Hajime no Ippo (2000-2002) is boxing sports-drama anime, based on a best-selling, long-running, award-winning manga of the same name, available on Crunchyroll at the time of this writing (2023). It was licensed by Geneon in 2003, and released under the name Fighting Spirit.

Two things urge me to recommend this sports drama even to those who might not like sports dramas. The first is that the main character is simply a nice guy: he is polite, earnest, and mild mannered, despite his stern ferocity in the ring. He is not dark or edgy or troubled, and there is no irony in him. These days, that is most refreshing.

Second, the author, George Morikawa, is the owner of JB Sports Gym in Tokyo. He knows his topic at a professional level, and it shows. That is also refreshing.

The title of the work is a play on words in Japanese: “Hajime no Ippo” means “the first step” while the protagonist’s name is Ippo Makunouchi. The tale tells of the training and early career, his first steps, as it were, of a shy schoolboy learning to become a Featherweight-class prizefighter.

The name of the Americanized version is unusually apt, since the main conflict in the opening episodes concerns the contrast between young Ippo’s natural humility and meekness and the need when he steps into the ring for the unconquerable fighting spirit the fierce sport requires.

Ippo is fatherless teenager living in modern Japan, mocked and harassed by schoolyard delinquents. He is small but strong, as his daily routine for his mother’s charter boat business requires him to haul heavy crates.

One day a jogging prizefighter sees the boy badly beaten by these bullies, and he brings the injured Ippo to his gym for first aid. The boy pounds the sandbag to vent frustration, and shows a natural talent the gym coach thinks worth cultivating. After an initial period of doubt and setback, the boy overcomes the impossible challenge he is given (to catch ten falling tree-leaves with his hand) and is brought into the gym to train as a prizefighter.

Ippo is a simple character, earnest and polite, displaying the traits the Japanese traditionally admire, as should all civilized men: single-minded strength of will when fighting and humble courtesy when not. Other personal problems he has not. This story is not a complex psychological drama.

Ippo must overcome self-doubt, the doubts of his gentle-hearted mother, the mockery of his fellow gym-mates, the harsh treatment of coach and trainer, and, most importantly, the spirit, skill, and strength of opponents in the ring.

Stylistically, the anime is drawn in an old-fashioned form some might not find appealing. Everyone looks a bit like Pinocchio with an oversized nose. Hair is merely draw as jagged lines.

The dynamics of the motions, however are crisp and clear, as the man who draw the original manga clearly knew how to portray the stance and form of correct boxing blows.

There are short after-credits sequences, usually reserved for scenes from the next episode, where a line or two of real boxing lore is repeated, useful but not crucial for following the byplay of blow and counterblow in the ring.

To be candid, I am a bookish fellow, and have no interest in sports. And of sports, boxing seems particularly brutal and difficult to watch: it is literally men battering, bruising, and injuring each other with blows so savage that, outside the ring, it would constitute assault and battery, or in certain jurisdictions, assault with a deadly weapon. As sports go, boxing is rather raw and primal.

Moreover, sports dramas needs must follow the same formula: the protagonist has a training montage, where he struggles to overcome weakness in body or spirit, he faces an overwhelming challenger he has little of hope of defeating, they fight, he is losing, he prevails, he is champion; but somehow the next challenger must likewise seem to be overwhelming, one he has little hope of defeating.

The nature of the sport itself sets the terms of the drama: there is a winner and a loser. No one would tolerate a tale where each match ends in a draw.

The formula can be matched to any sport: I have seen and been drawn into most unlikely anime concerning sports of no interest to me: street racing, mixed martial arts, volleyball, or even karuta (a reaction-time card-game where players race to slap or snatch up a poetry card as its first line is recited).  For the record, these are INITIAL D (1998); KENICHI (2006); HIAKYUU!! (2014); CHIHAYAFURU (2011).

But I find it fascinating that a skilled story teller can interest the audience despite such drawbacks, use the formula adroitly, and tell a tale of exceptional drama, to put the audience through the soaring highs and crushing lows of hope and fear. Sporting events by design are dramatic, as it involves (if I may borrow a phrase) the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat — but the whole craft of storytelling is finding a way to make the audience feel it.

The trick is to make the next challenge seem difficult or impossible to defeat, despite the audience knowing full well who the protagonist is, and in how many episodes he previously prevailed.

Hajime no Ippo pulls off this trick, and does it well. One way to keep audience interest high is to have both public and private stakes at risk, as in the film CINDERELLA MAN (2005) where the prizefighter, during the Great Depression, has no other way to keep his family fed: if he loses the fight, his children have no milk.

Another way, used less often, is to flesh out the challenger’s personality and background, and make him so sympathetic, that the audience is somehow cheering for both sides. The author does that brilliantly here, in more than one episode.

This was particularly poignant in an early episode I recently watched, where the defeated man (I would not dare spoil the suspense by revealing who it was) was treated with such courtesy and dignity both by the victor and by the audience — who cheered the loser for having fought so valiantly and skillfully — that it brought a tear to my eye. I do not think of myself as sentimental, but this sentiment was well conveyed, and the author has a masterful hand.

It was also interesting that the opening of this episode-arc showed the young boxer at a noodle shop asking his older compatriots about their first pro fights, and the tales were briefly told with braggadocio, but met with mockery. The contrast between the false pride met with jeers in the brief opening sequence, and the true humility and sincere applause in the ending sequence was a clever but understated contrast. That is a mark of good storytelling: when the theme informs the drama without overwhelming it.

So I salute the author and his work, and recommend it even to those who might presume it to be unenjoyable. I was pleasantly surprised. You may be as well.