I’ve been meaning to write about this show since it first aired, but constantly found myself sidetracked, and I further procrastinated by telling myself that it wasn’t relevant enough anymore to merit a discussion. Well, screw that, I’m writing about it. We can say it’s because it’s getting a dub on Toonami.
Before there was Hajime no Ippo, there was Ashita no Joe, the OG boxing series that remains one of the most iconic and beloved sports anime in the history of the medium. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of its initial publication, TMS Entertainment, producer of the second Joe anime, put together a new project: Megalo Box.
The core concept is that, in the near future, the most popular sport in the world is Megalo Boxing, which sees combatants outfitted in piston-laden harnesses called “Gear” that dramatically ramp up their punching power. As a result, they don’t even bother with round limits; no Megalo Box fight has ever gone 12 rounds.
Our fearless hero up there is “Junk Dog,” an underground fighter making a living by regularly throwing fights despite his immense talent. His frustration boils over when a chance encounter with the world’s greatest fighter, Yuri, leads to a fight between the two in the underground arena, which sees Junk Dog flattened in the first round. Unbowed by the loss, he demands a rematch, only for Yuri to tell him to come to “his ring”: Megalonia, a four-man tournament to determine the true king of the sport.
Junk Dog’s “manager,” former coach and current opportunistic bastard Nanbu, kiboshes the idea of Junk Dog going legit and fighting his way into Megalonia. In protest, Junk Dog crushes the next guy he was supposed to lose to, leaving him and Nanbu in hot water with the mob. Nanbu is forced to make a deal with boss Fujimaki: help Junk Dog get an ID and make it to Megalonia, then use the prize money to pay off their debt.
Junk Dog, now christened “Joe,” has three months to fight his way through the ranks alongside Nanbu and tech-savvy street urchin Sachio with only garbage-quality Gear, a heavy bag, and a ring.
What stands out immediately is that this show oozes with style. It deliberately invokes the visuals of 90s shows like Cowboy Bebop; Joe could easily be Spike Spiegel’s brother, while Yuri looks like he walked off the set of Cyborg 009.
Beyond the people, who are a nice mix of “realistic” and exaggerated features, and the terrific hip-hop soundtrack by Mabanua, the backgrounds are downright gorgeous, constantly emphasizing the stark contrast between Joe’s native slums and the almost cyberpunk-esque cities that Yuri and his handler, Megalonia organizer and tech giant CEO Yukiko Shirato, call home.
Megalo Box— Anime Background Art (@backgroundsbot) April 13, 2018
Dir. You Moriyama
Art Dir. Jirou Kouno pic.twitter.com/Q05te4meVa
I know what you’re probably watching this for, though, and I can assure you that the fights themselves deliver. It’s a significant departure from Ippo, where each punch gets its own announcer’s call and is a reference to some pugilist of yesteryear, but what it lacks in extreme detail it makes up for in slickness and kineticism.
One downside is that there isn’t as much visually separating each fighter’s style as there is in Ippo, though there’s still a clear difference between the likes of Floyd Mayweather/Naseem Hamed-esque slickster Pepe Iglesias and brutish heavyweight Glen Burroughs.
The Gear, which I initially figured would be an unnecessary gimmick, actually winds up playing a pivotal role in the story, and the visual differences in each fighter’s Gear are consistently entertaining.
Though it is at its core a standard underdog story, Megalo Box truly shines in its characters, who are consistently well-written and engrossing. Beyond the core duo of Joe and Yuri, special note goes to Aragaki, a disabled war veteran who could easily be the protagonist of his own show, and Nanbu, whose struggles between his self-interest and desire to see Joe succeed drive the story’s major conflicts. There’s a recurring theme of the fable of the scorpion and the frog, of the futility of fighting against your own nature, and different characters each experience this in their own way.
There’s Joe, the nameless bottom-feeder in his cobbled-together Gear looking to topple a champion. There’s Yuri, caught between his roles as prizefighter and corporate spokesman. It’s a genuinely gripping story, although having every episode include some variation of the term “die” may have been a bit much; Ashita no Joe famously ended with the titular Joe Yabuki dying in his corner after a ferocious battle with the previously invincible world champion, so having the potential of tragedy constantly dangling over your head as you watch can be a bit disconcerted.
You can watch the whole series (subtitled) on Crunchyroll, or wait for the aforementioned dub to begin on December 8th. Either way, Megalo Box is an absolute treat for fans of the sport, fans of anime, or even those who just want something to binge.