So, let’s get one thing straight: I don’t watch a lot of sports anime. I’ve heard of a lot of them, such as Kuroko No Basketball, Captain Tsubasa or the recent ice hockey anime Pride Of Orange, but I’ve never bothered to tune into any of them. Besides, why would I when I’ve got Toronto Raptors basketball games and a whole stock of past NHL highlights to bank on? Prior to watching Megalo Box, the only sports-themed anime I tuned into was Dragon League, the story of a boy who joins a medieval-themed anthropomorphic soccer team that goes from a discount version of Bad News Bears, The Mighty Ducks and every single “underdog story” flick you can think of to Armageddon with golden dragons and bombastic flaming soccer ball kick sequences.
That all changed when I watched Ashita No Joe – more accurately, the 1980 recap movie based on the first season, covering the rise of boxing protagonist Joe Yabuki from a street urchin to prison fighter and eventually, a national sporting sensation. Originally released in 1970, it was a hit and would be the primary inspiration for the above series. So, might as well dive into reviewing the first anime of the year before it’s too late…
Megalo Box takes on a modern, somewhat futuristic spin on not just the story and boxing premise of Ashita No Joe. It was created in 2018 by once again, Tokyo Movie Shinsha working alongside 3xCube, which is one of three productions that they have been credited with. In addition, director Yo Moriyama made his debut working in such a role with this, and was inspired by his experience with reading Ashita No Joe in his youth, hoping to recapture that energy Megalo Box and also to pay homage to the former franchise, which at the time of the flick’s release was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Megalo Box is divided into two seasons: the first, released in 2018, which was followed up 3 years later with a sequel series, Nomad – Megalo Box II, each consisting of 13 episodes with their own fights, drama and visual sequences. Originally, it was intended to be a full-scale, higher-definition remake of its spiritual predecessor, only to be replaced with plans for an original storyline, which at first devolved into a parody before the folks at TMS settled on an actual, more serious narrative that you see before you now.
In a futuristic version of Japan, the sport of boxing has been revolutionized; though human competitors are still required, their strength capabilities are enhanced through the use of Gear equipment: machines that are attached to the user. One such fighter is the main protagonist, who later goes by the name of Joe, who with his trainer Nanbu Gansaku participate in underground matches where, despite the latter’s assurance of his abilities, has him throw fight after fight, much to his chagrin. Things change when Yuri, a professional boxer working for the Shirato Group, and a champion of the national boxing tournament they sponsor, Megalonia, shows up during one of the fights and takes down Joe. Although defeated, the loss would ignite an inner fire within our hero to train harder, so that he can get at Yuri’s level and partake in a rematch in Megalonia. Consequently, he announces his intention to join the tournament, which, although Nanbu is at first hesitant, acquiesces to when he, unbeknownst to Joe, assures success to his boss, Fujimaki, who provides an illegally-obtained citizenship card necessary for being eligible to participate.
Under Nanbu’s tutelage, and aided with analytical support from a street orphan named Sachio, Joe’s fighting skill improves, and he rises through the ranks, going undefeated against his opponents and even more impressively, fighting without a Gear device; which at times has been to his detriment as he recovers slower in the ring, and requires him to rely on his agility and innovate ways to win. To the shock of tournament organizers, Joe’s popularity and ranking begins to rise significantly, and it appears for a time that he’s going to be selected as one of its four finalists. Those hopes are temporarily dashed when Mikio, brother of Shirato Group’s CEO, Yukiko, prior to their matchup bluffs his way to victory by claiming knowledge of Joe’s forged citizenship card; however, their plight and Nanbu’s pleas earn Yukiko’s mercy and reinstates the bout, which Joe wins.
Just as Joe prepares for his ascent to victory in the nation’s greatest boxing stage, he gets word from Nanbu that this whole escapade was a ruse set up by Fujimaki, and to the horror of both him and Sachio, who saw Joe as a symbol for folks like him, reveals the whole plan was to get him there, and throw his first match, a semifinal bout against Glenn Burroughs, thereby generating bank for Fujimaki and his cohorts. Unfortunately for him, Joe has different plans; his goal is to win, and redeem himself for all the years he spent as a punching bag, and during the pivotal match, disobeys Nanbu’s orders to throw the match and gets himself into the final round against Yuri, who, having been inspired by Joe’s endeavours, voluntarily chooses to fight him in a classic, Gear-less bout as in the days of old. Although the fight is spirited, Joe narrowly wins with a 13th-round knockout, and proceeds to run a boxing clinic following the fight. He maintains a friendship with Yuri, who after the fight was left wheelchair-bound (due to the injuries he sustained from being Gearless), as well as with Sachio and Nanbu, who was coerced into losing his eyesight following a botched attempt of Fujimaki’s to rig Joe’s semifinal matchup, and never got to witness his protege’s victory.
What I Liked
- Being that this is a boxing anime, it’s no surprise that the actual matches are the main entrée, with all but three of the show’s 13 episodes being centered around a specific match. And for all it’s worth, it was excellently choreographed, entertaining, and captures the drama of the sport realistically; not to mention, I liked how Joe wins matches cleverly and proves that it’s not the Gear that wins matches, but the mentality that does.
- I also love how on some occasions the series makes throwbacks to Ashita No Joe as if to show some love to it, like when Joe pulls off the standing knockout move, Aragaki quipping about a “new tomorrow” in episode 6 and most notably, Yuri’s pre-championship training regimen that parallels Rikishi’s self-flagellation levels.
- Although it’s focus is on boxing, it still manages to balance looking at themes outside of that scope. We have gut-wrenchers such as Aragaki’s despair and desolation in his post-military career (which saw him lose both of his legs in a bomb explosion), intrigue as Fujimaki and Nanbu’s conflicting desires on what to do with Joe spills into an inner turmoil with his partner, or the occasionally terse conversations of Yuri and Yukiko, and bits of training scenes that make the later fights featuring these characters all the more emotionally meaningful, rather than just a “match of the day” type of show along the Pokemon formula.
What I Didn’t Like
- My biggest problem with this series was how they cheapened the final moments of Yuri and Joe’s end bout, shifting to a post-match shot of a hospital ceiling and then where Joe has become the head trainer at his own boxing gym, flanked by Yuri, Sachio, Nanbu and the others. Why did they do this, and deprive us of possibly a match-defining moment? What reason did they have to build up all that excitement from their match, and leave us hanging on how it transpired? Who thought it was a good idea to just pin the final results in a post-credits scene? It just boggles my mind that this kind of behaviour in a sports movie exists, and threw off its otherwise consistent writing and episodic footing.
- Nanbu’s fate, where he blinds himself when Joe disobeys his order to throw the match during the Megalonia competition, was a little too extreme and horrifying. However, what’s also unsettling is that we don’t know much about how he got to this point; where they met, their history together, and what exactly it is that Fujimaki is trying to achieve with blackmailing Nanbu other than sadism.
Compared to Ashita No Joe, Megalo Box‘s characters have a more gritty, hard-knock life disposition as opposed to the slightly more cartoonish ones of the former. While it doesn’t force them to completely sacrifice the central aspects of their fundamental being, it does help smoothen out the atmosphere of their relationships with each other, with more tension and character growth to fit in. Joe especially is a good example for this, as in true Rocky fashion we see him grow from a punching bag to a formidable fighter in one hand, and at the same time become a more independent and able-willed person, who learns to stand up for himself and not take his successes for granted; which is seen as each fight progresses and in things like him confronting Mikio during episode 8. As to his fighting ability, it’s very well-executed and the show treats it not as a handicap but as a source of strength that he can use to efficiently overcome his trials.
The oher side characters are a little bit of a mixed bag. There are some good characters like Yuri, Joe’s rival who despite that, acts as their mutual motivating factors and have a very respectable acquaintanceship outside of the ring, and Aragaki, who also gains that same admiration for Joe and whose past and ambition gave the show an added emotional bump. Others, like his ringside coach Nanbu and supporter Sachio were given nothing more than a few moments of background information and nothing more, making them far from charismatic as Gordon Bombay from The Mighty Ducks or Daniel’s many girlfriends throughout The Karate Kid trilogy; but still their dynamic with Joe as “Team Nowhere” was interesting. Finally, Fujimaki and Yukiko were too stiff, stock and solely supportive in their appearances.
The music was not the series’ strongest point. I found the opening and ending songs to be rather short in its melody and unimpressive with its visuals; for instance, the latter is accompanied by a scrolling credits montage as if it were a movie, in an age where most others would superimpose it over character art and all the like. As for the background music: lots of it was based off rock and hip-hop tunes, which in theory would accommodate the genre decently; but Megalo Box churned out flatly here too. I was quite disappointed there were not many tracks that embodied a sense of accomplishment, determination and excitement of the ring, but outside of that, for stuff like Nanbu and Fujimaki’s meetings, it was passable. Either way, it was too low-fi and I honestly can’t recall the last time I found any anime series with not one speck of musical brightness to it.
Favourite character: Yuri is a character that I started off wanting to hate, but grew to admire. Wise beyond his years, humble, suave and basically the series’ soul to Joe’s fire and warrior spirit are the best way to describe him.
Favourite fight: I consider Mikio and Joe’s fight to be the highlight of the series, and the real final battle as opposed to the cop-out of the championship match. It solidified Joe’s character arc, and from then on, set the motion for the finale’s events. Heck, you could have ended the series here and it would have been a feel-good way to close the season off; and Rocky‘s famous “Final Bell” theme would go well with its closing moments. Try it out for yourself!
Favourite quote: Were it not for this one, I’d go with Joe’s advice from the beginning: “To be quiet and do as you’re told, that’s how cowards live.”
Whether you’re a power player who wears a weighty crown, or some poor soul with barely a pebble to his name… Nobody can escape death. But if you live your life so that when it comes, you’re satisfied, even if it’s not the end you were hoping for, you’ll have no reason to fear death.Yuri, channeling the spiritual advice of Catholic saints on eternity
How true does this ring from a Christian perspective! It’s a poignant reminder of how we must spend our life on Earth living satisfactorily – which can only be found in imitating the life and person of Jesus Christ – and leaving no regrets of sinfulness behind. I was really surprised to hear this quote being said, it feels like something right out of a Church Father’s sermon.
What Megalo Box thrives on is being good in building up its premise through vivid sporting action and protagonists’ development. As a spiritual successor to Ashita No Joe, I found myself enjoying this more and liked how it paced Joe’s rise to fame as well as his underdog campaign – something that is refreshing to see in my anime repertoire. Moreover, I found it hearkening to reflect on Joe’s convictions and the series’ messages, comparing them to St. Peter in Acts 5:29, who refused to bow down to unjust commands to abandon his Saviour’s message, St. Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:2 in renewing oneself for a greater purpose; and how Joe and Yuri’s meekness throughout, which led them to great heights, echoing in Christ’s call to such in St. Matthew 5:5.
Unfortunately, it’s lack of a satisfying conclusion was what ruined it for me, in addition to its music and mood being uninspiring. These roadblocks were what prevented me from ranking it higher, not that it was a worthy masterpiece anyways. Therefore, in case you want some reference point to visualize how Yuri and Joe’s fight ended, just watch the ending of Rocky II here. Just pretend that Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa are the respective characters above.