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Coming out of the high of Hajime no Ippo, I jumped into the spring season of anime in search of underdogs, drama and a healthy dose of violent competition. With Megalobox’s debut promising just that and more, I eagerly jump into the stylishly gritty world of underground boxing.

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This is my first journey through the “100 Days of Anime” Challenge, an ambitious project that I’ll be taking. For the full list of prompts, click here.

“A Sports Anime”

The skyscrapers of Megalonia tower overhead–a stark contrast to the slums that litter the outskirts below. Even further below the decrepit and ruined buildings lay the underground, where the rowdy, criminal, and desperate all gather to gamble. Those feeling lucky bet on dog fights; those with a bit more cash bet on people. At the center of this is Junk Dog, a boxer with big dreams and real talent forced by his coach to throw match after match for a quick profit. That is until an opportunity arrives at his ring, promising to give him the match he deserves on one condition. Make it big, or die trying.

The world is harsh. The stakes are high. But that’s nothing new for this motley crew.

My rather brief summary of Megalobox plays the show out to be an action-packed thriller; an underdog story showcasing the technique and willpower required to dream big and to stand in a ring. But behind the seemingly straightforward plot masks the true core of the show, a narrative that takes place outside of the ring. Megalobox is not a boxing anime (a bold claim, I know). At times, it’s not even about Junk Dog and his dreams. Megalobox is a show about people. What keeps them going, what makes them tick, and what they’ll risk to see their goals through.

Megalobox is a gambling anime, and it’s a damn good one at that.

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Last season’s Violet Evergarden was just the excuse I needed to pick up a Netflix account. Along with admiring Violet in all her HD glory, I also picked up on some “older” titles I never had the chance to watch; namely Kakegurui, an anime that revolves around gambling almost to the point of obsession. And though I enjoyed the eccentric games of Kakegurui, with its odd cast of characters and unsettling morals, something essential was missing. Though the premise of the show starts off as creepy and sadistic, that illusion starts to fade once we realize what’s at stake. Nothing. The games our protagonists participate in keep the show interesting, but Kakegurui fails at the one thing that makes gambling fun.

Life-changing stakes, and the risks that come with it.

Megalobox on the other hand juggles a cast of characters–each with their own backstory and motives, masterfully tying each plotline back to our protagonists to form a compelling storyline. While the bizarre cast of Kakegurui strives to be quirky (and therefore “unique”), Megalobox’s characters thrive in the ordinary. Every decision that’s made fits with the character’s motives, backstory, and personality. Coach Nanbu is a selfish coward at times, taking the easy road whenever it presents itself. Yet he’s also a betting man, and knows when to take risks; which is especially true when his back is to the wall. So as much as I hated him at the start, I grew to respect and understand his nature. I ended up caring more for our sleazy coach in two episodes than I did for Kakegurui’s entire cast in a season. So in a show all about upping the ante, why am I talking about character development?

Because unlike betting exorbitant amounts of cash, the protagonists of Megalobox are gambling with their lives–a prize that only holds as much value as we give it.

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The show masterfully sets this all up, providing us with a simple scenario that’s regrettably common in real life; a talented dreamer forced to stay in obscurity due to debt, criminal ties, or a myriad of other unfortunate circumstances. It’s a scenario that we can immediately empathize with. Yes, I want to see Junk Dog to succeed; break out of the underground and fight on the big stage. I want to see Coach Nanbu’s luck finally turn around, despite his character flaws. But when the consequences are laid out in front of us, everyone is asked a question. “What will you give up to make it?” Every character has a different reaction to that question, but in a gambling anime the only correct answer is “everything.”

Losing a million dollars doesn’t mean much if we know our protagonist has a million more. But our hero putting his last twenty on the line just for another chance at redemption is a moment that draws every viewer to the climax. Megalobox is a show that throws one gamble after another at us, with the chances of coming out alive decreasing with each wager. And it’s that crazy feeling of desperation that makes gambling shows so addicting. For us to care, we need to relate to the characters: their situation, motives, and that same wild desperation.

And if the protagonist doesn’t care about losing, why should we?

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Though my simulcast list was admittedly small for the Spring 2018 season of anime, this show definitely became my anime of the season. I’m too young to truly appreciate its homage to the older style of anime; the show instead captivated me with its cast of well-written characters, a stylish main protagonist, and stellar art direction. Where I came to see grown men beat each other up, I walked away with a strong plot set in a grim-dark world that never becomes too edgy.

Megalobox is many things, but it mixes those multiple genres up in masterful ways–a trend I hope continues in other shows.