By Andrew Osmond.
Megalo Box is a combo of sports show and SF. It’s a boxing series about an underdog who, as we’ll see, is linked to an older battered hero than Rocky. The show was made by TMS Entertainment, which is a new name for the famous Tokyo Movie Shinsha studio. In Megalo Box, the tearaway kids pop red “candy” pills, and the story kicks off when the boy hero’s motorbike nearly hits a stranger. Tokyo Movie Shinsha, you might recall, made Akira…
In Megalo Box, boxing has gone cyber. It’s still two guys in a ring, with the screaming crowds, the trash-talking and jaw-socking, the blood and saliva and mouthguards sent flying. But this is a future where robotics is part of the sport, where boxers become cyborgs. Some fighters have metal rigs strapped to their arms and shoulders, pistons driving their blows faster and harder, a vision of hi-tech steroids gone legal. Other fighters go for deeper cuts. They really are cyborgs, with metal muscles and skin integrated with flesh and bone.
The underdog in this show is called – fittingly enough – Junk Dog. He’s a member of this world’s underclass, an outsider charging round the badlands on his motorbike, without the ID documents to be a “citizen” of society. This blocks him from entering Megalonia, the world’s most prestigious boxing tournament. Instead, Junk Dog prostitutes his talents in the same way that struggling boxers have done since antiquity. He throws fights. His burly trainer Nanbu – and that’s another type who’s been around forever – fixes matches for the local crime bosses. Junk Dog takes nightly dives, while his gullible fans are fleeced.
That’s until our hero, riding his trusty motorbike, has a near-fatal collision with a woman and a cyborg boxer. The incident leads to an angry face-off, and later a sensational surprise match between Junk Dog and the cyborg. The combatant is Yuri, world-champion of megaloboxing. Junk Dog loses, but the fight triggers him; he refuses to be a fall guy any more. There’s blowback from the match-fixing mobsters, of course, and Nanbu frantically gambles their lives on the impossible – that Junk Dog can not only enter the Megalonia tournament but that he can win it.
Beyond the shades of Akira, Western viewers are likely to compare Megalo Box to anime by Shinichiro Watanabe and Sayo Yamamoto, though neither director was involved in the production. This is a cool series, with a hero whose physical build and fight style can’t help recall a certain Spike Spiegel. It’s also a show led by its music, by a score whose shifts set the tone of the series: funky, ironic, melancholic, tragic.
Of course, the fights are Megalo Box’s big draw. They’re brutal and bloody, sometimes lightning-quick, sometimes gruelling and ugly, booed by the crowd. But the anime is just as effective – and perhaps more – at depicting the punch drunk limbos of the battered boxer, far scarier than mere violence. Dog sits in a dead-eyed stupor between rounds; or he lies broken on the floor of the ring, being counted up to oblivion. Anime, especially sports anime, have always distorted space and time. Memo to Interstellar director Christopher Nolan: black holes do nothing to you that a brutal boxing match won’t do just as well.
By the end of the second episode, Dog has found a way to enter the Megalonia tournament. He controversially opts to fight without the robotic parts (called Gears) which have become mainstream in the sport. However, there’s no suggestion that robotised boxing is any less valid. You might link this attitude to Japan’s heritage of cyborg heroes and robot pilots in fiction, and how the real country rebuilt itself with technology after the war. You might even think of the arguments that rage about transgender contestants in sport.
Dog also takes on a new name in the ring – Joe. For most Western fans, it’s just a name. For Japanese viewers, though, it’s a link to a classic long past. For Megalo Box is a show that’s tied to one of the most important manga and anime epics you may never have never heard of.
Tomorrow’s Joe (often referred to by its Japanese title, Ashita no Joe), was a massively popular boxing manga by Asao Takamori (writer) and Tetsuya Chiba (artist). The strip ran from 1968 to 1973, collected in twenty volumes. There were also two TV anime series directed by Osamu Dezaki. Long before Rocky, Joe’s saga of an underdog boxer became a national icon, linked to Japan’s own post-war journey from ruin to rebirth. Neither the manga nor the anime were ever translated into English, probably due to their age and the unpopularity of sports stories in Anglophone territories.
Megalo Box was officially marketed as a half-century anniversary tribute to Tomorrow’s Joe. Its cool Bebop trappings rub shoulders with old-school character designs – the trainer Nanbu just looks timeless, while a little-boy character who turns up later could have stepped from a kids’ anime from forty years ago. Megalobox can’t strike the national zeitgeist like the earlier Joe did, but among today’s TV anime, it’s a contender for champion.
Megalo Box will be released in the UK by Anime Limited.