“[…] Yabuki too, is the perfect beast of nature…”
Last week I talked about the historical context of Ashita no Joe, one of the most influential manga ever written. This week, I’d like to talk about a key part of it’s appeal at the time and why it still continues to resonate today – the nature of Joe Yabuki as a working class hero.
This post contains light spoilers for Ashita no Joe.
“Tokyo, one of the largest cities in Asia.
At the outskirts of Tokyo, there is a small place.
Where the wind blows strongly.
Piles of dust cover the walkways.
Garbage and logs pile up alongside the river and stop it from flowing.
Have you ever seen a place like this?
This story starts from such a place.”
– Ashita no Joe, Chapter 1
So begins our story. It begins with a description of it’s locale – it is dirty, cold, unwelcoming, and a universal image in every reader’s mind. Doya-machi is not a place where great things happen; it is a place where things fester and rot in squalor. In addition, such a setting is certainly not a place where a hero should be frequenting. It is a place full of sin and evil, at least from an outside perspective.
Joe therefore begins by firmly reinforcing it’s working-class setting. It is this which would set the series apart from other series before it – namely Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants), which featured a working-class protagonist in Hyuma Hoshi, but never explored this aspect of the character – instead skipping straight to the sports elements of the story.
In contrast, Joe begins with a long, drawn out prologue introducing us to the town of Doya-machi and the inhabitants that live within it – obviously Dange, Joe’s future coach, but also Sachiko, Kinoko and Taro, among others. This allows the viewer more time to digest the series’ setting, as well as to establish it as an integral element of the series.
As discussed previously, Japanese readers at the time would’ve been very familiar with this sort of town. Sanya, the now famous Tokyo slum, was actually one of many run-down neighbourhoods in the city post-war, and although it may have been particularly bad, it certainly was not alone. This familiarity not only gave Joe more weight as a realistic tale, but also universality that allowed it to connect with many Japanese readers. Even now, the normal lives of the Doya-machi citizens and their struggle to survive is relatable, although our conditions have obviously improved considerably since then.
It is from this place that Joe emerges as a hero, but not before he goes to prison and encounters Riikishi Tooru. This fateful encounter would not only shape the course of Joe’s career, but help develop Joe as a person and a character, as Riikishi showed Joe what he lacked.
More than any fighter, Joe possessed a furious brawler’s spirit, but what he had in brawn he lacked in experience and determination. He didn’t even decide to become a boxer until he met Riikishi, even though he clearly had incredible natural potential. During their bantamweight fight, Riikishi would further highlight Joe’s lack of determination since Riikishi had to embark on a strict weight loss regime in order to fight Joe, going as far as to deny himself water.
In turn, Riikishi’s character shows the different class origins between him and Joe. Whereas Riikishi had the backing of the Shiraki Conglomerate, training in a gym with state-of-the-art equipment and attended to by expert health professionals; Joe had nothing but his fighting spirit and determination to fight with Riikishi. Tange Boxing Gym was built out of scrap wood under a bridge, and the only person training Joe was Tange himself.
Yet even despite this difference in resources, once Joe and Riikishi finally fought, Joe’s proletarian spirit shone through. Knowing that the citizens of Doya-machi were watching and cheering him on as a hero, as well as driven by his determination to beat Riikishi, Joe was eventually able to win despite having the bare minimum of equipment compared to Riikishi. This clearly shows that, no matter how much money you have behind you, it is ultimately spirit and passion that allows you to win in the end – an equally inspiring message for the readers of the time, who too had very little.
Joe’s next opponent, Carlos Riveria, would be the first opponent like him – born in the Brazilian slums and feverishly supported by his impoverished homeland as the ‘Beltless Champion.’ Yet, Carlos has been duped by his manager and the politics of the boxing world into putting on a performance, pretending to be weak and hiding his true strength in an effort to get the world champion – Jose Mendoza – to fight him. Joe, however, has stayed true to his roots and therefore triumphs over Carlos. However, it’s not a happy victory – Joe ends up crippling Carlos for life, which continues to haunt Joe as he saw a lot of himself and his own working-class origins in Carlos.
This trauma would be put under the microscope during Joe’s fight with Kim Yong-bi, the ‘boxing computer’ who mercilessly and efficiently dispatches his opponents with genius tactics. At first, it seems that this pinpoint accuracy is getting the better of the uncoordinated, furious Joe. However, how the two men have handled their past traumas comes to affect their performance. Yong-bi’s experiences in Korean War, having killed his own father in a freak accident, have long been pushed to the back of his mind – causing them to surface in his obsessive washing of his hands, and during the fight with Joe, as he refuses to give up no matter how many times he is knocked down. This is because Yong-bi tried to run away from his trauma, whereas Joe had embraced it – not just with Carlos, but with Riikishi too. By shouldering the fate of these two men, Joe ultimately becomes stronger, and is finally able to beat Yong-bi.
It is in the final fight with Jose Mendoza and the penultimate fight with Harimau that Joe’s special fighting spirit is highlighted. With Harimau, Joe is able to go toe-to-toe and counter Harimau’s monkey-like fighting techniques because he too has had experiences with being a brawler and fending for himself in the slums of Doya-machi. It becomes clear after this fight that Joe is Jose’s natural opposite – whereas Jose is the perfect “boxer”, Joe is the perfect “fighter”. Again, this is informed by Joe’s continued training by Tange in Doya-machi, not letting him become privy to the whims of the materialist boxing world and keeping him in constant touch with his working-class roots.
Essentially, Joe’s status as a working-class hero allows him to act as the “pure spirit” of boxing – the “fight,” detached from all of the rules of the “game.” In turn, this sets him apart from the world of boxing as presented in the manga, as well in the real world. Constantly, Joe is attacked by the boxing association and it’s sponsors for being an exception to the rule – not training in a proper gym, being trained by a washed-up coach, among others. Joe, as a fighter, stands opposed to the commercialisation and materialisation of boxing – a stance that still carries weight today, as the art of boxing becomes more and more privy to the needs of advertisers and promoters.
Even so, Joe’s status as working-class hero is not one to be admired without a pinch of salt. He is violent; rude; disregarding of the rules of boxing. His upbringing in slums and orphanages has made him into a deliquent. Instead of choosing a happy life with Youko, he chooses to continue to destroy himself in the game in a selfish attempt to honour Riikishi. Much like all of us, he is flawed.
Yet, Joe is still a hero. He is a hero to those downtrodden and forgotten by the middle-class utopia of capitalist society in 1968 Doya-machi, and even to those abandoned by that dream now. Each one of his opponents challenges him in some way, but ultimately his spirit – unaffected by the bourgeoisification of the boxing – allows him to triumph. At the same time, the upbringing that has conditioned this spirit makes him, at times, spiteful and violent.
But, this made the audience, who would’ve understood this upbringing, even more supportive of Joe. In the end, Joe finished his tale not just a true hero, but a real one.
This one wasn’t as well developed as I thought it was going to be, but I thought that talking about what makes Joe interesting as a hero would be important for this 50th anniversary celebration. Let me know what you thought by leaving a comment or via Twitter.