Gift Title: Ring ni Kakero 1 (Put it all in the Ring); Seasons One and Two.
To “sting like a bee” here would not even count as an endearing tickle on these combatants.
[Part two of my three post list from the Reverse Thieves Anime Secret Santa 2014 exchange]
There is always that waiting period during a sports anime, where the power scales are still being evaluated.
Series like Ping Pong the Animation or Free! – Eternal Summer may feature sequences where characters seeming turn into dragons or are swimming with all manner of sea creatures, for instance. The early days of processing if they literally doing that, or are we merely operating on a symbolic and metaphorical level. Characters who may in the moment seem larger than life, but if they are in fact truly on another plane of existence or may just seem that way to an awestruck competitor in the flower of the game. Ring ni Kakero 1 is no different in this respect. Characters are met, their skills and trademark moves learned. Putting the apparent visuals with how other characters are reacting or even the scenery, and seeing where things line up of either side of the spectrum. If the tornado one sees in the middle of the boxing ring is a genuine part of the spectacle all can see, or if it is just a thematic representation, trading a whirlwind of passionate blows.
Ring ni Kakero 1 is a series about punching people very, very hard.
In its original form, Ring ni Kakero is a manga series by Masami Kurumada which ran from 1977 to 1981 in Weekly Shōnen Jump. Going on to selling millions of collected copies, even by itself it would be a qualified success story.
However, it was also Kurumada’s breakout hit series. He would go on to make works like B’t X, Fūma no Kojirō, and the full bore bona fide smash success Saint Seiya. Even more crucially: he was a fan of techniques like the Star System employed by Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto, where character designs would show up in entirely different works as if they were actors. With Ring ni Kakero being the hit it became, its lead character Takane Ryūji and the group of friends he acquired along the way would go on to be the direct progenitor for all manner of characters that would follow in Kurumada’s career.
That being said: Ring ni Kakero strangely never received an animated television series adaptation until 2004, after an earlier pilot film. Even then, it was as as support mechanism for the then currently running manga series Ring ni Kakero 2, which takes place years later. The original manga series, and the developing television show, was rebranded Ring ni Kakero 1 to differentiate it in the marketplace. This later title will be the one used for the remainder of this write-up.
As might well be expected of the man who created Saint Seiya, Ring ni Kakero 1 is very much a series about “true men” (as acted out by middle school age boys) and the journeys which test their mettle in the springtime of youth.
Takane Ryūji forms the brawn of a sibling boxing relationship with his sister Kiku, who acts as his strategist and tactical analyzer. Their father was a famous boxer in his own right, and they have each inherited and homed a set of strengths from him. As a series with an understandable emphasis on tournament arcs and ascending the world stage and beyond, there is a colorful cast of characters met and fought both from Japan and around the globe.
The gift portion of this Secret Santa exchange only considers the first two of an eventual four seasons. The first being the 2004 Carnival Champion arc, to suss out the greatest junior high boxers in Japan. The second arrives via the 2006 Pacific War arc, when those top Japanese boxers square off against a makeshift team from the United States of America.
If the mere notion that this is an adaptation of a 1970’s series which still retains terminology for things like a Pacific War arc for its USA versus Japan throwdown had not already whalloped one upside the head: this is very much trying to hew close to “of its era” source material.
To wit, Ring ni Kakero 1 is a series where the German elite students are leatherbound all-but-the-swastika authoritarian figures (and in the manga, they are Nazi’s). Where the Italians are members if not full blown leaders of organized crime families. The superstar American boxer represented via a blaxploitation inspired figure with the name Black Shaft. Where a punch can slam someone so hard they fly straight through the ropes and carve out a ditch in the audience seating area. The main low guitar riff played as a character slowly ascends the stairs or tries to get up after a right rough beating bearing a suspiciously similar resemblance to chords from The Eagles big hit song “Hotel California,” which came out close the same time as the original manga series. A punch from a Japanese character to an American being both described in audio and with visual imagery assistance as being akin to a Mitsubishi A6M Zero performing a suicide run on a battleship.
Ring ni Kakero 1 is about as subtle as being thrown in the ring with one of the main characters and forced to compete and defend, lest you suffer an immediate concussion.
How much milage one is going to be able to get out of this series is going to straight up come down to how much rope they will allow it to play with.
On the one hand, Kurumada was writing the manga series in a very different sociopolitical climate. A character like Black Shaft is of course in part inspired by media of the era, Shaft most prominently, has attacks like his Black Screw. So every given individual in the audience ends up getting into the area of how one interprets the manga author, and in turn how they feel what the adaptation does. If they the series is “merely” not being mindful when looking for lowest common comedy denominators. Or alternatively, if one reads their characters designs and framing as being willfully mean, playing up national or racial stereotypes for mockery and derision. I feel someone could come away with either interpretation, and it is not my place to decide what people should and should not be offended by in a classic adaptation situation like this.
Given how Ring ni Kakero 1 is a series with punches which create tornadoes and other pure superhuman feats to exaggerated effect, I am personally at least willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
This never did receive an animated version back in the series’ original heyday. I am willing to concede the team at Toei Animation were attempting to capture what that could have been like, rather than modernizing the material.
Aesthetically, we are swimming in similar waters as well. All classic, all the time, though via the tribulations of early to mid 2000’s digipaint.
Given the several year learning period from cels to digital, this period of weekly television animation tends to age the worst. Many series feature lots of gimmicky shortcuts and not enough forward thinking regarding for how their materials were going to age. That being said, Ring ni Kakero 1 manages to benefit for being rock solid anchored to its tournament and event fighting. It requires a lot less in the way of backgrounds, stock footage for cheerleading routines is extremely understandable, and so on. With virtually no narrative filler, unless you were counting how some fights take multiple episodes, the series is a near constant ball of forward momentum in the ring. The camera pretty much only ever leaves for things like limited backstory events (flashbacks or otherwise), some transitions for world fighters monitoring the competition, and events elsewhere around the stadium.
Strangely, season one and two are probably at their least appealing visually when they attempt to achieve the Osamu Dezaki style Postcard Memories detailed still shots. In execution they tend to come off as standard drawings from the series with default image editing filters applied.
But one ideally is watching a series like this for what it looks like when it is moving, and more specifically when people are punching each other in and around the face. At that it remains dedicated to its cause, and the explosions or laser light shows on the business end of the fists therein. With little pause for extended training explorations or general character questing, as it were, the bulk of Ring ni Kakero 1 amounts to a series of boss battles. Virtually every match introduces unique amped up quirks or mechanics for our leads to work around and attempt to devise a winning solution for, which keeps events cycling along and from feeling too repetitive. Most bouts will last only one or two episodes, and as material one would be in a position to marathon through in the modern day with the arcs so compartmentalized, I can not say I felt it dragging or at a loss for focus.
This is a very lean shōnen sports and fighting series, down to the letter of each.
It is fitting, for source material that was part of the larger push that would establish what those rules would come to be for the industry at large.
A big part of how much a potential viewer may be able to get out of Ring ni Kakero 1 today will depend on how they process considerations for its classic fundamentals, and its potential baggage.
On the one hand, the series has shockingly little downtime for either a sports or shōnen battle production. Characters are also easy to process, larger than life and highly exaggerated, their goals and personalities clear as crystal. Soaring aspirations towards being the best, and heavy doses of the kinds of forged of iron motivation “true men” mindset Kurumada would infuse much of his career work with. Inversely, those looking for more nuanced character development outside of broad strokes reasons for where folks came from and why they fight, they are going to be largely left grasping for straws in the desert. The series is not equipped for that sort of granular personal exploration, especially with its elaborate theatrics and stereotype imagery. Though to its credit, it also is aware of that enough to know what it should not be spending too much time on.
A topical comparison I can make for Ring ni Kakero 1 is another of Toei Animation’s recent classic sports series projects: the 2014 anime television series Rowdy Sumo Wrestler Matsutaro!! (Abarenbō Rikishi!! Matsutarō) adapting Tetsuya Chiba’s 1973 manga Notari Matsutarō.
I did episodics on that series as it was airing, the first season of which can found here and the second half here. Something Matsutaro struggled with in stages with was trying to find a balance between slice of life messing around, lead character being a lazy and rude bum with the strength of an ox, and actual sumo. I warmed up to it over time. But the series easily lost a number of western viewers early on by taking a long time to get to the sport, featuring more comedic life around the stable than competition, and with the early focus on its lead being such an unlikable guy (“rowdy” is in the title, after all).
Ring ni Kakero 1, by contrast, is very focused around rather particular traits. Almost to the point where it can seem like it is hurling everything out the back door but the kitchen sink in an attempt to be as streamlined and impactful as possible. But it knows what it is good at, and where it could have flubbed up had it tried to cram in too many character field trips and side stories.
It is an essentials package. Even if one were to watch both these first two seasons and its later two entries, it would be but the meager beginnings of ones attempt to tackle, say, how much Saint Seiya animation has been produced over the years
The series does not perform any narrative trickery, nor does it pull any punches. It it upfront, honest about what it wants to be, and laser focuses in on that wooden roller coaster experience near to the exclusion of all robust health and safety regulations. Its rattles and leaps will be seen as either classic excitement or wildly irresponsible in a modern light, and I do not feel there is a whole lot of middle ground on that front.
In that respect, this is an animated Masami Kurumada starter pack. In its original manga form, it is a distilled version of a lot of the tendencies he relied on in his later series, and that is retained here for the television show even with receiving its anime adaptation much later on.
As a bonus, by all means it feels significantly less imposing than his most famous long running work.