Mixed martial arts may be mainstream, but permeating pop culture like other sports has been tough.
For movies, we have Warrior. Some of us have a soft spot for Never Back Down, but we won’t claim it publicly. Kingdom is the only good show that isn’t a reality series, but the questionable choreography and run of the mill drama hold it back. And, of course, there are also the mixed martial arts documentaries that are disqualified from the “pop culture” label.
Stray off the beaten path, however, and you’ll find an MMA gem: All-Rounder Meguru.
All-Rounder Meguru features realistic manga fight scenes
Getting a TV anime adaptation requires that manga (Japanese comics) include wild fantasy and sci-fi elements to draw in children and preteens to sell units. Even sports anime are not excluded from this. Consequently, realistic and grounded manga often stay manga.
And I’m glad that All-Rounder Meguru took that risk.
There’s no super-powered punches or visions of an opponent as a ferocious beast. The striking and grappling actually looks like an MMA fight. Take this illustration of a jab counter on the left.
Take it all in. Despite the minimal “effects”, is it not very easy to understand what’s going on during this fight scene?
Look at the angle of the white “distortion” effect on the fighter in the first panel. He’s dodging towards the jab, but also moving slightly downwards. In contrast, the jab is moving level with the floor. This really helps the second panel work; the audience knows the grappler ducked the jab rather than simply moving to the side. The effects on the jab and the dodge and the right-hand counter drawn simultaneously lets you everything is happening at once.
This is just one example of the brilliant fight scenes that feature in this MMA manga.
Respect for the mixed martial arts grind
The entire plot of All-Rounder Meguru revolves around the titular character and his group of friends trying to make it on the Japanese amateur circuit with some hoping to go pro. Appropriately, this MMA manga dedicates a good part of itself to the rigors of training.
Rather than a conveniently condensed montage, All-Rounder Meguru builds up Meguru and company step-by-step. Meguru starts as a neophyte with a karate background and painstakingly builds himself to be an all-rounder. From basic sprawls and jabs to submissions and kicks, it really mirrors the growth of an earnest fighter.
And wow, this manga does grappling justice.
Fans gravitate towards strikers more than grapplers in mixed martial arts because it’s more visceral and easy to understand. It’s why Mike Tyson exploded in popularity; you didn’t have to know anything about boxing to understand what he was about. Grappling needs explaining, and the mismatch between entertainment value and actual complexity is often too much.
But again, the art and storytelling of All-Rounder Meguru come through.
It’s only part of a grappling exchange, but the fighters’ peers explain what they want her to do and the art shows it beautifully. More detailed explanations are in the training scenes, which keeps the dialogue from overwhelming the action in competitive fights.
The great, varied characters of All-Rounder Meguru
Meguru Takayanagi is the typical underdog protagonist; not overwhelmingly talented or athletic but trains earnestly, treating friend and foe alike with respect. Lovable, but ultimately uninteresting. Rather, he’s the eyes through which we view a great supporting cast.
There’s Maki Kamiya, a towering Muay Thai practitioner who switches to mixed martial arts to find herself better competition. There’s Momoko Aikawa, the goofy judo prodigy held back by her lack of stamina. Or Kenichiro Furuya, the stern but fair father/big brother of their gym.
Then there’s Takashi Yamabuki.
A childhood karate friend who moves away, he returns as the closest thing to a deuteragonist and antagonist as All-Rounder Meguru gets. With tragedy and his father’s legacy hanging over him, his motivation for pursuing mixed martial arts is darker than Meguru’s. He’s stoic and haunted while Meguru possesses a borderline childlike innocence. And while his former friend builds himself almost from scratch, Yamabuki is a prodigy striker.
This is packaged together with the traditional love, laugh, and heartbreak accompanying any group of friends.
If you’re okay reading right to left and going out of your way to find it, All-Rounder Meguru is an MMA fan’s hidden treasure. It’s a love letter to the sport in Japan and an engaging story that’s tempting to binge read. And who knows, make the author enough money and maybe we’ll get a TV adaptation!