It’s been 50 years since the boxing series Ashita no Joe graced the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump back in 1968, but its legacy is nothing to sneeze at, spanning 20 manga volumes, 2 anime series, 2 animated films, 2 live action films, and now the new Megalo Box anime airing during the Spring 2018 season! But, that’s not all, Joe has been the inspiration for a whole host of fighting series over the years, including the long-running Hajime no Ippo series! This series isn’t just a classic, it’s a cultural phenomenon, and before you dive into the series’s spiritual successor, Megalo Box, let’s lace up our boxing gloves and take a look at the series that started it all!
Ashita no Joe, known internationally as Champion Joe, Rocky Joe, or just plain Joe, is a boxing anime series that follows the trials and tribulations of Joe Yabuki, a scrappy street-smart young orphan with a penchant for getting into trouble as he strives to become the Bantamweight boxing champion.
Plot & Story
Ashita no Joe has been regarded as one of the greatest sports anime series of all time, and it more than earns that distinction with it’s gritty storytelling and flawed, yet compelling characters, namely the series’ protagonist, Joe Yabuki. His transformation over the course of the series is perhaps the series’s greatest strength. He starts off as this impulsive delinquent who is quick to anger and not above using his fists to get what he wants. He’s the antithesis of what we think an underdog is, and yet I couldn’t help but be captivated by him. He’s just so unapologetically flawed. In other anime, writers will try to soften a character in order to ingratiate them to audiences, but with Joe, there is no such thing. It’s all laid out there in the open. Joe isn’t a good guy and he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what he is. He’d rather go down swinging than bow down to someone else, even if his life is on the line. That is what makes this series stand out. It doesn’t shy away from the truth; it’s honest and raw, at times brutally so, and while I will admit it is dated (almost comically so in some places) this honesty is the most compelling part of the overall narrative.
The pacing is pretty touch-and-go in the beginning. The first few episodes are more concerned with establishing Joe as a ‘diamond in the rough’, focusing more on the relationship between Joe and his soon-to-be trainer, Danpei. These episodes focus on Joe’s interactions with Danpei, as the latter attempts to introduce Joe to the world of boxing, albeit with little success. It isn’t until the prison arc (yes, you read that right, Joe goes to jail) that the story really takes off because it’s here that Joe really starts to take boxing more seriously and finally starts making strides to become a ‘better’ person.
This is very much Joe’s story, with most characters taking a backseat to Joe, save the rivals he meets as he attempts to make a name for himself in the boxing world. Perhaps the most integral part of Joe’s journey is his rival Tooru Rikiishi. The majority of the second half of the series is dedicated to the rivalry between Joe and Rikiishi, and of all the rivals in the show, Rikiishi is by far the most important in spurring Joe’s eventual growth as a character. Rikiishi serves as a foil to Joe in many ways. He’s mature, calm, likable, and astute, whereas Joe is always on edge, ready to strike, and yet it is Rikiishi that proves to be the biggest obstacle in Joe’s rise to the top because he is a constant reminder of everything Joe isn’t. He challenges him to do better.
This arc is a turning point in Joe’s personal character development, one that is not without its fair share of tragedy. It drives home the notion that success is a double-edged sword. In order to make it, someone else must inevitably lose, and yet Joe takes it a step further by showing how victory can also come with its own consequences. I honestly can’t talk about this without majorly spoiling the anime, but trust me, there really are no winners at the end of the Rikiishi arc…
Art & Music
Right, so let’s get this out of the way right now, Ashita no Joe aired in the 70’s, so the art is very dated, and definitely not all that pretty to look at, but, it goes well with the grittier storytelling and characters… so, take that with a grain of salt. Most modern anime fans will have a hard time getting over the dated art style and sketchy animation. Sometimes the frames don’t match up or the characters aren’t anatomically correct, but if you go in with an open mind, it actually holds up pretty well. Just don’t expect the same level of fluidity in modern fighting anime. However, in it’s defense, I did quite like the sketchy style during the action/fighting sequences as it evoked this almost manga like framing and style that I always found appealing in high action anime.
The music is also a product of the time period. The opening theme song, ‘Ashita no Joe’ by Isao Bitou, is more of an Enka ballad that gives the series an almost ethereal feel as if you’re about to watch an epic folk tale rather than a boxing anime. It gives me chills every single time I hear it because there is just the bittersweet nostalgic quality to the vocals that just grips at your soul.
The ending themes, ‘Joe no Komoriuta’ by Asao Koike (Ep. 1-40) and ‘Rikiishi Toru no Theme’ by Hide Yuki (Eps. 41-79) are also Enka ballads, the first being another Joe-centric theme in fitting with the narrative of the first forty episodes of the series. The second theme shows a shift in the narrative, which focuses on the rivalry between Joe and Tooru Rikiishi.
Themes & Trivia
The People’s Hero: Ashita no Joe was originally published at a time when Japan was experiencing a great deal of economic and social transition. Joe Yabuki was meant to be a representation of the lower class that was struggling under the new reforms.
Highlight to Read
Mourning a Fictional Character: This is a bit of a spoiler, but when Rikiishi died in the series, fans of the series were so moved that they held a real-life funeral for him, the event was attended by over 700 individuals dressed in black and presided over by a Buddhist priest. Fans even constructed a life-sized boxing ring to commemorate the event.
Bantamweight: Joe is a bantamweight boxer, which is one of the lighter fighting classes, ranging from 112 to 118 pounds (51 to 54 kg).
Rocky: Ashita no Joe has been compared with the 1976 American boxing film Rocky, despite the latter being released YEARS after both the manga and the first season of the anime concluded their run. If anything, Rocky borrows heavily from Joe, as both feature abrasive underdog characters from the ‘streets’ that through hard work and perseverance work their way up to boxing stardom. But, anyone that calls Ashita no Joe the Rocky of anime… is doing this anime a great disservice!
Imitation is the highest form of flattery: Joe is such an iconic series that it has been parodied several times over the years in other anime and Japanese media. While it is impossible to list all the anime influenced by the series, here’s a few anime that made reference to Joe at some point during their run: Kill la Kill, Hajime no Ippo, Toppa Tengen Gurren Lagann, Bakuman, Urusei Yatsura, Hokuto No Ken, GTO, and many more. Note, not all of these anime are boxing related.
I am about as far from the target demographic as you can get. Hell, I’m not even a fan of fighting anime, but, for some reason, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Ashita no Joe. I can’t explain it, but from the first chords of the opening theme to the last scene of Ashita no Joe 2, I was enamored with the world of the anime and its characters. They weren’t just characters for me, they were people. They were flawed, they made mistakes, but they were real.
Of course, I will readily admit that there are some aspects of the series that just don’t hold up well years later. The art is dated and many of the characters are little more than one-dimensional caricatures… but, where it counts, Joe stands the test of time.
Paving the Way for the Future
- Joe is very different from your run-of-the-mill underdog. He’s flawed, wholly unlikable, and yet an inspiring anti-hero
- The Enka-styled opening and ending themes are a beautiful testament to the folk hero narrative of Ashita no Joe… I get chills!
- A compelling story that doesn’t shy away from tragedy. Every action has a consequence and the series makes that painfully obvious on more than one occasion
- The rivals are just as interesting as the main character, if not more so
- The art and animation are dated. It just isn’t as fluid as some of the more recent fighting anime
- Some of the side characters are rather flat with little to no redeeming qualities.
- The lack of actual boxing in the first few episodes can be a bit off-putting for folks looking for a more sports-heavy narrative
- Joe is an ass. I know I praised him to death earlier, but he can be downright insufferable at times. You’re almost glad he gets punished for being such a prick!
Ashita no Joe is a classic. It is a forerunner of modern fighting series and very much a relic of the past, and yet it is a testament to the indomitable spirit of the underdog. Joe isn’t so much a boxing anime so much as it is a story about one man’s journey to become more than his humble origins and that is perhaps what has enamored audiences with the series. It’s a timeless story that won’t soon fade from the hearts and minds of those that experience it, either through the various media it has inspired over the years or by watching Joe’s story unfold first hand. Ashita no Joe is an underdog story with grit. It has a heart and soul that stays with you long after the credits roll, so whether you’re a fan of boxing anime or not, I urge you to give this series a watch. So, final verdict: Despite its flaws, Ashita no Joe is a series that should be a must watch for every anime fan!
Ashita no Joe
50th Anniversary Website