I’ll be the first to admit I have a weakness for sports manga, so it’s with nothing but love that I point out many mangas in this shounen sub-genre follow very clear cut lines.
If battle manga has the tournament arc, then sports manga have the nerdy or misanthropic loner who shows little interest in the sport; the protagonist that is thrust into the game, usually through a club, and displays a weird knack that gives them a leg up on the competition; the prodigy with a meteoric rise from rookie to veteran to Pillar of Seigaku—oh wait, sorry, that last one’s just Prince of Tennis.
But the point remains: Many beloved sports manga follow a familiar outline, using various tropes and clichés to varying degrees of success.
Then there’s Ashita no Joe. The story follows the titular Joe in his career as a professional boxer, and while it adheres closely to certain genre tropes, it entirely eschews others. It should come as no surprise that this manga doesn’t necessarily follow all the tropes we’ve come to know and love from other sports manga, considering it’s over half a century old.
Written by Asao Takamori and illustrated by Tetsuya Chiba, Ashita no Joe was published from 1968 to 1973 in Kodansha’s Weekly Shounen Magazine and turned into several anime series and movies, making it a grandfather of the sports manga sub-genre.
Just as every sci-fi flick dealing with themes of machine consciousness and personhood must work in the shadow of Blade Runner, every sports manga dealing with the themes of personal strife and the sacrifice of well-being for the sake of craft must work in the shadow of Ashita no Joe. It was one of the first sports manga, and in many ways, even to this day, it’s one of the best.
The manga centers on Joe Yabuki, a delinquent orphan with a knack for brawling. He’s got the same spirit as many shounen manga protagonists, brash and abrasive, but pushed to the point of unlikable, and for much of the early story, he shows no interest in boxing whatsoever.
It’s not until retired boxer and disgraced coach Danpei Tange sees him in a street brawl that the notion of boxing even crosses Joe’s mind, and even after Danpei’s offer to train him, Joe is not the most dedicated student.
With all his antics, it doesn’t take long before Joe lands himself in jail, and it’s there that his passion for boxing is ignited, never to go out. While incarcerated he meets his first rival, Toru Rikiishi, a professional boxer who handles Joe with ease during a prison fight and prompts Joe to begin training for an eventual rematch.
Rivals are another common shounen manga trope, but Ashita no Joe handles this one a little differently that one might expect. The story is about Joe, his growth as a person, and when he and Rikiishi finally meet in the ring, Joe’s win comes at a cost.
In the immediate wake of their boxing match, Rikiishi dies due to sustained brain damage, and this is a glimpse of things to come in Ashita no Joe. While there are plenty of characters and more rivals to come, the story focuses solely on Joe and his transformation into a person very different from the aimless and confrontational young man he was at the beginning.
The psychological toll of inadvertently killing Rikiishi is a heavy one, and Joe slips into a funk. He has trouble in future bouts, unable to take effective headshots on his opponents, and it takes time for him to return to form.
What finally snaps him out of it is a match with Carlos Rivera, a renowned up and coming boxer with a respect for Joe. The two become friendly rivals, and the idea of boxing Rivera motivates Joe to move past his guilt and the trauma of Rikiishi’s death.
When Joe and Rivera finally have their bout, Joe loses, but the spellbinding match catapults him onto the world stage. From there, he trains to take on the world’s number one, José Mendoza—but all the while, Joe is burdened by a sense of guilt that grows day by day.
Joe was indirectly responsible for Rikiishi’s death, and in the aftermath of his bout with Rivera, it’s revealed that the toll of their match left Rivera unprepared to face Mendoza, and he was forced to retire due to brain damage.
Joe survives it all while his friends and rivals crumble around him, and the question that arises is always the same: Is this worth it when death has already been established as a consequence? Is this worth it when Joe feels ensnared in and responsible for so much sorrow?
Is this worth it when Joe himself is sustaining more and more damage and his loved ones are forced to stand by and do nothing?
His friend and sometimes love interest, Yoko Shiraki, insists that Joe refrains from competing with Mendoza, but it’s been forgone conclusion from the beginning. Joe enters the world championship match as an amalgamation of his friends and rivals over the years, blind in one eye and brain-damaged but as always, impossible to put down for good.
The match ends without a knockout of any kind, Joe withstanding round after round of punishment from an opponent who is clearly more skillful than him, and at the end of fifteen rounds, the decision is left up to the judges.
Joe loses by a slim margin, but rather than happy, Mendoza is shaken to his core by the abuse his opponent endured. As Danpei turns to speak with Joe in the final panels, he is not moving, eyes closed and a smile on his face as he sits in his corner of the ring.
The crowd goes quiet, Danpei repeats Joe’s name, attempts to rouse him, and the implication is both obvious and ambiguous. In one way or another, Joe has given it all for his sport, and now there’s nothing left.
For the most part, the anime adaptations are faithful to the manga, which was likely easy to do since it only ran for five years. The original Ashita no Joe anime series follows his journey from the manga through 79 episodes that aired from 1970 to 1971.
The second series, Ashita no Joe 2, is a little different. It begins after Rikiishi’s death, but aside from beginning in the middle of the story, it follows Joe to his canonical end across 47 episodes that aired from 1980 to 1981.
The animated movies are likewise named Ashita no Joe and Ashita no Joe 2, and they cover the same timeframe as the series, which can make them feel a bit superfluous, but it’s a testament to the staying power of Joe’s character at that time.
There was a market for Ashita no Joe anime, for a beloved manga brought to life, and with each attempt, the animation studios came closer to capturing the emotions of the manga.
Of them all, the Ashita no Joe 2 movie is considered to be the recommended animation experience. It’s the newest and cleanest looking, and it has the understanding gained from the previous two animated series and movies to help inform its artistic choices.
Two live-action films were also made, one in 1970 and another in 2011, although the 1970 production is extremely difficult to find outside of Japan. Both portray the story of Ashita no Joe in its entirety.
The LEGACY OF ASHITA NO JOE
The ending is the most striking difference between Ashita no Joe and other sports manga, but putting that aside, for now, the most obvious difference is clear right from the get-go: It’s not set in a high school.
This is a different sort of coming-of-age, focused not so much on transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, but focused on growing as a person regardless of age. While Joe is a high schooler at the story’s beginning, he is a dropout with no direction in life, always getting into street brawls and soon finds himself in prison.
The series shows little interest in existing within the high school club framework that so many of today’s sports manga inhabit, and there may be a good reason for that; Ashita no Joe is a reflection of a much different Japan.
Ashita no Joe, published with WWII still firmly in living memory and Japan going through economical and social turmoil, has a depth to it that springs not just from Asao Takamori telling a story, but telling a story about the world many readers could likely relate to.
Joe is not a sketch of the gutsy-but-likable sports manga protagonists we see today, but an embodiment of the times. Today, high school boys with an interest in sports might want to hit a twist serve like Echizen Ryoma or slam dunk after dunk like the improbably tall Kagami Taiga, but that kind of wish fulfillment is common.
Today’s sports manga protagonists are like their viewers in that they are young with hopes and dreams, but Joe was less a reflection of wishes from a youthful audience, and more an everyman in 1960’s Japan.
As such, the story goes beyond school days or rather was never interested in them in the first place. It follows Joe’s journey to what might be the most bittersweet ending in the genre, which remains iconic to this day, and that ending is another way Ashita no Joe is different.
Like all media, shounen manga has been shaped by culture, market research, and the whims of the consumer; to the publisher, a story needs to be saleable above all, and that means that certain things which might have been included for the sake of the art must be removed for the sake of the market. One of those things is death.
Not death as a concept, but the literal, irreversible death of the protagonist. There will always be exceptions—Death Note comes to mind as one of the biggest—but for the most part manga protagonists don’t die. Especially manga protagonists that the reader is meant to relate to.
They get injured, they get emotionally brutalized, they may even go through a die-and-revive arc, but death is usually not on the table when it comes to stories targeting younger audiences.
Ashita no Joe does not follow this trend, perhaps because it was written in a different era, but also perhaps because, as mentioned earlier, it’s not a caricature of wish fulfillment, but a reflection of the times.
Japan has long projected the image of a die-hard, can-do spirit, and in Ashita no Joe, Asao Takamori takes the question of ‘What would you do to achieve your dreams?’ and follows it to the farthest possible conclusion: the death of the protagonist. It’s not explicit, left purposefully ambiguous in the end, and Tetsuya Chiba even mentioned he was uncertain about his own intentions when he drew the final panels.
But if anything, that ambiguity only more effectively raises the question of dreams and consequences in the reader’s mind. If Joe had been explicitly killed at the end, that would be polarizing, dividing readers into those who find the ending emotionally resonant and those who find it repulsive.
By leaving it ambiguous, Asao Takamori teases out the third group from his readership: Those who are left to wonder. Is Joe dead? Is he alive? If he had died, would that have been worth it?
Meaningful stories often raise more questions than they provide answers, and in many ways, Ashita no Joe is similar to modern sports manga in the types of questions it raises. How far are you willing to go, how much sway do loved ones have over us and our goals, and what is the purpose of strength—these are common questions raised in many shounen mangas, not just sports, but through the death of its protagonist, Ashita no Joe presents them in a way less common in today’s market.
That could simply be because it’s a classic; consumers of all kinds of media tend to look fondly on earlier eras as somehow better or less financially minded when the truth is that cream rises to the top, and maybe Ashita no Joe was equally different during its own era as it is in ours.
Of course, the only thing that history will remember is the classics, so it’s possible that Ashita no Joe doesn’t stand out because it’s from a different era, but simply because it’s good. Only time will tell, as we move on and have the hindsight to see which sports manga of today stand the test of time.
But regardless of why it was good, Ashita no Joe sold well enough, especially for its time. It moved twenty million units and spawned two animated series and several movies, and has held the hearts of Japanese readers across a wide demographic for over fifty years.
The death of a protagonist doesn’t always spell the end of a series in a world full of reboots and dragon balls, but for Joe Yabuki, the end and what it cost him to get there, the people he met and the people he lost along the way, was the point.
The emotional resonance that Ashita no Joe found with its original audience in post-war Japan is what makes it a recognizable name among manga enthusiasts even to this day.
Hopefully, Joe found his rest, wherever he may be after those final panels, and hopefully, new artists and readers will carry the spirit of Ashita no Joe beyond the current era of sports manga and far into the future.