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Tomorrow's Joe, Today: Megalobox Updates a Classic

by Daryl Surat,

Every episode of the current hit sci-fi/sports anime series Megalobox concludes with an icon of a boxing glove with “Joe 50th” written on it. Those enterprising few willing to muster up an online search along with those who remember the caption at the start of the first episode will know this is a reference to Megalobox being an anime commemorating the 50th anniversary of the foundation-building shonen manga Ashita no Joe written by Ikki Kajiwara and illustrated by Tetsuya Chiba, which is typically translated into English as “Tomorrow's Joe” (as I'll be doing) but is occasionally also rendered as “Champion Joe” with some lesser-known semi-official translations like “Rocky Joe,” “Legend of Success Joe” (for the kusoge enthusiasts out there) and perhaps the clunkiest of them all, the light novel predecessor-sounding “Joe, Who Aims to Win Wonderful Tomorrow.” But while that knowledge is relatively common, not too many American anime fans have actually SEEN Tomorrow's Joe since neither the original manga nor the television series was ever legally released here in full. Fortunately, 1980's 2.5-hour condensed animated film retelling of the original 79-episode series from the previous decade was re-released in the US a few months ago on DVD and (for the first time) Blu-Ray as “Tomorrow's Joe: The Movie,” though unlike the sequel series it remains unavailable to watch via any streaming service. You can read more about that original series in this installment of The Mike Toole Show where he details its enduring legacy. But why would something like Megalobox be made as an anniversary project rather than a remake or sequel?

Tomorrow's Joe was a true product of its time. It can't simply be retold as-is within a contemporary setting or even with modern production staff and methodology because it is fundamentally a story set in the lower-income regions of Japan circa the late 1960s-early 1970s. Its characters and conflicts represent a time and place that no longer exist—Japan in the lingering aftermath of the Second World War—and much of its quality arises from the fact that the creative talents behind it lived through that period themselves. Modern viewing audiences and creators alike would have no memory or direct knowledge of this time, which is why trying to remake Tomorrow's Joe in the 21st century doesn't QUITE work, even if attempted as a period piece. This isn't mere conjecture on my part; an attempt was recently made. In 2011, a Japanese live-action version of Tomorrow's Joe was made from the same director as the recent live-action Fullmetal Alchemist, and…well, if you saw the latter then you understand just what I mean when I say that the difference in quality between the anime and the live-action is about comparable in both cases.

Joe Yabuki, the titular hero of Tomorrow's Joe, begins that story as a homeless orphaned unemployed vagabond with little regard for anything or anyone as he beats up criminals and cops alike while defiantly flaunting every implied social rule of decorum there is everywhere he goes. Viewed in a modern-day context, he's basically a colossal jerk. But as I mentioned years ago when I wrote The Pro Wrestling-Shonen Anime Connection, this type of hero was precisely what post-war Japanese viewers craved; one who refuses to meekly back down no matter how daunting the foe, no matter how beaten down he may be. Joe matures over time once he takes up boxing, but that indomitable spirit remains ever-present. The movie lyrics sum it up: “If you break your legs, then crawl on your knees. If you break your fingers, then crawl on your elbows. Make sure that at least your tears are manly. Take the pain in stride.”

To ensure modern audiences respond in a similar fashion as audiences back then did to Tomorrow's Joe, Megalobox makes some adjustments. Its futuristic landscape is fictional yet all too recognizable: a world of massive inequality that alleges itself a meritocracy, yet such opportunities are cut off to our lead character Junk Dog, who despite having obvious talent is forced to work a dead-end gig-based job he hates for the primary benefit of others besides himself, with no initial prospective means of freeing himself from this arrangement. This specific malaise and despair embodies the global “millennial generation” outlook; it's this relatability that endears him to us and compels us to see him succeed from episode 1. But Megalobox also understand what to preserve, for Junk Dog too continues to get up and fight on even when the world tells him to just stay down already. It's an admirable trait in fiction, but a dangerous one in real life especially with regards to combat sports.

I mean, come on. This is freaking Megalobox, where personal safety rarely seems to be a consideration outside of coaches concerned about getting future fights lined up. The entire premise of “let's strap powered metal armor onto boxers so they punch REALLY HARD” only works when you eliminate all the aspects of boxing implemented to reduce the already high as-is fatality and injury rate; weight classes, judging and point scoring, limited rounds…heck, Megalo Boxing doesn't even bother with having referees in the ring! It remains to be seen whether these fundamental alterations to the rules will result in a drastic shift in themes compared to Tomorrow's Joe. Several of the most iconic imagery from that series centered around scenes pertaining to extreme weight cutting and the deleterious effects of sustaining hard blows to the head. Joe's rival Riikishi “only” had to drop three weight classes—roughly 8 pounds--to make weight for his fight versus Joe and he did so in the unhealthiest manner imaginable, basically turned into a skeletal husk. Reality has taken it even further, as it's not uncommon these days for modern combatants in boxing/wrestling/MMA to take measures to rapidly drop (and gain!) 30 pounds, with similar life-threatening results.

Whether Megalobox will tackle some variant of this issue remains to be seen but considering that “DIES” or “DEATH” features prominently in every episode title, all of which conclude with “Not DEAD Yet…” rather than a more typical “To Be Continued,” I expect the downsides of being repeatedly smacked by heavy machinery that's partially integrated into your body to come to the forefront any time now. After all, in Tomorrow's Joe, Joe Yabuki gained infamy for his incredibly dangerous and highly unconventional tactic of completely abandoning the concept of attempting to defend himself, for the sake of luring his opponents into throwing a punch only for Joe to respond with his signature “cross counter” maneuver. There was a downside to being “No Guard Joe,” and Megalobox has opted for its own unique yet equally dangerous take on the gimmick whose downsides we're gradually starting to witness.

I'm glad that Megalobox is not simply the characters and tale of Tomorrow's Joe transplanted into another time and place. The character designs may be evocative of past characters, but the relationships are their own. Still, I think it's money left on the table if we don't get the 2018 equivalent of this scene at some point:

So what do you think of this updated classic? Share your passionate feelings with us in the forums!

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