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Credit: TMS Entertainment

What makes Yoh Moriyama's Megalo Box the perfect 50-year homage to Ashita no Joe

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Jun 5, 2018, 8:50 PM EDT

On paper, no one should want to root for Rocky Balboa over Apollo Creed. Creed has a better record, more charisma, is a better talker, better looking, and has a much cooler nickname — “The Master of Disaster” — compared to his more milquetoast opponent.

But you know why you can’t help but root for Rocky? Because you see how he lives, you witness his struggles, and you know what his main goal for the fight is; it’s not to beat Apollo, it’s to show Creed and everyone else that even though he’s a nobody, he can hang with anyone, even the heavyweight champion of the world, given the opportunity. So when Creed is announced as the winner in 1976's Rocky, nobody views Rocky as a loser. Instead, because he held his own for 15 rounds against the reigning heavyweight champion, they view him as Creed’s equal, at least for one night. In that, Rocky is victorious.

While coming from similar backgrounds, Junk Dog, later “Joe,” the protagonist of Megalo Box, doesn’t want to prove himself like Rocky does. All Joe wants is another fight with Yuri, the megalo boxing champion, who knocks out Joe in the anime series' second episode. After denying Joe’s request to continue, he informs his passionate but outclassed opponent that if he really wants another shot at him, Joe has to climb the mountain — Mortal Kombat-style — to get back in the ring with him. To do that, Joe has to get into “Megalonia,” a megalo boxing tournament. He manages to do so thanks to the help of the mob, which provides Joe with a fake ID to register.

What Joe has not prepared for in his quest for a rematch is that he would, like Rocky, become a hero for the underprivileged.

This happens because Joe is a megalo boxer who fights without gear. Gear is the exoskeletons boxers wear in Megalo Box over their shoulders, arms, and legs to enhance their strength and speed. Joe has a version of this gear, but the shanty getup he wears in the series' first episodes breaks down and is unusable before his first professional fight. The gear he later tries to steal just ends up falling apart as soon as he tries to throw a punch.

Not possessing gear puts Joe at a very big disadvantage, but it helps him break out after he wins a few fights. The boxer now known as “Gearless” Joe rockets up the rankings thanks to the gimmick, his natural talent, defeating much higher ranking opponents, and the training he receives from Nanbu, who first uses Joe as part of a fight-fixing scheme in order to pay back debts; Joe abruptly ends that by knocking out someone he was supposed to lose to in one punch, so now, in one last desperate shot to pay his debts and keep his life, Nanbu trains him seriously so that Joe can get his shot at Yuri.

If you follow anime season by season, you’re more than likely aware that this year's spring season is particularly stacked. There’s a new Lupin the Third series, a new Sword Art Online, new Steins;Gate, new Tokyo Ghoul, the return of Full Metal Panic, a reboot of Legends of the Galactic Heroes, and, oh yeah, the new FLCL premiered on Adult Swim this past Saturday. That’s on top of leftovers from last season such as the Cardcaptor Sakura sequel and Kim Kardashian’s favorite anime at the moment, Darling in the Franxx. And if that weren't enough, there’s also the third season of My Hero Academia.

So how is this series, a special project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ashita no Joe, one of the most iconic manga/anime properties in history — which is currently the most popular non-sequel spring series in the country according to Crunchyroll — standing out in a season full of high volume titles? It is, to me, because of what first-time director Yoh Moriyama and his team have been able to accomplish: keeping the elements of what made the original Joe so influential, while making changes that help it stand alone as its own series.

If you’re unaware of what Ashita no Joe is, it began as a manga that launched in 1968 in the pages of Weekly Shonen. Created by writer Asao Takamori and artist Tetsuya Chiba, the series follows Joe Tabuki, a youth who finds himself in the slums of Tokyo after leaving behind the orphanage he grew up in. He winds up in prison where he meets and fights his rival Rikkishi, who beats Joe but vows to fight him again, if he can make it in pro boxing. The manga ran for five years and was hugely popular. The first anime series premiered in 1970 and was directed by the legendary Osamu Dezaki; it was also a major hit, with almost a third of Japanese televisions at the time tuning in to each new episode. Anime News Network columnist Mike Tool wrote about the series recently, calling it “a masterpiece,” with Dezaki helping to form “the visual vocabulary that anime would use in the ensuing 50 years.”

The second series and film would release in 1980, closing out the story. Between the end of the second series and 2018's Megalo Box, there hasn’t been much Joe-related material, with the exception of a 35th anniversary project that was not well received, and a 2010 radio special in which real play-by-play announcers were brought in to go through the match between Joe and Rikkishi as if it were really happening. Even with the lack of new material until this year, the series impact has been felt through anime history, with shows ranging from Dragonball Z to Tenga Toppa Gurren Lagann making reference to and paying homage to the legendary property.

Nine episodes into its 13-episode season, Megalo Box is similar to its source material as they both follow a talented young fighter rising from the slums to take on his stronger, more successful rival; as well as featuring strongly choreographed and animated fight sequences. How the show separates itself, besides the obvious use of exoskeletons, is in its presentation.

Instead of the slums of Japan, we are taken to a futuristic dystopia, where the difference between those who are successful and those who aren’t is much bigger than in the original series. The soundtrack here is highly hip-hop influenced — which may remind long-time viewers of Samurai Champloo — and while it does bring back many of the characters of the original, they are shown to us in new, refreshing ways.

The Joe of Megalo Box is similar to the original Joe in terms of his narrative, however, we don’t know where this new Joe came from, we don’t even know his real name; Joe is a name he picked out of defiance to the upper class rather than it being given to him at birth. Yuri, Megalo’s version of Rikkishi, is a silver-haired Adonis with a taste for tight-fitting sweaters, who fights with the most advanced gear in existence (which makes him the Ivan Drago to Joe’s Rocky, rather than his Apollo Creed). That gear is produced by the Shirato Group, which is sponsoring the tournament and is run by Yukiko Shirato, Megalo’s version of Shiraki Youko, the main female character in the original series.  

Another reason why this show is standing out among the dozens of anime currently airing, is that it looks like nothing else this season, or last season, or the season before that. The character designs in Megalo Box are reminiscent of anime in the late 90’s to early 2000s; they have sharper features, unique faces and body types, a stark contrast to the more smooth-faced, clean character designs seen in modern day anime. Another major contrast to modern day anime is Moriyama making the risky creative decision of purposefully downgrading the resolution so it looks like a series that would have aired 20 years ago before HD became the norm for, well, everything. It’s wild because it works; Joe and the world he inhabits isn’t polished, isn’t clean, and that further helps immerse us further into his world and Joe’s story.

Remaking, rebooting, or reimagining iconic properties is nothing new in anime and pop culture in general. What makes Megalo Box so special is that Moriyama could have just remade the original, given it a 2018 polish, and it still would be at least a curiosity watch because of the property's legacy. However, he did what many would have been too timid to do: a drastic re-imagining, while at the same time not tossing away the basic elements of what made Ashita no Joe so iconic in the first place. Personally, I was aware of Ashita no Joe’s existence, but had never seen it. This series made me want to go back and see the series and the films for myself. And, while I appreciate the look of Megalo Box, I’m not so blinded by nostalgia that I want the entire industry to revert back to the '90s. However, I do hold out hope that because of this show’s success, it will lead anime studios to take chances when it comes to designing characters and worlds in the future.

With four episodes left, there is still plenty of time to catch up and jump on the Megalo Box bandwagon before the finale. As of this writing, there is no word on a second season, but, if you’re familiar with the original series, you can see where Joe’s story is heading. If we do only get one season, I think we’ll all be okay with that; Rocky became less interesting once he became the new Apollo, so I doubt we want to see Joe become the next Yuri.

It may not be viewed as the major title of this season, in terms of ratings or fandom when you count the more established titles airing this spring, but on any given week, because of its tried-and-true story, interesting characters, unique setting, dope soundtrack, and high animation quality, Megalo Box has proven that it can stand toe-to-toe with any anime this season and this year so far. All while going against what’s expected from anime in 2018. I’m not saying it’s better than something like MAH, but given a fair chance, it can be viewed as being equal to it.