I firmly stand by the belief that Medaka Box is one of the best series in Weekly Shonen Jump’s history. The collaboration between light novel legend Nisio Isin and (at the time) newbie artist Akira Akatsuki was a match made in heaven.
Obviously, following Nisio Isin’s career is quite easy. He’s an incredibly prolific writer, and his series make lots of appearances in many forms. Alongside the obvious choice of Monogatari, he has Juni Taisen, Katanagatari, Zaregoto… Just with those choices, I have my hands full.
Akira Akatsuki, however, is a bit of a different story. Medaka Box was essentially his first major project, and ever since then, he’s drifted from short-lived project to short-lived project. The only long-form projects he’s been able to get off the ground since Medaka Box ended in 2013 are Shounen Shoujo (another collaboration with Isin) and the Juni Taisen manga adaptation (story originally by Isin, once more).
So when it was announced that Akatsuki would be embarking on a new project, this time without Isin, needless to say, I was very interested. That project is none other than BOXER’s BLAST. The series, currently serialized in the monthly magazine Jump SQ, revolves around the unlikely encounter between professional boxer Watami Kento and high schooler Shirokiya Takashi. The first volume for the series released last Tuesday, so I was finally able to dive into the series. But what I found, was decidedly mixed.
Manga is a visual medium. It, therefore, follows that art is very important. Furthermore, there are many cases where good art can elevate an otherwise average story.
This is what I expected Akira Akatsuki’s role to be on BOXER’S BEAT. He is one of my favorite artists right now, due to his excellent sense of visual direction and character designs. And for the most part, this carries over to this new work.
The paneling and framing of the series, especially in its opening chapter, is absolutely perfect. There is a cinematic quality to Akatsuki’s visual direction here which draws you in immediately to the story. Meanwhile, Akatsuki’s character designs for the series continue to be excellent. They do look quite familiar to the kind of designs he has done before however, with Watami’s blonde hair reminding me of Zenkichi and with Sousuke’s hairstyle being almost exactly the same as Medaka’s. I’m not sure if this is a fault with Akatsuki’s art itself, or whether this is simply the by-product of having designed so many different characters for so many different series in recent years though – at that point, you’re bound to start repeating yourself.
So it seems as though Akatsuki is on top form for this project. Therefore, the spotlight passes over to newbie writer, Atsuro Sakai.
As far as I can tell, Sakai is completely new to the industry. A quick Google search didn’t turn anything up in terms of blogs or social media, so I wasn’t even able to see if he had done any doujin work before this, much like how Akatsuki got his start as an artist.
Akatsuki being paired with this newbie is an interesting inversion of his experience with Nisio Isin on Medaka Box. Much like with Medaka Box, I hoped that the established craftsmanship of one half of the team would allow the other half the spotlight to show off his skills to the world. But what Sakai shows us in the opening volume of the series is decidedly mixed.
Reading the first chapter was a joy. The story constantly builds, playing out as a delightful ‘will they or won’t they’ between Watami and Shirokiya, as the pair become friends and start to discuss training together. And then, the twist – and it hits hard. Watami, in search of Shirokiya, is hit by a truck and becomes comatose. I was genuinely shocked at how the first chapter ended, and couldn’t wait to get to the next one.
The second chapter starts off well enough, with Sakai building on the dramatic stakes of Watami being in a coma through a series of abstract vignettes. He also shows how helpless Shirokiya is without him. Yet, at the end of chapter two, Watami comes back as a ghost. The problem of his comatose state, therefore, becomes naught, and any dramatic effect from the twist is essentially rendered useless.
Moving on to the third chapter, it becomes clear that Sakai’s main intended source of drama for the story is not Watami comatose state, but the conflict between Shirokiya and Sousuke, another ‘apprentice’ of Watami. Both characters have similar backstories, becoming boxers after Watami spots hidden talent in them, giving them similar outlooks. The sudden entry of Shirokiya into Watami’s inner circle, in turn, undermines Sousuke’s relationship with Watami, and in that, a rivalry is born.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about a rival story. Rather, I think that the rivalry between Shirokiya and Sousuke could be an interesting base on which the series can build going forward. But that is definitely not as interesting as dealing with tragedy, and I’m certainly not interested in an author wasting my time by writing out his own dramatic developments. Needless to say, I came away from the first volume fairly miffed.
That being said, I’m willing to give Sakai the benefit of the doubt.
BOXER’s BLAST’s broader place in the manga world is what drives me to talk about the series, as well as my love for Akira Akatsuki.
Boxing, as a refined bout of savagery, is somehow more interesting than any other sport to write a story about. It’s no secret that I love Ashita no Joe, but I’ve been in search of the next great boxing manga ever since I finished Joe’s saga.
I’d hoped that BOXER’s BLAST might be just what I was looking for – especially with one of my favorite artists on board. But what I experienced in the first volume wasn’t perfect, and for that reason, I am vexed.
But rivalry can be a good starting point for a story. Just look at Ashita no Joe – the rivalry between Yabuki Joe and Rikishi Toru is what drives that series. What’s more, Joe didn’t exactly get the most convincing of starts either – they don’t even start boxing until after around the third volume. So I’m still holding out hope for BOXER’s BLAST to become truly great, however foolish that may be.
Volume one of BOXER’s BLAST is available now. It is currently serialized monthly in Jump SQ.