Here’s my theory on nostalgia:
What we’re looking for when we look back fondly on the “things” of our youth isn’t so much the concrete details. Peeps like me who were kids in the 1980s may have fond memories of certain movies, TV shows, bands, and the like, but it isn’t so much those specific things that we long for. We might wrap ourselves in adoration of a specific thing, but that’s a bit of a mistake. Until you step back and really ponder over what it is you’re looking for you go for that easy to digest, easily marketed to you answer. You want the reboot of the franchise, the rerelease of the vinyl album, or the reissue of the hard to find toy, but what you really want is the feeling of experiencing that thing for the first time.
The specific details burn themselves into your brain, and the various aesthetics surrounding those material objects remind you of that youthful period where everything was new and wondrous. It’s that state of mind– where the world was always something to discover and celebrate rather than something to dread and fear– that we’re really seeking. That kid may as well be a different person, and we want to remind ourselves of our past self, and those ephemeral details let us take a peek back to what it felt like to be that past self.
So yeah, it’s all still a form of escape, but we’re seeking a state of mind rather than a state of material gain. That’s where things like Ready Player One flounder, since that “conversation with God” is replaced with ceremonial pomp and circumstance and ritual grandstanding.
This is why I’m less interested in revisiting franchises and more interested in media that’s trying to synthesize all of these genre details, styles of music, visual quirks, and the like into something new. This is why I think things like all that future funk and vaporwave music “works,” since they’re playing with all this old, “out of date” music and turning it into something new. It’s also why I’d rather watch something like Turbo Kid or The Void, two movies that play with 80s style sci-fi and horror respectively, rather than think about reboots of Ghostbusters or the listicle filmmaking of the aforementioned Ready Player One. In fabricating an artificial artifact from that era, rather than simply repeating the same thing over again, these things do a better job of capturing that fleeting feeling.
That said, this is an approach I haven’t really seen in anime.
We’ve had quite a few revivals over the years, but none of them have tackled their subject matter in quite the same way. This year’s Devilman Crybaby is brilliant, but it’s also a franchise revival that updates its subject matter to modern sensibilities. Yuasa is a decidedly 21st century artist, and Crybaby reflects its times rather than Go Nagai’s early 1970s vibe. Lupin is more like James Bond– constantly shifting with the times while still having one foot in the 1960s. Both Lupin and Bond are modern and antiquated, and in neither sense do they work in the sense I’m getting at.
I really do think that Megalo Box is the first anime I’ve seen that deliberately goes for this sort of synthesizing of 1980s aesthetics in the way I’m thinking.
The deliberately sketchy line art lends it a hand drawn look. It’s certainly fabricated, since it’s drawn on computers like every other recent anime, but the same goes for a lot of these movies that recreate effects or enhance practical effects with computer graphics. Couple that with a color palette that feels a bit washed out and “old” and you have something that feels like it’s recreating that hand drawn cel style from a 80s OVA. Throw in the series’ score, which leans heavily on synths and guitars, and character designs straight out of that era, and we have something that wouldn’t look out of place in 1986 while still feeling “modern.” Megalo Box has that superficial vibe going for it.
But that isn’t the only thing it needs to really complete this synthesis. Megalo Box takes its Ashita no Joe story roots– with the underdog boxer who develops a rivalry with “the best” despite his more than humble origins– and meshes that with a near-future, not quite apocalyptic but close enough setting. This is that sort of post-Road Warrior setting where filmmakers went out into the desert, filmed some peeps in grungy clothing, lived in technology, and other assorted props to create a future in decline despite being far ahead of “today.”
I really do think all of that is rooted in the desire to project all of one’s anxieties and fears of a future where our leaders will destroy the world, but instead of being one of the people who simply dies in the resulting devastation, we imagine ourselves in this “awesome” post-destruction wasteland where we can rage against the existential forces that brought us here and become someone better in the process. I think that sort of fantastical anxiety is just as relevant now as it was then. As a kid, I really did think there was going to be some sort of nuclear war between Russia and the US, and yeah, if it came I wanted to be that wastelands warrior ninja with an AK-47 shooting Soviet Kung Fu zombies. The faces involved have changed, but many of those same anxieties still exist in many people’s minds given current political developments.
This also recasts that underdog rivalry. Junk Dog isn’t just the “little guy” looking to prove his worth in a world where fame and the like have more clout than actual skill. He’s an undocumented non-civilian who can’t get a real job or real boxing bouts because of his “illegal” status. That his rival isn’t just the most renown boxer in the world, but also the “chosen one” of the woman who runs the corporate hierarchy behind boxing, turns it into a struggle between social and economic classes. That anxiety that worked in the 80s is being recast 30+ years later into a scenario fitting for our times.
Yeah, the first episode of Megalo Box is a brilliant synthesis of these trends. Hopefully it’ll keep it up. If so, it can be something really special.