Rocky Has Always Been Anime. 'Creed III' Proves It.

Eric Francisco
Who are the greatest protagonists in shonen anime? Is it Goku? Naruto? Ichigo? Kenshiro? How about Rocky Balboa?The Rocky franchise, which began with the Oscar-winning Rocky in 1976, is now a nine-film saga with the release of Creed III from Michael B. Jordan (who stars in and directs the latest picture). A millennial who came of age in the time of Toonami, MBJ has made it clear to anyone who will listen that he loves anime. It isn’t just a branding thing, it’s legitimately his lifestyle.In the promotional cycle for Creed III, Jordan has talked up channeling his anime fandom as a first-time director. In a red carpet interview with Crunchyroll, Jordan said, “I just kind of used the tones and themes of an anime: Brotherhood, bonds, promises. I think just being Black and connecting with that, feeling different, being outcast in certain areas and still feeling like I am powerful and I can make a difference. It’s something that I think anime [does] in general. That’s why I think we connect with it so much.”Creed III is proof the talk is real. Spiritually anime in live-action, MBJ brings to Creed III white-knuckle boxing presented with expressionistic, hyper-focused flair. Where past Rocky movies strove for realism, like 2006’s Rocky Balboa (which fools you into thinking you’ve just bought an HBO pay-per-view), Creed III puts a premium on breakneck rhythmic editing and kinetic visual composition, all of which are underpinned by heated personal vendettas. There’s more in common here with Goku than Mike Tyson.Jordan’s unusual direction may be novel to traditional moviegoers, but anime fans will feel right at home. But MBJ’s mimicry of anime is only synthesizing what’s been underneath the Rocky series all this time. Though shonen manga historically predate the Rocky films, the saga of Rocky Balboa has always been an unofficial anime at heart.How Rocky Is AnimeLet’s state up front that shonen manga and anime are shaped by who consumes them. Its primary audience are young boys who are drawn to escapist genres like action, fantasy, sci-fi, and sports dramas. Shonen anime aren’t exclusively those types of stories, but they’re popular among boys for obvious reasons. Boys like exciting things.Predominant in shonen anime is the underdog spirit of the protagonist. Flavors vary based on story, but the leads of shonen anime typically have something to prove — and the guts to succeed. They might be unusually talented at their craft (like Takumi’s drift racing in Initial D), or they have something special about themselves (like Eren Yeager’s secret power in Attack on Titan). Ash Ketchum of Pokémon has both an indomitable spirit to never give up, and a similarly determined Pikachu that rival Pokémon trainers underestimate. Almost no one in shonen anime are born with their gifts. Fateful events either happen to them, or they’ve invested the time and effort to exceed. At their core, shonen anime champions the virtues of relentless willpower over luck and talent.If none of those things describe Rocky Balboa, then what does? After all, Rocky is a pure fighter whose unyielding refusal to give up allowed him to survive his first two bouts against Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in his first two movies. And it was his humility that led him to better himself into a bonafide boxer that won him his victories Rocky III and Rocky IV. (Rocky V does not exist in my dojo.) While Rocky embodies the classic American underdog — an oxymoron given America’s superpower status, but it’s a nice lie we tell ourselves — the Rocky series as a whole are formulated by the motifs and themes of shonen anime, including, and now especially, the spin-off Creed trilogy. Th Rocky series’ emphasis on its training montages are also something of an urtext to those in anime. More than just an excuse to hear Bill Conti’s unforgettable score, the training montages of Rocky serve a critical purpose in every narrative: Rocky is evolving. Used to similar effect in anime, Goku’s and Naruto’s and whoever else’s training frequently show them improving and honing their skills, sometimes through unusual methods. Vegeta training in ultra-heavy gravity in Dragon Ball Z, Shinji and Asuka learning to dance in Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Guts training with swords twice his size in Berserk are not that different than Rocky chasing chickens or learning to swim.Stallone’s memorable performance as Rocky predates almost all modern shonen anime. And surely anime creators may be influenced by the Rocky films, whether directly or not. But Rocky has always embodied in American cinema the type of fighting spirit found most often in the heroes of Japanese anime. Rocky is absent in Creed III, but his student-turned-master Adonis Creed carries on his legacy in ways that have never been more obvious.Creed III is playing in theaters now.
© Davy Mellado, 2022. All rights reserved.