If you’ve been looking for your next Sunday afternoon marathon, you have arrived. Megalo Box hasn’t finished its initial season as of this writing, but the style and storytelling are up there with the best anime of recent years. A sci-fi redux of a 50 year-old manga/anime called Ashita no Joe, Megalo Box centers on a scrappy upstart dead-set on making a name for himself in the world of mechanized boxing. Think less Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots and more like two dudes punching each other with juiced-up Power Gloves. Yes, these advanced robo-arms are punching bare flesh, and yes, it’s rad as hell.
Fans of sports anime will be familiar with the basic structure. Reluctant hero begins chasing his dream. Hero finds supportive friends. Hero suffers loss. Hero triumphs at the last second. You might know these notes by heart, but the simplicity of the story beats make room for the satisfying character arcs and stellar presentation. When these elements all synchronize at the right moment, Megalo Box sings.
That presentation is key to Megalo Box’s appeal. Everything from the downscaled VHS resolution to the de-moefied designs screams 1990s anime — that the show evokes the likes of Cowboy Bebop isn’t a mistake. Hell, Joe probably went to the barber, unfurled his wallscroll of Spike Spiegel and said “I want you to literally transplant this hair onto my head.”
The dedication to its aesthetic goes deeper than an grimy filter straight out of Miami Mike’s fansub tapes. Megalo Box takes place in a city split in two: There’s the wealthy inner city where all registered citizens live, and then there’s the rundown slum populated by unlicensed nobodies. The juxtaposition between the shining metropolis and the squalid shantyplex next door mirrors the contrast between the clean digital anime of today and the handpainted grain of yesteryear. The series romanticizes the environment of the forgotten underdog, but at the same covets the potential of an invincible future.
This sentiment is best expressed during the show’s many stunning wide shots. They’re what you call “big mood.”
If Megalo Box was all style, well, it would still be worth watching. But MB also manages to make you care about its compelling characters. Joe, boxing with a fake license in pursuit of getting to the Megalonia tournament, is still an enigma over 2/3 into the season — but his tenacity and drive in the face of overwhelming odds is endearing in that ineffable anime protagonist way. We have more to chew on with Coach Nanbu, whose checkered past and heavy debts play a role early and often.
Comic book fans like to say a hero is defined by their villains, and Joe has already built up quite a rogues gallery. Plenty of exaggerated caricatures fill out the fight-to-fight ranks, each with their own Punch-Out gimmicks but the show often slows down to showcase particularly provocative pugilists. Multiple episodes are spent on the backstory of Aragaki, who fought under Nanbu’s wing until tragedy struck. I won’t spoil anything here, but we get to know Aragaki so well that it feels like he’s the protagonist of his own anime running parallel with this one.
Then there’s Yuri, who functions as Joe’s own Mike Tyson Mr. Dream. With his bio-grafted super-enhanced robot arms, Yuri is the unquestioned champ. He should be above an upstart punk, but Yuri finds himself drawn to Joe’s unquenchable fighting spirit. Their rivalry looms over the entire series, even episodes where the big bad doesn’t show his face.
Because this is anime, you know that these two are going to end up in one climactic battle. And because this is great anime, that destiny becomes less of a predictable endpoint and more of a thrilling climax whose stakes only get higher with each passing episode.
It’s okay that we’ve seen all this before. In fact, it wouldn’t be right if we hadn’t. Remember, Megalo Box is based on a decades-old series. Though the futuristic facelift might make Megalo Box far removed from its grounded origins, there are in fact a number of fond references to the 70s and 80s anime Ashito no Joe. We’re talking the same shot compositions and the same bouncing beads of sweat.
The reverence for the source material is such that you might not want to look up a plot synopsis for Ashita no Joe — it could spoil you on Megalo Box.
If your weekend plans involve rushing out and mainlining every episode, one of the first things you’ll notice is the impeccable soundtrack by Mabanua. It cannot be understated just how vital a role the music plays in every part of Megalo Box. Without the dreamy Low-fi Hip/Hop Beats to Relax/Study To over establishing shots and training sequences, the show would lose its trademark tone. Without the Rocky-esque plinking piano pieces during fights, this underdog story would lose much of its crucial dramatic momentum. Like the show itself, every individual piece of the music has been seen before. But the soundtrack, working in tandem with all the other moving parts of Megalo Box, has elevated the show to cult hit status in mere weeks.
Look, I get it. You only have so many hours in the week. Not everyone has time for a vibey genrebending throwback sports anime. Just know that if you sleep on this show, your friends are eventually gonna start bugging you about it anyway.
You can watch Megalo Box on Crunchyroll.
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