This is how the legend begins: a man wearing a grey coat, his red hat shading his face. Behind him stands the Tokyo Tower, in front the seemingly infinite slums of the city. Tokyo’s outskirts are a wasteland, its dust and grime staining his clothing. This man is truly alone, an enigma, but as he crosses the bridge into the slums he whistles a familiar tune.
So begins Ashita no Joe, one of the most beloved comics ever drawn. You know the sports manga drill: average boy is introduced to a sport by a friend or role model. Boy encounters rival, takes him on and just barely wins/loses. After strenuous training, boy enters tournament and fights opponent after opponent, each with a story of his own. Repeat strenuous training. Rival appears again, boy fights rival, the results are dramatic. Repeat for as many volumes of manga, or episodes of anime, as editors demand before the series runs its course and the creators swiftly wrap things up. Put this way it sounds formulaic, but some of the most popular and influential series of all time are sports manga, ranging from the sheer adrenaline of Slam Dunk to the slice-of-life baseball drama/romance of Touch!, to Hikaru no Go‘s affecting bildungsroman. Tomorrow’s Joe wasn’t the first sports manga to hit it big, preceded as it was by the popular baseball series Star of the Giants (Kyojin no Hoshi) from 1966 as well as shoujo volleyball classic Attack No. 1 from 1968. But of those manga that have left a monumental influence on Japanese society and culture, few have cast a longer shadow than Tomorrow’s Joe. A manga that inspired such devotion that real-life funerals were held after the deaths of major characters. A manga whose structure became the blueprint for countless future manga and anime. The anime version, which began airing two years after the start of the manga, marked the debut of to-be legendary director Osamu Dezaki. Together with character designer Akio Sugino, he created an adaptation that easily stands toe to toe with the source material in its sheer impact.
Despite having been parodied and paid homage to countless times since its airing, the Ashita no Joe anime remains compelling simply because the stakes are so high. The Japan we see in Ashita no Joe is a hellscape of slums and factories and prisons, in which our heroes struggle simply to feed themselves or scam others to feed themselves. Everyone lives on the edge, from Joe himself to his coach Danpei, from the neighborhood yakuza to the kids who serve as Joe’s cheering squad and occasional moral compass. Joe is a wild animal: lashing out at anyone he thinks poses a threat to him, stealing from those he can fool into believing his innocence. Danpei is a drunk: a boxer who lost an eye in a match, failed to train a successor and has since fallen into alcoholism. The cute anime kids who live nearby are able con artists, the yakuza are truly vicious and Yoko, the wealthy philanthropist known as “the angel of the slums,” is an unknowable quantity who may either despise Joe or secretly wish the best for him. There isn’t even a proper boxing match until the fourteenth episode of the series! The explanation for this is that at heart, Tomorrow’s Joe is ultimately a character study rather than a straightforward sports story. And at its center is Joe: violent, selfish but ultimately heroic.
In truth, Joe is a colossal asshole and it was supremely risky of the staff to linger on each of his bad decisions. The delinquents of manga are often charming despite their tough guy exterior: Sakuragi, the hero of Slam Dunk, starts out as a troublemaker, but you know from the beginning that his heart is fundamentally good. Joe is a tougher study, spending much of the show’s beginning hurting others for his own benefit. In fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of Tomorrow’s Joe‘s first few episodes are how much more admirable the rest of the cast are than Joe by contrast: Danpei works overtime and eats only a bun a day in the hopes that Joe will use his allowance to become a proper boxer, Yoko repeatedly takes the high road rather than condemn Joe immediately, the kids love and remain loyal to their new boss despite everything that happens. Meanwhile, Joe betrays Danpei’s trust, scams Yoko for money and puts the kids under his charge into increasingly horrific situations. It becomes so much that when Danpei finally beats the shit out of Joe, the moment is cathartic. Only the dead look in Joe’s eyes and the brutality of the scene as rendered by the animators makes the viewer reconsider. I’m reminded of how when the anime adaptation of Notari Masutaro, one of Joe mangaka Tetsuya Chiba’s later efforts, premiered in 2014, viewers in the United States were repulsed by the protagonist’s selfishness. “What the hell?” they said. “Aren’t shounen protagonists supposed to be likable?!?”
But that’s the thing! Joe may not be likable, especially at the beginning. But every writer worth his or her salt knows that what’s important is not creating likable, but relatable characters. Joe may initially be profoundly antisocial, taking advantage of anyone who shows him kindness and attacking anyone he believes means him harm. But as time goes on the psychology behind his actions becomes clear. Behind his brassy exterior is a wounded animal, biting at anything that comes close. He has no no immediate family, or friends, or ambitions. The iron-clad rules of society drive him into hysterics, and his attempts to subvert or surpass those rules puts him in more and more trouble. And we know that Joe is right: the Japan we see is slums and shacks and factories, a world that drove Danpei to drink, that doomed the kids to lives of poverty. Even Yoko, the “angel of the slums,” is implied to be kind and benevolent simply because she is privileged enough to be so. In the meantime Joe struggles to channel his need to survive into something tangible, but his only real talent is violence. Punching the walls of his prison does nothing but hurt his hands and make him even angrier and more frustrated.
Enter boxing. Rikishi, the Rival on which all Rivals are based, gives Joe something to aspire to, someone to beat. Boxing gives Joe a means by which to use his talent constructively, dealing out violence that is sanctioned by the rules of the system itself. In a sense the world of Tomorrow’s Joe is fundamentally conservative: the prisoners of Joe’s reformatory are psychopathic mavericks, but the rules of boxing civilize them for the first time! But what’s more interesting here is how boxing grants to perpetual underdog Joe and his put-upon cohorts a means to revolt. In Tomorrow’s Joe‘s Japan, the rich are free to indulge themselves while the poor and disenfranchised are doomed to (sorry) “never amount to anything.” But boxing gives Joe a reason to punch things, a way to strike back against the system that disgusts him that is codified by the system itself. Eventually he learns not only how to fight, but when to fight, and why. And that way lies the story.
In this light, it isn’t difficult to see why so many readers and viewers in Japan would cheer on Joe’s exploits. Joe begins the series as a wild beast, but it’s that very quality that makes him compelling. He laughs in the face of danger, never backs down from a fight and–most crucially–slowly but surely learns from his mistakes. It’s no surprise that Japan, with its complicated history of violence, national pride and guilt, would see themselves in Joe, identify with the human vulnerability that defines his character, and cheer him on as he fights to disrupt the natural order of things. Joe is a beast, Joe is a human being, Joe is Japan itself: the ultimate comeback kid, racing towards Tomorrow.