With the second season of Megalobox underway, Nicky and Jean-Karlo go back forty years to the originator, Ashita no Joe! The genre-defining series and film made its mark in the anime pop-culture consciousness and is still referenced in modern shows. Helmed by none other than Osamu Dezaki, find out why everyone's still looking forward to Tomorrow's Joe.
This movie is streaming on RetroCrush
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for discussion of the film ahead. This column spoils the ending for a 40-year-old movie. If you haven't seen it, stop reading, go watch it, and come back!
Ladies and gentlemen! In this corner, weighing in at 117 lbs, a classic animated film directed by Osamu Dezaki, the champion of tomorrow—Ashita no Joe~!
And in this corner, weighing in at an undisclosed amount, a pair of kids who weren't even born when this thing came out—Nickyyyy aaaaand Jean-Karlooooo~!
Today, we're covering this classic boxing series of yesteryear, Tomorrow's Joe!!
It's hard to overstate how influential Tomorrow's Joe is to modern anime. Famed anime director Osamu Dezaki got his start with the original 1970s Joe anime, which was later condensed into the film we'll be discussing today. Joe's DNA can be found in tons of modern-day "manly" heroes, and at the risk of spoiling things the tragic ending to Tomorrow's Joe inspired a lot of similarly tragic freeze-frame endings for many beloved characters (see: Kamina in episode 8 of Gurren Lagann). Joe's death inspired a real-life funeral in Japan, and several hundred people attended even! And then Megalo Box came out and re-imagined Joe and his world of boxing. So to sum it up, this is a very important part of anime history we're covering!
That's to say, it's been over forty years since Joe first graced Japanese television and it's still very well regarded today and in the world over. As of now, the original TV series for Tomorrow's Joe remains unlicensed but thanks to our pals at Discotek and RetroCrush, anyone can check out this 1980 compilation film!
Our story begins with Yabuki Joe, a young man who doesn't seem to have much going for him. He's pretty scrappy and loves to fight, but outside of roughing thugs up and protecting hungry kids there isn't much of a future for him.
He meets up with the disgraced Danpei Tange (who I swear must have been the inspiration for Danpé the Gravekeeper in The Legend of Zelda), who sees Joe's potential. But Joe isn't really interested in being coached by a homeless drunk, so he... gets arrested for punching cops out. As you do.
Danpei is a pretty interesting character. It's kinda hard to imagine him as a good teacher and mentor for Joe. In fact, all he really seems to do is to bring Joe trouble. He occasionally shows kindness and wisdom but it's also pretty blatant that he plans to exploit Joe for his own rise back to the top. As thugs attempt to thrash Joe, the old geezer puts himself in the way to protect him. He says it's for Joe's sake but even then he ignores Joe's protest because Joe is his tomorrow.
Far from being just gruff like Mickey Goldmill in Rocky, Danpei is definitely looking out for #1 (being himself)—later in the film, we can see that his current situation is because he was loud, drunk and aggressive towards the higher-ups at the boxing association. Multiple times, even!
He also basically sells out Joe to the cops after beating him up, lol. Even early on you really wonder if this kind of discipline is really meant to straighten out a reckless guy like Joe or if it's simply a different form of oppression on someone who clearly doesn't have anything going for him other than the clothes on his back and his two fists.
I think Danpei is the perfect coach for Joe. Far from being a loveable starry-eyed street tough with a heart of gold, Joe toes the line into being an outright little shit on more than one occasion. He's good at fighting, so he's not all talk, but he definitely is one to write checks his butt can't cash. He's at least willing to own up to when he gets clobbered fair and square, but without Danpei herding him in the right direction it's easy to see that Joe wouldn't live to see a tomorrow at all. He just constantly picks fights against any and all sources of authority.
Yeah, because of this we spend more than half the movie before Joe can even enter a REAL ring. After that run-in with thugs. He spends the first half of the whole movie training in prison. Getting into fights with other prisoners and using Tange's lessons via postcards to sharpen his technique. Joe more than just a diamond in the rough, he's a lump of coal that only responds to pressure.
He beats up dudes pretty effortlessly though, even rouging them up in the cover of night and stealing their beds after he shoved them in a bathroom closet like he was playing a level of Hitman. His cocky attitude wins him no favors and he keeps getting transferred to worse prisons.
It's only until he encounters his first one true rival, Tōru Rikiishi, that Joe starts to get a real fire under his butt.
Rikiishi is one of the first and foremost "Shonen rivals" out there, but through him we can see how this became such an institution. He's more like Akira Toya from Hikaru no Go than Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto, though—far from just being antagonistic towards Joe, Rikiishi humors Joe's rebellious nature while trying to guide him into realizing his full potential. It's a twisted kind of friendship based upon Joe's desire for one-upmanship and Rikiishi's patience, but it's probably the healthiest relationship Joe's ever had.
It's definitely a unique bromance, to say the least. Joe is enamored with Rikiishi almost immediately. No one had ever stood up to him that way. After getting ass-whooped by him, he basically becomes his primary motivation for fighting. Joe improves himself in hopes of being able to stand in the ring as Rikiishi's equal. It basically feels like a big cry for attention!!
It helps that Rikiishi is a genuinely good person at heart who is simply paying his dues to society; he's locked up because he brutally attacked a heckler at a match. He loves boxing and respects Joe's nascent ability.
Formerly considered a prodigy, it's the first time Joe ever encounters someone way above his skill-class (and also weight class).
And make no mistake, magic happens when they enter the ring—Joe famously gets clobbered when he enters the ring with Rikiishi, but Rikiishi fails to knock him out within one round like he promised. The fight inspires a sense of discipline in everyone present!
And you feel it too! While Mushi Pro's work might feel lacking in quality for today's audience. Certain scenes definitely don't pull any punches. It has a knack for recreating the most impactful pages of the manga with flying colors (literally).
It also lines up with the idea that boxing isn't just about mindless violence. As Madame Yuko states, the ring is simply a place where these men can express themselves in a way that creates a boundary between them and their place in the world. It creates a sense of security but also intimacy.
Once Joe serves his time, Danpei is ready to go with training him, but both Joe's lack of a reputation and Danpei's bad rep mean it's impossible to get Joe enlisted in the boxing association.
So Joe does what he does best: picks clandestine fights with boxers until the Association has no choice but to recognize him as a boxer!
Yeah, one of them being the upcoming boxing hopeful, Wolf Kanagushi. Joe knocks his lights out in front of the press in order to create some hype for himself and put the current bigwig on the spot. Talk about two birds with one stone!
This is also where he get Joe's famous cross-counter!!
Yeah, Joe's cross-counter is about the only trick he has; Joe's a Bantamweight (about 117 pounds), and he otherwise isn't particularly powerful. But he's as cocky in the ring as he is outside: he likes baiting his opponent with his "no guard" stance and cross-countering them. It's a weird way of fighting, just shy of "my face to your fist"-style, but it carries Joe to the point where Rikiishi can actually consider facing him.
Again: you'd think Joe would be a plucky scrapper who wins out through sheer determination and a can-do attitude. Instead, he's just a little shit who likes to sucker-punch people bigger than he is. What is heartwarming is that through it all, Rikiishi genuinely believes in Joe's ability. The guy doesn't have a spiteful bone in his body towards Joe, it'd be heartwarming how much he wants to test the little guy if it didn't chart the tragic course for this film.
As cocky as Joe is, immediately declaring that he'd defeat both Wolf and Rikiishi before he's ever stepped into a real ring? That attitude comes at a price. He barely survives his encounter with Wolf, but wins with Rikiishi's support.
What happens next isn't exactly unprecedented either. Joe has little self-preservation and a tendency to play life on a gamble, it's only a matter of time before this comes back to bite him.
After all, Danpei says it early in the film. The ring is a fucking harsh place.
I wanna preface this with a content warning for weight loss.
So, here's the thing. Remember when I said Joe was a bantamweight? Well, Rikiishi was a Welterweight (at least 147 lbs to Joe's 117 lbs). Part of why Joe lost to Rikiishi was pure weight advantage—Rikiishi had at least 30 lbs on Joe. That's two whole weight classes between them, mind—Lightweight and Featherweight. So in order for Rikiishi to be able to face Joe in the ring, he has to lose a minimum of 30 pounds. The result is a plain hellish training regimen that Rikiishi puts himself through.
I dunno if this was as well-known when Tomorrow's Joe was first written, but uh... 30 pounds isn't the kind of weight you just lose within a month. Not without serious drawbacks, at least. So Rikiishi is just starving and dehydrating himself. It's brutal to watch.
Also note, I'm lowballing the weight loss as per the minimums for the weight classes—Rikiishi probably lost even more weight than just 30 pounds. Because what's shonen sports manga without some drastically-disastrous health advice?
By the time he is ready to fight Joe, Rikiishi looks like a goddamn skeleton of himself.
The worst part is, some quack of a doctor is watching all of this and signing off on it!
Dude has to be watched constantly just because he's pushing himself way beyond what's capable of most humans.
Meanwhile, Joe's training consists of... learning how to box properly without relying on tricks or gimmicks! Joe has good fundamentals, but his over-reliance on his No-Guard style basically means he can't block to save his life.
Joe is pushing himself in his own way too, having both Danpei and Nishi fight him at the Same Time in order to improve and finally becomes good enough to reach a real breakthrough.
Also, the old "monkeys jumping on the bed" routine, which ironically is how Joe and Nishi met in the first place. It all comes full circle!
Joe takes a pretty good beating in basically all parts of the film. There are times where it's painful just watching him. I had to clench my stomach while watching some of these training scenes as these two athletes absolutely punish themselves.
Definitely one of the most harrowing scenes is the one where Rikiishi wakes up to realize he can't drink any cold water because it would supposedly poison him. Only for the kind, lady-love Miss Yoko to offer him something to drink. And he refuses!!
When we get to the fight, it's the showstopper the film deserves.
The tide flows back and forth during the match, neither boxer really has the edge. Rikiishi's raw skill and power are hampered by having lost an inhuman amount of weight, and Joe's abilities are just enough to match a weakened Rikiishi—barely.
One punch from Rikiishi is basically like grazing a bullet but he's also waning. Both are struggling to even hang in the ring. Joe almost takes a hit straight on but gets saved by the bell. Danpei tells him he has to use real boxing if he wants to win.
This works to a degree. It lessens the damage done by Rikiishi's hits but it really seems like Joe is about to be down for the count!
Joe does give as good as he gets, but as we'll see, this has disastrous results.
Rikiishi ends up with a minor concussion, he gets up but both of them are so tired it boils down to an old fashioned stand-off in the final round. The audience yelling at them to get the fight over with!
By god, if there's any part of this movie you watch, please watch this final match. It's hard to describe but it ranges between tense, fluid, uplifting, and tragic within the span of each hit.
It's absolutely harrowing, turn's out Joe's punch actually gave him some SERIOUS brain damage on top of his already worsened condition. It may seem atypical of your usual sport's narrative, but it's no way out of line with the solemn tone of the film. There's many little poignant moments, from Joe sulking on the beach after a loss to the final scene where Joe gazes upon the face of the man he was dedicating his whole goddamn existence to fight against. Those who already love Dezaki's work from other series such as Rose of Versailles or Dear Brother should definitely also check this one out.
Tomorrow's Joe is what a beloved friend of mine would have called a "museum piece". They don't make 'em like this anymore—for better or worse. The emotions hit hard, but the limitations the animators work under make this move a little tough to watch outside of the abject tragedy. Lots of zoomed-in faces, lots of jerky animation—it's the result of a compilation of a show made in 1970. But. Tomorrow's Joe became a beloved classic of sports anime for a reason. You have to really want to watch this to sit through the two-and-a-half hours for it, but I'm thinking anyone who knows the name Ashita no Joe is willing to do that.
Who knows. Maybe this film can inspire you to reach for the championship. The view is pretty swell from the top.
Ring us out, Joe!!