Megalo Box

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

Imagine, if you will, a world where the sport of having two people punch each other really hard with their fists wasn’t dangerous enough. Imagine that someone decides that what the sport of boxing really needs is to strap powered exoskeleton gear onto boxers so they can punch each other even harder. Welcome to the bloody, deadly, and somehow very entertaining world of Megalo Box.

Based on the classic manga series Ashita no Joe (or Tomorrow’s Joe), Megalo Box serves as a 50th anniversary celebration of the story of a young boxer’s journey from zero-to-hero, going from the slums of Japan into becoming a true boxing champion. Only instead of being set in the postwar era, the anime is set in the near future, and our Joe is a junk dog hungry to escape the circumstances he was cast into at birth by entering the boxing tournament to end all boxing tournaments, Megalonia, where boxers wearing mechanized gear fight endless rounds until one gets knocked out or killed.

From there, Megalo Box evolves beyond being just a celebration of a classic anime and the underdog trope and becomes a thrilling standalone sci-fi sports anime with a unique world and characters.

What Makes It Great

Despite not being set in any specific city or time period, the futuristic and dystopian landscape we see in the first few minutes of Megalo Box is all too recognizable. There are vast wastelands where the poor live, in the outskirts of a huge and bustling metropolis full of bleak skyscrapers where the rich and powerful make up dangerous sports to showcase tools and weapons they can sell to the military. The animators drive home the huge differences in the two worlds we see on the show with coloring, filling the “Administrative District” with saturated colors, crimson carpets and bright blue skies, while eroded oranges and reds fill Joe’s “Restricted Area” where the undocumented and the poor are forced to live. 

Megalo Box was released in 2018, but it looks like something straight out of 2002, with a unique blurry and gritty aesthetic. This is because of the show’s bold art-style, which gives more distinct body types and sharper features to the many characters in the show, compared to cleaner, smooth-faced art-style prominent in modern shows. Likewise, special effects were applied during post-production that purposefully lowered the show’s resolution to look like a pre-HD show. 

This visual style matches the gritty, unclean and unpolished world that Joe fights in, and is underscored by the animators during the battle scenes, using slow camera movements with fast cuts of gloves hitting faces to bring Joe’s fighting style to life. When it comes to the boxing, this is more Creed than Rocky IV. Sure, the exoskeletons make the fights unrealistic from the get-go, but the show really dives into the grittiness of a boxing match, putting gravitas and weight into every decision, every movement, block and punch, something rare for sports anime shows.

Though Megalo Box is a show about punching people in the face really hard, there are great side characters and a surprising amount of character development. Joe’s companions in his journey to Megalonia are an old and hard-boiled trainer named Nanbu, and Sachio, a troubled orphan and mechanic on a revenge path against the mega-corporation that holds Megalonia. The two start out as little more than archetypes, but throughout the season we explore their backstory and motivation to surprising depths. More surprising is the depth given to some of Joe’s opponents in the ring, particularly Aragaki, whose story gives the show an opportunity to explore PTSD and trauma in boxers and veterans alike. Not only do these stories allow for more compelling characters, but they add to the show’s world and the many inequalities and lack of opportunities therein that make fighting with robot arms a completely logical thing.

What It Brings to the Conversation

Throughout the show’s 13 episodes, Joe fights several opponents, but his fight always remains about him rising above the circumstances and opportunities that were denied to him, and discovering a reason to exist. The world of Megalo Box disguises itself as a meritocracy, but it’s anything but that. Joe’s talents are usually wasted on dead-end money jobs for the benefit of others because of systems in place that don’t allow him to move up in the world. Though audiences may first think of Joe as Rocky, he’s really like Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop both in looks and his fighting spirit: a man scraping by until he decides to go after the very top.

Though not a huge part of the story, the show does dive a bit into the huge inequalities of its world, and of the real world’s developed nations. Joe’s biggest physical threat may be the boxers wearing mechanical arms, but in truth, the biggest danger is posed by the illegitimacy he faces in the eyes of the elite of the administration posed by his fake ID. There is constant talk of citizens and undocumented people living in the outskirts, how they are not allowed the rights of the wealthier citizens living inside the city, and the show makes it a point to draw a parallel between these rules set to keep people down, and the crime and poverty of the slums themselves.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

If you are in the mood for a sports anime with a twist, with a fantastic soundtrack and vast worldbuilding, this is a must-watch. Whether you’re familiar with the tale of Joe or you just want to watch boxing wiht exoskeletons, Megalo Box is a thrill ride. 

Watch This If You Like: Creed, Rocky, Hajime no Ippo, The Fighter

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Megalo Box is now streaming on Netflix and Hulu.

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