Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple
Kenichi is a mild-mannered freshman at a high school infested with delinquents and thugs, and what's worst of all, a member of the karate club he's joined vows to beat the daylights out of him. However, he falls (literally) for a beauty named Miu, who it turns out has impressive martial arts skills herself. She in turn directs him to a dojo named Ryozanpaku, where there are 6 martial arts masters in residence (and where, it turns out, Miu herself lives). Kenichi's woes never seem to end, however, for not only is the training itself torture, but as he becomes more a more proficient fighter he attracts ever more formidable opponents, finally including the strongest of all, the Eight Greatest Fists gang.
I found Kenichi himself to be the perfect character for audience identification, since, as the masters of Ryozanpaku often point out, he has no natural talent for martial arts, but has determination and high principles; he's not fighting for glory, but to protect the people he cares for. He doesn't find it easy to master the fighting skills, but he knows he has to, and that knowledge gives him the strength to prevail.. The first season of the show, at least, also illustrates some of the fighting techniques he's taught, and a number of them look plausible, and some even familiar from my own limited experience with martial arts.
His mentors at Ryozanpaku are all rather super-powered, but have some interesting individual personalities. Hayato, the dojo's elder (and Miu's grandfather), a blond, bearded giant of a man, has a friendly demeanor and outgoing personality, if a vaguely intimidating one. Akisami is a jujitsu master as well as the dojo's intellectual (on the side, he's a philosopher, sculptor, painter, and "bonesetter".) Sakaki is a karate master (and street fighter, which is the skill most pertinent to Kenichi), and has a "gruff uncle" manner toward Kenichi. Kensei Ma is the Chinese martial arts master, and token dirty old man; we'll see some of his family members over the course of the series. Shigure is the token female master; a weapons specialist, she speaks rather slowly and haltingly. Throughout the series I felt she was rather under-used (apparently she got more attention in the manga.) Finally we have Muay Thai boxer Apachai, the main comic relief, a hulking doofus who doesn't know his own strength.
As for Kenichi's peers, we can start with the least of them, Niijima. Niijima is an opportunist and coward, a person who wants to use Kenichi's fighting skills for his own advantage. Niijima has pointed ears and rather the overall appearance of a demon, or perhaps Mr. Spock (and comments about him in the series reference both.) At first I found him simply annoying; he reminded me of Kazaharu Fukuyama from Girls Bravo - a character who never seems to suffer much for the indignities he causes others. Still, his schemes helped keep the plot moving, though I was glad when, later in the series, two former opponents of Kenichi who switched sides, Takeda and Yukita, were able to "muzzle" him a bit.
Then there's Miu, who's walking fan service. There's a lot I like about the design of her character (GORGEOUS blue eyes), but she's got a Ikki Tousen-size chest. Unlike in Ikki Tousen, at least here the characters know this sort of thing is a bit beyond the norm, so there are constant boob jokes, mostly from the enemies and from Kenichi's obnoxious-brat kid sister Honoka. Miu's feelings toward Kenichi are mostly kept ambiguous, though there is definitely jealousy there when a rival for Kenichi's time, Renka Ma (yep, Kensei's daughter) is introduced in the second season. Wisely, Renka's behavior was made more comic than seductive, and she has one of the series' best lines, in reference to Kenichi: "Well, I admit he's been trained in a peculiar manner." Renka only has two episodes, but she definitely makes an impression.
As the story progresses, and the more lightweight opponents are defeated, the Eight Greatest Fists and their gang, Ragnarok, become Kenichi's main adversaries. We're given some of their backstories, particularly for one named Hermit, and Hermit's story, when told, threatens to out-Dickens Dickens in maudlin melodrama. There are other places where the series wallows in pathos- the sentimentality over a cat, continuing unabated into the midst of a fight, at one point threatened to derail the whole thing for me- and in my mind this, more than anything else, makes this a 4-star show rather than a 5-star show.
But this series nevertheless still has a lot of great stuff to offer. Later in the story Hayato the Elder decides to take Kenichi into the wilderness for some "special" training. Kenichi manages to anger a bear, and we see an inset of a teacher lecturing a student about what NOT to do when encountering a bear, while in the background Kenichi actually does every one of those things; it's a wonderfully done bit. The series also does offer some genuine surprises- a character you thought was gone from the cast for good makes a surprise return, and another is introduced who turns out to have already appeared in the series- in a rather different guise.
Also, if you like the series for its action, you'll love the last few episodes. All the fights aren't Kenichi's (for example, it's been established that Kenichi won't fight women), but quite a few of them are interesting. It turns out that Greatest Fist #1 has a past grudge with Kenichi, and it was interesting that, when it was finally disclosed, it was over something really so utterly trivial.
I'd also like to comment on the closing music and art of the final episodes. The first episodes of Season 1 closed with a ballad along with some interesting "three-dimensional" art (which unfortunately made Miu's body look even more freakish than it does in the rest of the series). Then we progressed (or at least changed) to an ending of (very uneven) "comic" vignettes, then a "slot machine" ending. In the last few episodes of Season 2, the closing titles are done to a ballad and art in the vein of the original ending. I found the ballad this time, "Kokoro Kara no Message", very pleasant, and while Miu STILL looks weird rendered this way, Renka looks much less exaggerated than she did in the series itself, and the incredible feat is achieved of making Honoka actually look cute. Having the art and music return to the style of the beginning was nicely in tune with the story itself, in which things from the beginning that just seemed like throwaways actually turned out to have great importance at the end, and everything is nicely wrapped up (without excluding the possibility of a sequel, of course).
Recommended Audience: I'd say 13+. There's some stabbing, some blood, and some broken bones, though death is a rarity here. Miu might have some rather exaggerated physical features, but unlike the Ikki Tousen women, she does manage to remain fully clothed when she fights.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (50/50)
Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple © 2006 Shun Matsuena Shogakukan / KenIchi Project TV Tokyo
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