Megalo Box is one of those shows convinced that nobility of spirit can be found anywhere, even in a violent sport played by petty criminals and brutes. The love of something is enough to make it legitimate, and transform the one in love into a noble soul. That’s essentially how every sports anime works, and at its core Megalo Box is just that. It deviates not an iota from the usual tropes, but it does add an interesting desolate background and one or two catchy hip-hop tunes for that urban cool. It is easy to enjoy the show because it relies on a familiar structure and conventional tools to keep the viewer engaged: an upbeat and likeable hero, cliff-hangers, an underdog fighting against the odds, and a whole bunch of passionate people convinced that winning a contest is the most important thing in the world. And because they are convinced, so are we.
Despite some solid direction and adequate animation, however, the world-building sometimes misses a trick. We see shots of a desert wasteland surrounding the city, which is the main location, but beyond such teases there is no attempt to elaborate on this world. How did we get here to such a mean, post-apocalyptic setting where there’s clearly societal hierarchy, ID cards, and some impressive sports tech called “gear”, but seemingly no welfare state to take care of orphans, no decent neighbourhoods, and a criminal underground that operates without any obvious constraints by the judiciary system. There’s so much left unsaid that the hodgepodge of high tech and low-life becomes arbitrary. If Megalo Box’s milieu is convincing, it’s merely because we’ve seen most of it before (Gungrave, Cowboy Bebop, Trigun), and therefore can rely on familiarity to help us ignore inconsistency. Regarding the gear, sheathes of metal worn on the arms and shoulders to enhance performance during duels, the show has a paradoxical message: it’s not about the gear, it’s about the man. But if that’s the case, then there’s an illogic in having them in the plot in the first place. Their function is left ambiguous - they can enhance speed and power, but ultimately depend on how well they sync with the wearer, and they can be foiled with a KO punch that they regularly fail to block. There are no extraordinary stunts to demonstrate the added value of the gear. The only purpose they serve is, again paradoxically, to give “gearless” Joe a handicap that implies he is a superior fighter. After all, he can stand up to the best of them without technological help. But that handicap swiftly loses its novelty, our minds adjust to the implied imbalance, and ultimately the scenes just look like two guys fighting.
And the fights are a secondary source of drama - much of the story in fact takes place outside of the ring, with some pseudo-politics delivered by the corporation in charge of the Megalo Box tournament. What ultimately keeps the show sturdy, despite its rickety world structure, is the classic core of its plot. Underdog hero (this metaphor is taken a bit far with the constant referrals to Joe as a stray dog) and his unlikely pals work together to fight their way to the top of a tournament using a heady mix of talent and passion. Joe is genuinely enjoyable to watch, combining just the right proportions of brashness, arrogance, and integrity. He has a sense of humour and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. But he’s also damn good at what he does and loves his sport. His trainer, Gansaku Nanbu, has some good moments too. Everyone else is cookie-cutter fare, although I found his frienemy relationship with the main antagonist Yuri satisfyingly bitter-sweet. They admire each other, but they ultimately can never be on the same side. More should have been done to develop this beyond the handful of snatched encounters in nondescript city streets.
Truly, for excellence in this genre, watch Hajime no Ippo, which still remains unbested (Major seasons 1-3 come close). Hajime no Ippo’s special spice is to ensure that every time two characters step into the ring, they enter what feels like an immersive fantasy world that is highly engrossing - including stylised action sequences, excellently developed characters, and compelling inter-personal tensions that all can be found within the ring. Megalo Box is entirely about a fantasy world, but it has no idea how to show it off. It possesses a sports anime soul, which it nurtures, but then weighs it down with useless gear. All in all, though, viewers can expect a fun time and a smattering of novelties, which, given the genre, is more than enough.