At the end of each episode of the anime series “Megalo Box” there is a simple line in white pitched up against a cold black screen.
“…Not dead yet.”
Early on its ambiguous message could be foreboding for viewers, perhaps depicting a bleak set of circumstances for our protagonists; a young gifted cyberpunk boxer and his scheming gambler of a coach as they simply aim to get to the next day alive until they inevitably die. But as the series progresses the message begins to take on a more determined connotation. You’re not dead yet so continue to fight like hell to the very end.
This theme in “Megalo Box” is part of what made the series and story of a “gearless” boxer taking on the world with just his fists so profound when I watched it earlier in the year. I’ve been struggling with my own potential and determination for as long as I can remember but until recently I hadn’t thought about just how much my own fear was holding me prisoner from achieving it, that maybe I had spent so much of my life simply aiming to survive that I hadn’t truly tried to live yet.
This is the core message of this bonkers but often poignant series about boxers with technological enhancements duking it out in the not too distant cyberpunk future. Many of us will spend much of our lives crippled by fear simply aiming to get by, putting our head down and just forging ahead to scrape out a shitty paycheck to stay alive until old age finally takes hold. We’re miserable yet we we never stop to ask ourselves can we do better or if its possible to do better?
What if we seized tomorrow today?
(How I felt on most Monday’s after college…)
Our main character Joe in “Megalo Box” is not content to live like this and it infuriates him that others, specifically his partner Nanbu does. He’s a gifted scrapper in the underground circuit of Megalo Boxing but he’s only ever faced cans who can’t truly test his potential and even worse so he often takes dives to make money for Nanbu who’s more than content to make money off skewed odds and gambling just to afford a bottle in front of him to appease the mob boss who runs the show.
This isn’t the life for Joe; he’s not satisfied with being a very big fish in a small pond and when he finally gets a taste of true competition when he faces the pro champion of Megalo Boxing, Yuri, who dispatches him easily, instead of accepting defeat he is motivated more than ever to test his mettle against the best.
(If you’ve never been knocked out before, I have, it’s not fun…)
Fear is a crippling emotion and can have different affects on different people and events.
Throughout “Megalo Box,” fear is examined in a multitude of ways from Nanbu’s fear of getting killed and job security as a mob fixer in underground Megalo Boxing, to mob boss Fujimaki wielding it as a hammer to bludgeon people like Nanbu into submission but for Joe it’s different; it becomes a motivator. It’s simply the fear of dying without seeing how far he can go with his talent and it drives him and the narrative of the story forward throughout.
One of my favorite quotes from The Lord of the Rings trilogy is spoken by Eowyn the young shield maiden of Rohan.
In “The Return of the King” (in the movie this quote is from The Two Towers) Aragorn asks her “What do you fear, my lady?” she answers simply “A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age except them and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
There’s an obvious feminist message here about female self-actualization as Eowyn early on was kept from fighting with her male counterparts on the battlefields of Middle Earth but I think more broadly there is something to be said about fear of untapped potential which is the same as Joe’s own fear.
Nearly every character in the series struggles with this in some way and it’s a credit to the writers of “Megalo Box” that it goes to great lengths not to depict most of Joe’s adversaries in this regard as villains. They are rather simply people who feel the dread of not proving themselves too, to live a life not getting see their personal mountain top.
Nanbu for all his faults early in the series has accepted the cage that Eowyn speaks of, he’s only looking to not die and as the story moves forward Joe’s reluctance to accept this mode of thinking is what eventually wakes him up too to see the full potential of not just Joe’s talent but his own. Yuri, Joe’s primary rival, is also looking for the true challenge that he’s always wanted and by the end even sheds his Gear in order to face Joe as an equal. Characters like Aragaki, Yukiko and Mikio all experience similar struggles within themselves and that same fear that comes from doubt that Joe battles with.
The only really villain in this way in “Megalo Box” is simply fear.
(I mean I can understand the fear of standing in the pocket with someone rocking metal arms of course but that’s not the point here.)
This fear is explored in many ways through the anime’s ridiculous premise as well; the Gear these boxers wield themselves. Early on the series establishes that the best Megalo Boxers have the most advanced gear, whether it’s Yuri’s skin like cybernetic enhancements, Mikio Shirato’s integrated Gear that analyzes and reacts to opponent’s movements, or the American Glen Burrough’s gear which is simply just huge and powerful. But Joe gets by early on using the junkiest of gear possible displaying from the beginning that even with inferior gear he can best many opponents with better equipment easily simply because he has true skill that isn’t masked with flashy gear. Initially Joe’s team scraps the gear entirely to just gain notoriety and move up the ladder more quickly but then Joe’s team begins to realize that’s better off without it.
Narratively, the shedding of Joe’s gear is meant to show the viewers a few things; 1) that talent is inherit and no amount of money can buy that and more importantly 2) only you can rely on yourself to make things happen and you can’t fear the loss of a safety net like Gear. Yes, Joe has a team of supporters as well, but ultimately having control over his fists and more importantly himself is what gets him to the top.
Meanwhile the theme of the Gear is probably most explicit with a character like Mikio Shirato who’s technology, A.C.E. relies almost entirely on AI to move for him in a fight. He easily manages Joe early on with the help of A.C.E. but when a glitch keeps him from finishing off Joe when he drops his hands, instead of simply relying on himself to fight Joe by relying on his own skill he chooses to keep his Gear on out of fear of believing in his own self to win. It’s again all about fear and how it cheats us into a fall sense of security, overly relying on survival instead of taking risks for great rewards.
(Though he has a considerably satisfying arc and gets humbled quick, it was still satisfying to watch this smug face get KOed in the Anime haha)
My first few years out of college were turbulent to say the least. My journalism career never even got a chance to get off the ground and instead of putting forth more energy into making it happen I chose the easier quicker path to just making money in the business and sales field instead. To say I was unhappy would be an understatement. I was miserable for many years there and wondered often about if this would be the most my life could ever be; just scraping a paycheck out and surviving within the cage of my own despair until old age finally takes hold. Even after leaving that field my life in non-profit hasn’t exactly given me true contentment yet either (though I’m considerably less irritated) and after watching “Megalo Box” I started to realize how much I’ve cheated myself out of not pursuing my dreams more forcibly.
Initially my interest in “Megalo Box” came from my own love and training in martial arts and the adrenaline it gives me in probably the same way Joe feels but it turned out to be a lot deeper that its cyberpunk premise had let on. “Megalo Box” is about how we let fear ruin our potential, how it lures us into a false sense of security and cages us within our simple need to survive instead of live. Joe is a voice for anyone who’s not content with simply surviving until death knocks on their door, that rather fight like hell to see how far they can go instead of simply laying down and letting life run its course.
(Not to mention missing out on that rush of finally getting what you want.)
Anime doesn’t typically make poignant messages like this, usually more content to have style over substance, but luckily “Megalo Box” is style AND substance in this regard and the fandom is better for it.
This is why I started this blog and later down the road a website with this same name because I want to see how far I can take my talents and do what truly excites me in life. I wish I had started this much earlier and believed in myself instead of simply fearing it but I’m glad I am doing more now. It’s not enough for me to just be another statistic on the board of life; I want to be the best version of myself possible and take it as far as I can go as Joe did because I want my chance at my tomorrow. I mean after all I’m…