The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
Megalobox 2: Nomad
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Megalobox 2: Nomad ?
What is this?
In the end, “Gearless” Joe was the one that reigned as the champion of Megalonia, the first ever Megalobox tournament. Fans everywhere were mesmerized by the meteoric rise of Joe who sprung out from the deepest underground ring to the top in mere three months and without the use of gear. Seven years later, “Gearless” Joe was once again fighting in underground matches. Adorned with scars and once again donning his gear, but now known only as Nomad…
How was the first episode?
“In which our fallen hero sees no way out.”
I could talk at length about the amazing cybernetic boxing visuals on display in this episode—the smooth animation and dynamic camera angles that make each and every move Joe makes in the ring feel meaningful and impactful. However, I'll leave that to others and focus on my favorite part of this episode: the story being told.
The opening episode of Nomad is like being thrown headlong into a mystery. In the show's timeline, seven years have past and things are more than a little different from how we left them. Joe is far from the man he was when he won the championship. Now he spends his time going from underground boxing ring to underground boxing ring, fighting under the alias “Nomad.”
It's an apt name to take on. Since he refuses to take a dive (the one major aspect that shows the Joe we know and love isn't totally gone) and is far more skilled than any amateur fighter, it's only a matter of time until it's no longer profitable for bookies to have him fight. So eventually he's given the boot and is forced to head on to the next region.
Now, as to why he has given up on being “Gearless” Joe and has become addicted to painkillers, the episode gives us a few clues. Five years ago, he disappeared from the public eye after an exhibition match with Edison Liu, the current Megalonia champion. It's also likely that Nanbu died around this time (which may or may not be related to the fight). The loss of his friend and mentor threw Joe into a self-destructive spiral—one that he still hasn't been able to work himself out of.
And really, that's the story this first episode sets up. Joe has hit rock bottom. It's only a matter of time until he either ODs or breaks down completely. The battered wolf he finds dead in the road—a wolf whose scars mirror his own—is a not-so-subtle symbol of what awaits him if he continues on his current self-destructive path. With his circumstances laid bare in this premiere, the question now becomes: is Joe strong enough alone to pull himself out of his despair, or will he need to find allies to once again become the man he is capable of being?
The future setting of Megalobox always felt grimy, run-down, which made the contrast of the wealthy excess that “Gearless” Joe and his team encountered in the big city feel positively dystopian. Nomad picks up over a half-decade after the first season's victorious conclusion, and now Joe's world feels nothing short of apocalyptic, both externally and internally. We learn that it has only been a year since a great storm decimated whole swaths of the landscape. Joe is completely alone, with every single character from the original series nowhere to be found, save for old Nanbu, Joe's crusty old mentor. Despite how this premiere tries to play a little coy with Nanbu's framing, it's virtually impossible to read him as anything other than a hallucination, given the fact that Joe has completely succumbed to crippling painkiller and alcohol addiction. So far as the world is concerned, the winner of the first Megalonia Championship has retired and disappeared from Megaloboxing, but as Nomad, Joe has simply sunken into anonymous despair, fighting brutal and bloody matches out in greasy night spots in the middle of nowhere, seemingly only to scrape together whatever cash he can use to get his next bottle of pills.
Despite being billed as a direct sequel to Megalobox, and retaining all of that first series' creative team, Nomad almost feels like an entirely different show, purely by virtue of its suffocating and unrelenting mood. Megalobox was always presenting itself as a fairly gritty, faux-cyberpunk take on the mythical boxing anime that made Ashita no Joe such a household name in Japan, but Nomad's premiere is a gut-wrenching character study first and foremost, and the fights that Joe gets into feel more like funeral dirges than raucous action set pieces. We spend most of the episode with Joe as he barely survives the time in-between the fights. He pukes up his guts in an alleyway, and then defiantly tosses his pills on to the floor of a public bathroom, only to fall to his knees and scrape them up off the filthy tiles a few seconds later so he can wash them down with a swig of whatever liquor he's drowning himself in this time.
That isn't to say that Yo Moriyama and the crew at TMS Entertainment have lost a single step since the first series. The fights are still anchored by the animation's weight and tactility, so that you feel every single mechanically-augmented punch that Joe and his opponents throw. The old-school smear of the art still feels perfectly suited for a late-night Toonami marathon ripped straight out of the WABAC Machine from the year 2005. mabanua's score is even more fine-tuned for the specific tone the show is going for, and sometimes it is so chilling that it feels like you're watching a playthrough of the world's saddest survival-horror game.
More than anything, there's a spectacular confidence exploding out of every single frame of Megalobox 2: Nomad, making it clear that this is exactly the show that its creators intended it to be. As a premiere, it trades in its old sports-underdog drama tropes for a different set of clothes, which feel both achingly familiar and shockingly novel for an industry that has become all too content to wallow in the riches brought in by an endless parade of genetically engineered light novel adaptations. It's a sad, engrossing, and unflinching look at a hero whose life has gone to ruins, and it remains unclear whether this chapter of his story will break our hearts or remake Joe's. Either way, it's basically a perfect half-hour of television, and I'm dying to see what comes next.
Megalobox 2: Nomad was easily one of my most anticipated series this season. After its premiere episode, I feel comfortable calling it one of the most promising series of the year. Megalobox 2: Nomad is a cinematic experience that we rarely see in anime, from its emotionally-focused cinematography to its purposeful use of place and time.
When we last left "Gearless" Joe, he was at the height of his career and well on his way to becoming a symbol of the working class in what was developing as a corporate-sponsored sport. Half a decade later and Joe is a shadow of himself. He's haunted by his former coach Gansaku (who appears to him with an eyepatch despite having lost his remaining good eye by the end of the first season), he pops pills like candy and downs them with alcohol before vomiting in his rundown motel room's toilet. Suffice to say, Joe has reached the height of self-destruction and wanders from underground match to underground match with only one ethos: no rigged fights. He makes himself available at places called "The Slaughterhouse" and knocks out opponents before his withdrawals kick in.
What happened to our Joe? Megalobox 2 isn't letting all its secrets out right away. The background story is offered through news footage on CRTs. We know something happened during a match with an up-and-comer, Edison, and Joe has since rebranded and disappeared from official matches. We know his status as a symbol was enough to invigorate the people only for a natural disaster to sweep through the area, and the government is still ignoring the financial, if not human, casualties.
Megalobox always excelled at creating a world that felt real and lived in without the giant lore dumps and exposition dialogue. Instead we can focus on Joe and the remnants of his life. He's a man whose only remaining pride is fighting fair (albeit high). Where he can go from here, I couldn't guess. We see him bury the symbol of his former self in the desert by the episode's end. Wherever he ends up, I'm rooting for Joe.
Y'know, I remember really enjoying the first several episodes of the original Megalobox, but somewhere along the way that first season lost me. I watched it to the end, respected the conclusion it arrived at, but didn't feel particularly invested in it outside of the aesthetics of having such an ambitious anniversary project to Tomorrow's Joe. So I wasn't really sure what to make of Nomad going in, as it would presumably be very reliant on attachment to the cast that I just don't have. But lo and behold, this new Megalobox is an older, angrier, mangier beast than its predecessor ever aspired to be.
This premiere is essentially a masterclass in how direction and music can supersede story to make an absolutely undeniable first impression. While there are hints as to what has led the formerly “Gearless” Joe to the state he's in here, there's no explanation of the particulars. None of the other characters appear outside of Joe's imaginary specter of Coach Nanbu. By the end of the episode we're no closer to understanding how Joe wound up doing underground matches to afford painkillers and beer than we were at minute 5. Yet none of that matters, because every single second of animation, voice acting, and especially music is so on point that it's impossible to care.
That said, I wouldn't exactly call this premiere “fun” to watch. It's gripping. It's intense. By the end of it I felt nearly as exhausted and hopeless as our protagonist. But that's most certainly not going to be for everyone. This is a masterfully-crafted wallow in depression, misery, rage, and some implied suicidal ideation, and there's no clear sign of hope for improvement by the time credits roll. It's the best kind of bummer, but a bummer nonetheless, and I can't fault people putting off watching this sequel until we have some sign that this won't be pure misery in animated form.
Still, I was engaged the entire time, and the climactic boxing match is easily one of the most intense and memorable moments in anime this year. This team is working at the absolute height of their game, and the result is only so difficult to watch because they're that good at their jobs. Nothing but respect.
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