the board, but few have the patience to ground themselves in the realism essential to truly see that ideal through. After all, it’s a lot easier to move along the plot with flashy spectacle and fantastical power-ups.

It’s a simple premise, but that’s what makes it effective. A bullied boy finds his calling in boxing, and it transforms his life as he works to improve himself through its discipline, finding friendship, rivalry, and a camaraderie that lies in between. Because we see how genuinely Ippo struggles, his every fight is a gripping emotional climax. His opponents are never one-note, either; we form stronger bonds with some than others, but each one feels like a fully realized human being by the end of the fight. Outside of the ring, the series isn’t afraid to indulge in absurd degrees of silliness, primarily initiated by Ippo’s idiosyncratic colleagues who seem deplorable at times but are high-ranking athletes with sincere passion for their sport who guide Ippo to a place of belonging within their initially foreign world.

The series comes from Madhouse, one of the countless examples that contribute immensely to its place as my all-time favorite studio by far. Made at the turn of the millennium, the signature aesthetic of the series lacks the polish of later digital productions in a way that feels perfectly matched to the rawness of the boxing environment, especially in the early parts of Ippo’s journey. During matches, this style pairs well with the lovingly articulated animation to create a visceral, personal sensation that immerses us in the world that singularly exists for the two combatants. It’s not the most beautiful show by most modern metrics, but it has a level of visual character that’s essential to its distinctive identity.

The staff was led by several prominent figures in that area of Madhouse’s history. Director Satoshi Nishimura and composer Tsuneo Imahori reunite at the studio a couple years after Trigun, while writer Tatsuhiko Urahata would go on to write the studio’s adaptation of Monster a couple years later, securing his spot as one of my favorite writers in the business. A Seatbelts veteran concurrently with his Trigun work, Imahori’s style is especially unusual and recognizable among anime composers, employing guitar-based rock soundtracks that only work when used in series with the kind of raw aesthetic this one has.

A month ago, my “next step” for the series was just tracking down the next DVD single from the mid-2000s. Now the prospects for the future of the franchise look infinitely brighter in the US. The series was followed by two sequel series. The first of these, New Challenger came after Geneon had already closed its doors, and may not have been interested in more Hajime no Ippo by that point anyway, but before simulcasts really took off, leaving it as a series that has never been made legally available in the US in the over 11 years since its conclusion. By the time Rising came around, we were in a place where nearly everything got a simulcast, even if there was no intention to dub it or release it physically, so it has been available on Crunchyroll since its premiere. Unfortunately, as the only entry in the franchise to receive that level of availability and with no way to legally watch its predecessor, its audience has primarily been those who pirated New Challenger so far. So as important as it is that Discotek is finally making the original series readily available, affordable, compact, and in better quality than ever before, perhaps their most important contribution will hopefully be to finally allow those of us in the English-speaking world to watch all three series officially. We can’t do much to help ink licensing deals, but we can certainly do our best to support their release of the first series to provide that incentive.

Given the long gaps between the various seasons of the anime, especially between the first two, it’s not terribly surprising to see some staff changes. The most consistent thread throughout all Hajime no Ippo animation is Madhouse, with only its latest installment Rising additionally bringing on Maruyama’s second studio MAPPA on to co-produce. The two series are directed by Jun Shishido who, along with MAPPA, is at the center of attention for those of us hoping that the new Attack on Titan team they lead can somehow fill the shoes of their predecessors, and written by Kazuyuki Fudeyasu, whose resume is eclectic to say the least. Most notable to me, though, is that my favorite anime composer, Yoshihisa Hirano, scores these seasons. Hirano’s style is very different from Imahori’s, a subject I discuss with him in our recent conversation on Fandom Post Radio (coincidentally released the very same day as Discotek’s announcement of the first series), but as the production techniques of the series evolve, it seems appropriate for the sound to follow suit. Imahori returns to the series to join Hirano for Rising, creating a culmination of the anime’s sonic history.

So if we’re in a position to potentially have all three series and their supplemental animations released on Blu-ray and streaming (though almost certainly not dubbed past what Geneon released), what’s the next step for the actual production of the series? It’s been almost as long since the end of Rising as it had been after the end of the original series by the time New Challenger was airing, a gap which included a TV film and an OVA. There’s certainly no shortage of source material. While the anime has adapted a great many chapters, averaging 4-5 per episode, most people probably don’t realize the longevity of the manga. It’s been running weekly in the same magazine since the 80s, more than three decades. While we’re all eagerly anticipating the One Piece manga reaching its 1000th chapter, Hajime no Ippo hit that milestone eight years prior, barreling onward with over 1300 chapters as the seventh longest manga of all time. Just last year, creator Morikawa claimed that he was only halfway through the story, which is an insane possibility, but at least implies that it’s not likely to slow down anytime soon. So with as many chapters as the anime has adapted, it’s still well under half of what’s out now. For the next few years (probably), I can focus on the existing anime installments being released, but assuming that all goes smoothly, I hope Madhouse, Nippon TV, and VAP will have finally decided to make a fourth season by the time we’re all caught up.

As my consistent favorite sports anime of all time as well as one of my favorite anime period, there was no way I wasn’t going to celebrate Hajime no Ippo’s 20th anniversary in every way possible. Now we have more reason than ever to celebrate, and I look forward to experiencing the full breadth of this series almost as much as I look forward to countless fans being introduced to it for the first time. Thanks, Discotek!