Anime Reviews: Hajime no Ippo: Rising
Though it was made by the team who inflicted New Challenger upon us, Rising proves that lessons were learned and that the franchise has returned to greatness.
Title: Hajime no Ippo: Rising
Production: Studio Madhouse / MAPPA
Series Length: 25 episodes
Air Dates: 10/5/2013 to 3/29/2014
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, some suggestive content, dark or disturbing thematic elements)
Summary: After his takedown of Junior Middleweight World Champion Bryan Hawk, Takamura has since valiantly defended his title several times--that is, until he makes a bold declaration: He will soon relinquish his belt and conquer the next 5 weight classes until he has become World Champion in all of them. Meanwhile, Aoki is presented with a chance to fight against the Japanese Lightweight Champion in his very first title match, and Ippo prepares for his fourth defense of the title as Japanese Featherweight Champion--his opponent, Iwao Shimabukuro, is a stout and stalwart fighter who has a bold claim of his own: "I will destroy the Dempsey Roll!" With Ippo's best technique being called into question, he must train himself to the utmost in order to emerge victorious, as he and the rest of the Kamogawa Boxing Gym climb their way to the heights of glory.
The Good: Improves upon its predecessor in every conceivable way; near flawless execution in its handling of story and characters; mix of old and new soundtracks is impressive...
The Bad: ...even though very little of it actually is new; could've spent more time outside the ring
The Ugly: Now we'll have to wait another half-decade for the next season...
I had many hopes and expectations coming into this one: I had hoped that New Challenger was just a horrible fluke and that the franchise would return to the greatness of the first season. I wished desperately for the original director to come back and for Tsuneo Imahori to do the soundtrack again, but the fact that neither of those things happened left me horrified as to what would happen to Hajime no Ippo: Rising. I was afraid that the same directorial flaws would stain this season as well, and that I'd be subjecting myself to yet another season of brain-numbing awfulness.
Boy, am I glad that my fears would end up being unfounded.
If I didn't already know that the same team who put together New Challenger was behind this season as well, I would never believe it, because dramatic 180-degree changes in quality like this never happen! Not only is Rising not mediocre, it's great! I was hooked and invested right from the word "go," and the series never once let go of my throat until it was over. Right away, it's easy to tell that Jun Shishido--who completely botched the last season with some truly lousy directing--realized where he went wrong.
Where New Challenger was an example of exactly how not to pace a series or deliver comedy, Rising is the exact opposite in that each episode feels complete and well-planned, and while the comedy can still be spotty, it hits the mark the vast majority of the time. Is this still Jun Shishido? Is this really the same director? Because if he improved this much between seasons, please oh please let him direct the next season! At this rate, his next work will be a socks-rocking masterpiece!
It's not just the directing that got better, either--the visuals have likewise been polished and perfected this time around. New Challenger may not have lacked in the animation department, but its garish art style and modern "atmospheric" techniques made the whole affair unpleasant to look at outside the boxing ring. Rising does exactly what its predecessor was going for, but succeeds with flying colors--the character designs are more true to the manga, but this time the digital coloration and modern effects are done right. New Challenger obviously wanted to look crisp but failed, whereas Rising pulls off the look flawlessly. Hey, speaking of flawlessness...
Oh my God, the way Rising handles the material it covers is exactly as I hoped it would be when I read those chapters several years ago. Of course the bouts were great (they always are), but where I was concerned was with the characters and the story. Luckily. each and every single time an emotional moment was called for, this series delivered it without fail--even right in the very first episode! There are several story arcs in Rising that really would have crashed and burned if placed in the hands of an incompetent director (in particular, Umezawa's arc and the entire Post-War story), and these are the main reasons I was horrified that Jun Shishido was sticking around. To put it bluntly, those very arcs are among the best in the franchise thus far. Not only did Jun Shishido do an adequate job with those arcs--he did an amazing job. Especially in the Post-War arc, where emotions range from light and airy to downright dark and visceral; the man was clearly on his A-game. If said A-game was on steroids with an epic guitar solo and explosions in the background.
Speaking of which, the new soundtrack does a great job of combining its new tracks with the old to create a truly dynamic and exciting experience. I was so happy to hear some of the legendary tracks from the first series make their return, and even the better tracks from New Challenger were a pleasure to hear. The new stuff's pretty great, too, In particular, the new opener, "Yakan Hikou," is a nice blend of the first season's hard rock and the second season's pop elements that truly shows that this new team is learning and evolving just like our heroes are.
Now, the problem with the soundtrack is the same as what happened with Slayers Revolution-R: they had to rely on the old stuff, because they had very few new tracks to work with. Of course, using "WRITE MOAR MUSIC!!" as a solution to this problem is just daft, as it's hard to tell if they simply overused the older tracks or if they actually didn't have time to write more, but the fact remains that it is a problem. What's there is great, but I just wish there was more of it.
The main problem with Rising, however, is that while the action is fast, furious, and constant, it feels like very little time is spent with the characters outside of the boxing ring (See: Chihayafuru 2). It's partially the fault of the original manga, as well, so this point goes all the way to the top, but I would have just liked to have seen everyone just hanging out, doing something funny or having serious talk, maybe have an "Ippo on the Beach 3" episode or something--anything! But the series really does just rush from one bout to the next, and while that keeps the pace fast and the action frequent, folks like me just pine for another one of the franchise's clever training montages in between.
But honestly, given how much of an improvement Rising is over New Challenger, I really have no right to complain. Jun Shishido has proven that his directing skills have massively improved, the aesthetics have been perfected, and the narrative is as sharp and focused as one could possibly ask for--really, aside from those few issues mentioned earlier, Hajime no Ippo adaptations don't get that much better than this. If you, like me, were turned off by the previous season--or even if you're just one of those folks who genuinely enjoyed New Challenger despite its (many) flaws--then Hajime no Ippo: Rising will most certainly deliver that trademark Ippo goodness you've been craving.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10. While a few minor issues nibble away at its chance to match the first season's legendary level of quality, Hajime no Ippo: Rising is a triumphant return to form for the franchise, and hopefully a sign of even greater things to come.