Interview: MEGALOBOX Producer Minako Fujiyoshi

by Zac Bertschy,

A whole lot of classic anime wind up getting big splashy anniversary projects, but few of them turn out as truly captivating and memorable as this year's MEGALOBOX. Inspired by one of the most revered sports anime and manga of all time, MEGALOBOX pays clever and beautiful homage to the 50th anniversary of Ashita no Joe, the boxing drama that captivated millions back in the late 1960s and early 1970s – but that isn't all it had going for it. More than a mere tribute, MEGALOBOX's stellar writing, compelling characters and lavish production immerse us in its world, thanks to the potent aesthetic skill of director You Moriyama, art director Jirou Konou, and the combined forces of a creative team that worked together with first-time producer (and longtime TMS production veteran) Minako Fujiyoshi.

Fujiyoshi was in Los Angeles recently to promote a screening of MEGALOBOX at the LA Femme Film Festival, where we had the chance to ask her a few questions about what it was like being an integral part of an incredible series.

How was this project first brought to you at TMS?

2018 is the 50th anniversary of Ashita no Joe, the classic manga and anime. About 5 years ago we started thinking about how we would produce the revival of Ashita no Joe. We started developing the story as an homage to the original, kind of recreating the original story, but we got stuck. So we reapproached it, to introduce it as a near-future story, and then director You Moriyama started talking and we got to this place. Now we have a brand new story that's also an homage.

I'm with TMS, but we were approached by Kodansha – the original publisher of the manga – about 5 years ago, that's when the process started.

Megalobox © Asao Takamori, Tetsuya Chiba/Kodansha/Megalobox Project

How long did it take your team to arrive at the story we see in MEGALOBOX?

So 5 years ago we started developing it as a side story set during the original Ashita no Joe, but we realized that didn't work so we went back to the drawing board, spent an extra year in development going into preproduction, and the script process took years, so total about 4 years.

What was it about the original story you had that you felt wasn't working?

The story we were originally developing would've followed Toru Rikishi, who is a very popular character, the rival of Joe. He's kind of similar to Yuri in MEGALOBOX. We started creating a side story all about Rikishi, but we realized it's really difficult to pull a complete story for Rikishi out of the original manga. If we want to really respect the fans, and the original manga, we realized that wouldn't work. So we started developing new ideas, and that became MEGALOBOX.

Megalobox © Asao Takamori, Tetsuya Chiba/Kodansha/Megalobox Project

As a producer at TMS, what did you find yourself working on the most during the production of this show?

So, obviously this is a big project, the 50th anniversary of Ashita no Joe – it's a big title for Japanese people. My job was to maintain the original concept and theme, the never-give-up spirit of the character. That spirit – despite the aesthetic changes, despite the generational differences, that spirit is something fans of Ashita no Joe can share. My mission was to carry that vibe into MEGALOBOX.

How challenging did you find that role?

Well, obviously we didn't want this to become a parody of Ashita no Joe, but it needed to be a unique story that respects the original. The key was to develop Joe in MEGALOBOX independently from the original Joe in Ashita no Joe, which is difficult for a Japanese person, including myself. Growing up knowing the character, knowing the whole story – naturally, without realizing it, as you write the character gets closer and closer to the original.

We had to keep his development independent – I spent a lot of time discussing that with the writer and director.

Megalobox © Asao Takamori, Tetsuya Chiba/Kodansha/Megalobox Project

What sort of personal connection did you have with the original material?

As I was joining TMS, the president of TMS – Mr. Shunzō Katō – he was the producer of Ashita no Joe II. So I was exposed to that, and as I was getting in to this production, I felt a lot of pressure. It was a very respected title from a respected producer, and at the same time I was fully aware of the domestic popularity of this franchise. I didn't want MEGALOBOX to detract from that existing popularity. That pressure was big, and it made the production itself a little challenging.

Within TMS, did you find that people within the company – executives, rank-and-file - were a little more interested in your project than you might expect, given how important Ashita no Joe is to the company?

Normally at TMS there are separate production lines – you've got one team making Case Closed, for example. All of these teams are very busy, individually working very hard, and you don't have time to care about each other's projects very much. You can see when something starts, when it ends, and that's it. But MEGALOBOX brought a nostalgic feeling to everyone – the production staff as well. The whole team was excited to see how it turned out. We got a lot of feedback, even from different production teams. It reminded me of TMS in the old days, years ago when they were making a lot of sports drama anime. It revived the feeling of that era. It was a special experience.

Megalobox © Asao Takamori, Tetsuya Chiba/Kodansha/Megalobox Project

What do you think made your team on this show such a perfect fit for the material?

I've been in production over 10 years, but this is my first show as producer. I was determined to work with the best people I've worked with before. Director, art director, backgrounds  - I specifically selected the best people I knew from my personal experience.

Do you have a favorite moment from the production, and do you have a favorite episode of the series?

Compared to anything else, I've spent more time and effort – and money! – on this show than any other I've worked on. I got to spend a lot of time with the characters as they were developed, and so I feel very attached to every moment. It isn't a specific scene or anything, but the character Sachio, I have a very specific attachment to him. He's a kid among all these adults, but his presence brings such bright moments to the whole thing.

The show has a really brilliant and unusual aesthetic to it, kind of a CRT patina, a filter that gives it a very specific retro look. What went in to that decision?

We did take a nostalgic approach to the art, the hand-drawn feeling, the pencil marks in the backgrounds. Specifically the art director, Jirou Kouno, this is his expertise, what he's good at. The show really got the most out of his talent.

That specific look – we wanted it to look like a VHS recording from television. That's what we were going for.

Megalobox © Asao Takamori, Tetsuya Chiba/Kodansha/Megalobox Project

It was flawlessly executed. Besides the original Ashita no Joe, what were the biggest visual influences on this show, in your estimation?

This show is directed by You Moriyama, and he's very good at making things feel nostalgic without directly referencing specific shows or moments.

Would you like to make more? Can you keep this team together to make more, or perhaps a film?

For me, and for the entire team, this is such a treasured show. We get that question a lot, about a second season – if it ever happens, we'd like to keep the exact same team, as much as possible.

Our thanks to Viz Media, Minako Fujiyoshi, TMS Entertainment and Bang Zoom! Entertainment for this opportunity. MEGALOBOX is available streaming on Crunchyroll right now and will be airing on Adult Swim in December.

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