Before I begin, as a disclaimer, this review will contain some spoilers on approximately the first ten episodes of Ashita no Joe. However, the series as a whole is well over 100, so I don’t feel I’m really ruining much, and recommend staying tuned even if you haven’t seen it — which is probably most of you.
This is something I’ve touched on in my reviews of Chihayafuru and Hajime no Ippo, but sports anime tend to exist on a spectrum. Each is to some degree about the characters, but the importance of the sport itself varies greatly from one to another. At one end of the spectrum, you have stuff like Haikyuu or Yowamushi Pedal, defined almost entirely by the story of the game, the big races and tournaments. The characters are usually developed just enough to facilitate this, and make you care about the outcomes of matches, but they exist in a framework where playing the sport is all that really matters. On the other end, you have stuff like Ping Pong the Animation, which is basically just a character drama that happens to involve ping pong. It’s a show where we are more concerned with the cast as individuals, with lives and friends and conflicts that are not necessarily directly relevant to the game.
And the topic of today’s review certainly leans toward the latter. On paper, it’s a boxing anime, but it takes 30 episodes before we even see the inside of a professional ring, and two more before a full match. In the ten hours prior, the extent of its “boxing” is alleyway brawls and prison contests. It is not a tale of global glory, nor of high school championships. This story begins in the slums, with a wayward thug absorbed in nothing but his own fleeting desires. Grand in power yet narrow in scope, this is Ashita no Joe.
When setting out to talk about Ashita no Joe, there’s really no better place to start than Joe himself. The series is defined by its gangly, rough-and-tumble main character, and shaped almost entirely by his actions. Joe begins the show exactly as I’ve described: a wandering delinquent with nothing to his name and nowhere to go. After getting into a fight with some yakuza, Joe is approached by a drunkard bum, Tange Danpei, who encourages him to take up boxing, confident that Joe’s natural-born talent will turn the boxing world on its head. Joe ultimately takes Danpei up on the offer, under the condition that he will receive a daily allowance. It soon comes to light that Joe is just taking Danpei for a ride, with no intention of seriously boxing, and swindling even more cash out of well-meaning rich folk to boot. After a run-in with the police, and repeated refusal to show any remorse for his actions, Joe is sent to prison.
That accounts for approximately the first seven episodes of Ashita no Joe and, for better or worse, makes an impression. I can scarcely think of another anime that presents us with such a downright unlikable protagonist. Far removed from the likes of generic self-inserts or naive nice guys, such as fellow boxer Makunouchi Ippo (of Hajime no Ippo), Joe is immediately established as a hooligan: arrogant, violent, and relentlessly dismissive of authority. He’s — an ass. He’s a bullheaded and selfish ass, and in some ways, he never pivots from that. Yabuki Joe is very much an acquired taste — but that also makes him incredibly fascinating as a main character.
It becomes clear over the span of the series that while Joe is in many ways insufferable, he is not inhuman. His actions and beliefs very much come from a place of emotion, a desire for home and acceptance that he’s never once been afforded for as long as he can remember. And, at the risk of repeating myself, this is the story of him. Ardent viewers who can tolerate (or are even drawn) to such an abrasive protagonist will be welcomed by a character journey that stands among the best the medium has to offer.
Joe’s growth is, in a word, staggering. In the beginning, it’s as if he’s intentionally making his own life difficult, putting up a facade that nothing is worth taking seriously, and too proud to open up for anyone or anything. Because of his cocky and aggressive attitude, it can frankly be a little irritating that the early plot constantly hands him victories, and rarely is he truly taken down a peg. Even when he does take up boxing for real, it’s basically only because there are people he wants to beat up, and boxing is the only way to do it. Ironically, throwing himself into the violence of the sport — a seemingly natural path given his attitude and personality — is by far the biggest root of change in Joe.
The aforementioned man Joe “wants to beat up” is his rival and fellow prison mate, Rikiishi Toru. Through his brawls and disputes with Rikiishi, Joe develops for the first time a true sense of purpose, and a goal to strive for. The bare basics of the story surrounding these two is fairly predictable, focusing on classic masculine ideals like strength, power, and settling one’s own score — which didn’t always wholly resonate with me — but certain events will leave Joe (and the audience) blindsided.
Joe’s style in the ring is characterized by unorthodox, viciously self-destructive tactics. Over time, he sacrifices truly everything for the sake of boxing, which in turn transforms him into a force of nature, irreparably affecting the lives of every boxer in his path. Joe does not relish this fact, and the role he plays in the destruction of others mentally sends him down a dark and winding path, forced to re-envision and solidify why he’s here and what he wants to do.
This is complicated by his relationship with Shiraki Yoko, one of the wealthy figures swindled by Joe early in the series. As a result of her family’s connections with boxing in general and Rikiishi in particular, she and Joe inevitably meet time and again throughout his career. Thankfully, she is anything but a wide-eyed love interest. In fact, Joe actively detests her for most of the series, spurning her perceived compassion with accusations of superiority and hypocrisy, and before long Yoko is less-than-brimming with kind words herself. However, just as Joe is forced to face himself through boxing, it follows that his personal bonds slowly change as well, with the two coming to understand each other in spite of themselves.
The beauty of Ashita no Joe lies in that human connection, the potency with which it conveys Joe’s evolving character and emotions. It does everything it can to suck you into its mood, put you in Joe’s mindset and feel for his mistakes. Everything from the BGM to the shot composition and color design of a given scene will communicate Joe’s raw passion or oppressive despair, even if the exact techniques were obviously limited by the technology of the time — more on that later.
On a more mundane level, the show is also just plain effective as a sports drama. The fights aren’t extremely technical, focused more on emotional beats than extensive planning or tactics, but that’s not a flaw — it’s just the nature of the story. The writing as a whole does a great job of hyping upcoming matches — especially the big ones — selling the rivalries between boxers through believable, if not always amicable, interactions.
Similarly, Joe’s broader lifestyle is slowly shaped by the growth of his reputation and fame. He starts a pure nobody, but due to a combination of his violent behavior and actual victories in the ring, gradually becomes a recognized and popular persona in the Japanese boxing landscape. While Joe never leaves his home and friends in the slums, it’s neat and kind of satisfying to watch him be swarmed by reporters or wide-eyed fans — and given his personality, it’s hardly surprising that sometimes it can go to his head.
Now as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, there’s one major thing about Ashita no Joe that to this point I have completely disregarded, and that’s the one thing which would probably give prospective viewers the greatest pause; it’s old. Ashita no Joe’s first season is by far the oldest anime series I have ever seen, airing from 1970 to 71, with the second coming a surprisingly long 10 years later in 1980. In some ways, it’s funny what hasn’t changed. Joe still has minute and a half openings and endings, and even a few recap episodes, but obviously there are going to be elements that are heavily dated, particularly in that first season which is coming up on its 50th anniversary.
The general aesthetic — while of course noticeably old— fares better than you might expect, thanks to an emphasis on stylized scratchy lines, but there’s a whole host of strange technical issues: absolutely fucked perspective shots, strangely inconsistent coloration, some weird — I can only call ‘em — jump cuts, lip flaps that don’t even resemble the spoken line, the list goes on. And then further, there’s things that aren’t actual “issues” per se but just products of the time that have aged poorly, like the recording quality, the abrupt music shifts, or the old-fashioned sound effects. There’s no talking around this stuff; it’s just something you’ll have to deal with and accept, like the fact that an old movie probably has bad special effects.
Although, it’s not all bad. Ashita no Joe is the directorial debut of one Osamu Dezaki, a name that sadly might not mean much to the casual modern viewer, but he was one of the most famous and influential directors of his time, popularizing a number of techniques that today are ingrained into the anime aesthetic. However, many of those techniques — such as the pastel freeze frames — are really only present in the second season, presumably since he was still getting a handle on his signature style for the first. The second season also enjoys the benefits of being produced ten years later, including better effects, much crisper, more detailed drawings and more inventive shots that likely were just not as feasible at the time of the first, things as simple as, say, showing the characters through a chain link fence. Oh, and the actual animation is pretty alright, in fights at least (certain lowkey shots can look pretty awful, but like everything else, less so in Season 2).
Putting the visuals aside, Ashita no Joe’s age also shows in the story itself, which is shall-we-say old-fashioned in some respects. Foreign characters, for example, are pretty much all caricatures, and some could easily be construed as racist, particularly Harimau, a hissing and unintelligible Malaysian native. The plot does also have other, more general issues, mostly of pacing. Sometimes it’s a little slow, and events feel just slightly too uninteresting to be spending so much time on. This is not helped by the fact that there is a fair amount of anime-original content in the first season, especially in its second half which culminates in an anime-original ending (that I actually thought was pretty okay), though is ultimately retconned by the second season which starts like halfway through the first and just continues following the manga.
Luckily, an aspect of the presentation that doesn’t show its age (entirely) is the music. Joe’s soundtrack is wispy and emotional, evoking feelings of something like the Wild West, with its use of whistles, horns and harmonicas, which feels fitting for a story so unglamorous. That said, I specifically mentioned “entirely” because while the composition itself is not terribly outdated, the selection seemed very limited — especially, unsurprisingly, in the first season. I swear, they blast Rikiishi’s theme every chance they get. It’s a great theme, but repetition dulls the best of things. Both seasons also spam various instrumentals of their openings, but it’s honestly kind of impressive how it can make the same themes sound triumphant, melancholic, or foreboding just with different speeds and instrumentation, and it somehow always fits. Season 2 jazzes up its own musical selection with some additional piano and sounds that I can only describe as electronic. Additionally, that season definitely has better sound design in general, with for instance ambient noise playing in a bar — which, like the chain link fence, is simplistic by modern standards, but not something that the first season was really afforded.
Before we move away from music and audio to start wrapping up, let’s touch on the openings proper. Musically, I’m a fan all the openings to some extent. The first season’s was initially off-putting with its extremely dramatic and somber tone, but I warmed up to it over the span of 80 episodes. Unfortunately, the visuals aren’t nearly up to the same standard, literally just being a clip show, either of the series itself or the pilot episodes that were released before it. And yet, somehow the first opening of Season 2 has visuals that are even worse, entirely composed of low-quality, poorly animated silhouettes acting out generic boxing motions. Thankfully, the show closes out on a high fucking note, not just because of the great finale to the story, but the last opening, which boasts both the best visuals and song of the series; a blues ballad set to Joe wandering alone through the slums. Puts my heart in a vice just thinking about it.
Now, watching Ashita no Joe was on principle a very unique experience for me. Strange as it may sound to some, this was my first time watching an anime series start to finish after reading the manga. There have been a number of manga that I picked up after the anime, or even during the anime, but Joe was the first of its kind. As for which version I would recommend — honestly, it’s up to you. Filler aside, the anime is a very sound adaptation, and I think the only real benefit to the manga is that it’s quicker, which may or may not be enough for you.
Anyways, after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… well, here’s the thing. Apologizes to any newcomers, because this last paragraph or so will be more about my reviews in general than Joe.
Lately I’ve started to feel like I’m putting myself in a box by assigning these grades. Their mere presence invites unfounded comparison between very different series, and forces me to slightly ignore or magnify flaws just to fit everything neatly into one of those six arbitrary zones. On top of that, every grade I’ve given in the past year has been a B, an A or an S. I rarely write about bad shows, so literally half the scale goes unused! Recently I’ve even had several videos that just don’t do a grade at all; in short, the distinction is becoming moot. So you can probably guess where this is going, and you’d be right. The grades are done. I’m not changing or replacing them; they’re just done. You all are smart people. You can take in my opinions and decide for yourself if something is worth watching without an obnoxious letter stapled on the end. In today’s case, unless you absolutely cannot abide by old, long anime, you owe it to yourself to watch (or read) Ashita no Joe. That’s the bottom line.
Though if you do want to try it out, there is the slight issue of accessibility. Season 2 is shockingly enough available in full on Crunchyroll, but Season 1 is at the time of this writing not legally available anywhere, so you’re on your own finding a way to watch it, and unfortunately — even though it does backpedal some — you can’t just go right to Season 2; it’s very much a sequel.