Despite its sci-fi trappings, the first season of Megalobox was very much a traditional sports-drama narrative at its core. Even when you remove the context of the series being a 50th Anniversary tribute to the absurdly popular Ashita no Joe, the story of “Gearless” Joe was one that would be familiar to anyone who has even so much as passively absorbed the gist of the Rocky movies via cultural osmosis. A formerly nameless underdog fighting for every last scrap of dignity available in his equally nameless dystopian metropolis, Joe was the quintessential underdog.
His refusal to fight with the mechanical “Gear” augments that every other Megaloboxer uses only underlined the point that was already the throughline of Joe's entire life: Every win was going to be by the skin of his teeth, and his victory at the inaugural Megalonia Tournament was the ultimate proof that he was no longer some anonymous junk dog destined for an unmarked grave. At the end of Season 1, Joe had found a family in Nanbu and Sachio, a respected rival in Yuri, and a new life as a bona fide Megaloboxing champion. Naturally, since Megalobox was such a typical sports-drama in all but presentation, there was never any doubt that a second season would have to find some way to bring Joe down a peg or two; there isn't much drama to be found in the reigning champ simply defending his title from a new underdog, after all. I don't know if any of us fans expected the lengths to which Nomad would go to knock Joe off of his pedestal, though.
I already spent many hundreds of words gushing over Nomad's stunning premiere in the Spring 2021 Preview Guide, but it bears repeating: The Joe we meet in Nomad isn't just a few years older and wearier; he has been utterly broken. Nanbu is dead, save for the deprecating vision of the old man that haunts and taunts him wherever Joe goes. Sachio is gone too, and we later learn that he blames Joe for Nanbu's death just as much as Joe does. A half-decade or so of abusing alcohol and painkillers has left Joe just as physically broken as he is mentally and spiritually, and even though he still drifts through life as a successful underground fighter in no-name circuits on the edge of civilization as “Nomad”, he spends just as much time heaving up liquor and scraping pills off of filthy bathroom floors with his trembling hands.
To be clear, Megalobox is still a sports drama, but in these first three episodes of Nomad, the focus has been much more on the “drama” half of the equation than was ever the case in the first season. There are a scant few fights scattered throughout, and though they are weighty and sharp in their direction, they are far from the crux of the narrative, instead serving merely as facets of the larger story. What's more, the story that Nomad is aiming to tell is shockingly ambitious and timely, weaving Joe's slow climb out of the pit he's made for himself with the lives of the immigrants that have made their home at the bottom rung of this world's society.
It's this element of Nomad's bold new direction that I am the most moved by and impressed with, because it is so unflinching in the social commentary it is aiming for, and because it has been hitting the mark with such ferocity and precision. Even though the society of Megalobox remains abstract enough to essentially function as an alternate universe, Nomad isn't shying away from the aspects of our world that it is representing. Chief, the boxer that befriends Joe and helps him on his road to recovery, is one amongst a community of immigrants that are explicitly coded as Mexican, or at the very least Central/South American. They've got dark skin, they speak Spanish, they celebrate the version of the Day of the Dead that they are able to put together in the abandoned amusement park that they've made their home. Even though the world beyond the borders of the city seems positively post-apocalyptic these days, the locals still go out of their way to spew racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric, because apparently the only thing worse than being completely destitute is being completely destitute without someone else to look down and blame all of your problems on.
I am not an immigrant, myself — as a native Chamorro from the territory of Guam, I am naturalized by birth — but I am a mixed-race brown man with a foreign-sounding name who has lived through this decade's disturbing outbreak of white nationalism and right-wing hysteria. To see Megalobox purposefully divert from its action-movie tropes to carefully and thoughtfully humanize a whole population of immigrants wasn't just moving; for me, it was downright revelatory. The anime industry as a whole has historically had what can graciously be referred to as “issues” with the depiction of non-Japanese people of color, and Japan is no stranger to the perils of xenophobia. Instead of couching its themes in ill-advised sci-fi allegories, Nomad makes the decision to just have real people sit down talk about real shit.
Take Chief for example. At first, Joe is completely disgusted by the man's willingness to take easy money in fixed fights, but he soon learns that it is nothing as simple as petty greed. The immigrants' land is in jeopardy of being bought out right from under them, and Chief is willing to do whatever it takes to buy it back himself. “This is to survive,” Chief tells Joe. “There's nothing embarrassing about surviving…we're worked to the bone like slaves for next to nothing, and the locals called us parasites who stole their jobs.” When you have local kids like Mio that are so desperate to feel accepted that they'll turn on their own people for even the faintest promise of a scrap of human dignity, its no wonder that men like Chief will put their own honor and pride on the line.
Joe sees this, and he understands the immigrants' plight. More importantly, it gives him the drive for the first time in years to make something of himself, and to think about more than just empty survival. His original victory as Megalonia may have been an inspiration to every one of the immigrants who wanted to believe that the world would have a place for them, but Joe couldn't have cared less about them back in the day; he didn't even know they existed. Now, though, he isn't just fighting for himself. As their homes burn, and the claws of the Japanese mobsters come down, it seems like it the despair will eat away at the immigrants' hope once and for all. Joe is going to help Chief take it all back, one bloody beatdown at a time. The end card of every episode from Season One used to read “Not dead yet.” Now, after every episode of Nomad, we're told “hasta ver la luz.” “Until I see the light.” It's like that old saying goes: They are either going to find a way, or they will make one themselves.
• This review was already getting too long, and I'm sure I'll be singing the praises of more specific animation cuts and directorial choices in the future, but I need to give a general shoutout to director Yo Morimura, writers Katsuhiko Manabe & Kensaku Kojima, composer mabanua, and the rest of the crew at TMS Entertainment. Every single aspect of this show's production, from the incredible music to the signature mid-2000s grunge aesthetic of the visuals, whips an unholy amount of ass.
• I only have Google Translate and four years of high-school Spanish on my side, so any native speakers/more educated folks that know better are free to correct me in the comments, but here's my best go at the English versions of each episode's Spanish title:
- Ep. 1: – “Los fantasmas tararean un requiem” – “The ghosts hum a requiem”
- Ep. 2: – “La desesperación da coraje a los cobardes” – “Despair gives courage to cowards”
- Ep. 3:"Si deseas la dañina pudrición de las raíces, no bloquees la boca del ánfora" – “If you want the harmful root rot, do not block the mouth of the amphora”
Megalobox 2: Nomad is currently streaming on Funimation. James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitter, his blog, and his podcast.