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Anime Reviews: Hajime no Ippo: New Challenger
New Challenger had the potential to maintain the exceedingly high quality the franchise was known for, but decided to be awful just for the change of pace.
Title: Hajime no Ippo: New Challenger
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 1/6/2009 to 6/30/2009
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, some suggestive content)
Summary: The boys at the Kamogawa Boxing Gym are always busy, whether it's Ippo planning for his title defense, Aoki and Kimura prepping for their next matches, or Takamura giving everyone a hard time for the lulz. In a change of pace, the gym receives a new permanent member: amateur boxer Manabu Itagaki, who immediately finds himself fitting in with our heroes. However, two titanic bouts loom over the horizon: First, former Japanese Featherweight Champion Date Eiji climbs the world rankings and manages to score himself a rematch against the World Champion, Mexico's Ricardo Martinez. Second, Takamura finally finds himself a world-class opponent of his own, the ferocious Middleweight World Champion, Brian Hawk.
The Good: The matches retain the intensity we've all come to know and love
The Bad: Horrid art direction; horrid directing; horrid comedy; horrid pacing; horrid music
The Ugly: The director is primarily at fault here
I was so pumped for this series when it was first announced. I could barely sit still. We were finally getting more of the Ippo action we crave, and while the 26-episode length was a little disappointing, there couldn't possibly be any way for this series to go wrong, right? ...Right? Boy, did they ever screw the pooch on this one. We had the same exact animation studio with the same exact voice-over crew (with the exception of Kumi's switching from Sanae Kobayashi to Yuka Hirata), with the only difference being a new director and a new music composer. That's not enough to send a franchise crashing and burning, right?
Wait, no, that sounds pretty major...
But first, let's kick things off in predictable fashion by highlighting what New Challenger does right. The boxing matches are just as intense as we like them to be, and there are some pretty nail-biting moments scattered throughout. It also helps that, as a Studio Madhouse production, there's a tremendously huge budget behind the series, so our action is not only intense, but also smooth and nuanced. Though there are a few unintentionally funny moments (Brian Hawk could use some Clear Eyes to get rid of those red, itchy eyes), it's hardly anything worth griping about. In a nutshell, the bouts look really good. No complaints there.
The writing is also spot-on with the manga, ensuring that everything happens as it should. Normally, this is something I would take for granted in any series that follows a manga, but considering how flat New Challenger's direction is, I'm frankly surprised the story came out as well as it did. And in this particular instance, I'll take whatever I can get.
Why? Because nearly everything else about New Challenger just falls flat on its face. First off, the art direction is just all wrong. Everything is sleek and shiny and bright and high-contrasting and sterile, but while that's perfectly fine in most other anime, it doesn't fit at all here. The series is supposed to look gritty and sketchy and dirty; even the Champion Road movie, while it cleaned the artwork up a bit, still maintained the signature look of the series while being a visual marvel in and of itself. New Challenger just looks wrong in comparison. And they also do that non-moving pattern wallpaper crap on characters' shirts and Aoki's hair. Also, that stupid effect where they darken a corner of the screen to create the illusion of realistic lighting just kept making me think my monitor was broken. They were clearly going for a more modern, high-budget look, but it failed. And it failed hard.
The comedy also suffer in this new installment, reducing the characters to Flanderized caricatures of themselves (or at least that's how it feels). While the funny moments of the manga were downright hilarious to the point of tears, the very same scenes in New Challenger either come across as awkward and uncomfortable or as if they're trying way, way too hard to be as ridiculous as possible. Wacky sound effects and close-ups make everything funnier, right guys? Guys...?
Another major problem is the God-awful pacing and flow of the series. Where the first TV series maintained a consistent tempo with its episodes, New Challenger is all over the place with some episodes rushing past without any rest while others crawl at a geriatric pace. It feels like the storyboard artists forgot to account for the fact that the story is being split up into 26 24-minute episodes. Without any warning, episodes just stop right in the middle of a round or a conversation. No trailing dialogue, no musical cues, nothing.
And speaking of the music, it's bland, like eating plain oatmeal. The first TV series had a perfect (and I repeat: perfect) soundtrack, and I was a bit disappointed that Tsuneo Imahori wasn't doing the score for this series. But we got Yoshihisa Hirano this time around, and he did awesome work in Midori Days and Death Note. Even without Imahori, the soundtrack still should've been stellar, but alas, Hirano failed to deliver his usual brilliant work this time. Where an intense fight would be playing "Inner Light" in the first series, we instead get a weak soft rock track called "Shift Weight." "Impregnable Defense" tries hard to be foreboding and ominous, but comes across as weak instead. And then there's the misguided "Sunday Punch," which falls short of inspiring any emotion whatsoever. However, where the music really takes a dive into the toilet is with the opening and ending themes. Opener "Hekireki" is a mumbling mess of a song that inspires no emotion, while ending "8 AM" is a misplaced pop-rock disaster that has no business being attached to the Hajime no Ippo name.
But to be fair, the background music in New Challenger isn't all bad. "Struggle Against Fear" and "To Be a Winner" both utilize the same pleasing melody, and both are pretty effective tunes. "Role of Champion" manages to be interesting all throughout, as well. The rest of the series' soundtrack falls somewhere between bad and mediocre, and that's a damn shame, considering both the first series' soundtrack and the potential Hirano brought to the table.
Sadly, that's all I really have to say about New Challenger. It's hard to be excited about this series, even though it follows some of the most exciting chapters of the manga, because it's just handled poorly most of the time. Supposedly the crew from the first TV series are coming back for another film in 2013, so I guess we can look forward to that, but as for New Challenger, avoid it at all costs if you have access to the manga. There really is no reason to subject yourself to this mess.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 10. New Challenger could have easily been an extremely exciting continuation of the Ippo franchise, but it's held back by garish artwork, a subpar soundtrack, and massive directorial failings.