The Tragedy of Yabuki Joe

“The strongest man in the world is waiting for me on that ring. That’s why, I’ve gotta go…”

If Joe as a working class hero was what got many readers to believe in him, then it was Joe’s tragic fate at the end of the series that made them remember him forever.

This post contains heavy spoilers for the entirety of Ashita no Joe.

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The end of Ashita no Joe is one of the most heart-breaking conclusions to any story I’ve ever seen. It’s honestly up there for me with Cowboy Bebop’s hopelessly heartbreaking “You’re gonna carry that weight,” which I assumed for years couldn’t be topped. Joe‘s ending, much like Bebop‘s, is one that will stay with you forever – not just because it is sad, but because it is hopelessly tragic.

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The immediate tragedy begins from the final meeting between Shiraki Youko and Joe in the locker room before Joe goes out on the ring. As usual, Joe treats her with malice and suspicion, simply brushing off Youko’s revelation that he is suffering with punch-drunk syndrome – that is, until Youko confesses her love for him.

For a moment – a brief moment brilliantly engineered by authors Chiba and Tetsuya Chiba and Asao Takamori – Joe pauses. In that instance, it’s clear to the viewer that he has been confronted with an incredibly tough choice; having already seen that Jose is able to both have a family and be a successful boxer, Joe too began to wonder whether or not the path he had chosen was a wise one, since he had to push everyone around him away in order to pursue victory in the world of boxing. This confession also contextualises Youko’s previous actions in the story – particularly why she would organise the fight with Harimau. To the readers, her love for Joe has probably been obvious, but this final confession confirms what we suspected all along.

That’s not to say, however, that Youko’s love for Joe is completely genuine – after all, Joe hasn’t treated her with any respect or affection in return, rather constantly insulting and jading her for getting in his way. It’s more likely that Youko, just like Joe, suffers with the trauma of Riikishi Toru’s death, and therefore latches onto Joe, being the only other person who could understand her trauma. Furthermore, it’s possible that she was in love with Riikishi as well, and that Joe was simply the person most like Riikishi. In any case, this moment merely starts off the tragic staging of the final match with world champion Jose Mendoza.

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Youko’s revelation that Joe is suffering with punch-drunk syndrome also confirms the reader’s suspicions of such; he had already showed some signs of it, spacing out and tripping over his own feet sometimes. Obviously, an athlete becoming crippled because of his own sport is tragic in itself, but what makes Joe as a character suffering with punch-drunk syndrome particularly tragic is that his bravado stemming from his masculinity directly led to him suffering with this deadly disability. Immediately this becomes obvious when Joe replies to Youko with “And what if I am?”. Joe knew all along that he had punch-drunk syndrome, but his over-confidence and bravado prevented him from ever saying anything.

Furthermore, despite knowing that the beating he was about to receive from Jose would further aggravate his symptoms, his masculinity tells him that he “gotta go” because the “strongest man in the world is waiting for me.” Particularly interesting here is Joe’s usage of the pronoun “ore” – a particularly overtly masculine way of referring to yourself. Takamori’s decision to use it here seems to highlight Joe’s sense of masculinity that he feels he has to honour. All throughout the series, Joe’s masculinity has been nothing but toxic to those around him – and now, right at the end, it is clear that it will become his fatal flaw.

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Also feeding into Joe’s aversion to treating his punch-drunk syndrome is his trauma from previous fights that still hangs over him, particularly with regards to Riikishi. Over the course of his career, Joe gained many nicknames – the most aversive of which has to be “Killer Joe.” His ferocious fighting style left many crippled after matches, from Kanagushi Wolf Kanagushi’s broken jaw that forced him to retire; the rekindling of Kim Yong-bi’s PTSD from the Korean War; Carlos Rivera’ punch drunk syndrome that left him a shadow of his former self; to obviously the most traumatic experience of all – killing Riikishi.

What makes this last case so impactful is not only Joe’s close relationship with Riikishi, being his closest friend and one true rival in life, but the way Joe had a hand in Riikishi’s death. After all, it was ultimately Joe being a bantamweight that forced Riikishi to embark on his hellish weight loss regime to drop down two weight classes, which in turn sapped his strength considerably and endangered his life when exposed to Joe’s furious blows. Because of this match’s trauma, along with all of the others, Joe ultimately feels like he has the lives of several men on his back – which not only propels him to continue fighting, but also instills in him a feeling of righteous comeuppance. If he took all of these lives; then perhaps his fate should be to die on the ring also.

Whether or not Joe truly felt that way before climbing up on the ring, it is certain that he decided to pay his debts to those he destroyed during the match when he says to his coach Danpei Tange, “Don’t do anything until my eyes turn white, old man…”, clearly stating that his aim is to die fighting. The fact that Joe lost to his trauma and decided to die with his demons instead of trying to face them makes his story even more tragic.

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Even so, you can hardly blame Joe for wanting to die on the ring. At that point in his life, he had virtually nothing left for him other than boxing. Pushed on by his trauma and sense of obligation, he trained hard and never gave up, but this left him with no time to maintain friendships, let alone a relationship. As mentioned, he never realised that Youko loved him, but he also never realised that Noriko – the daughter of the owner of a greengrocers that Joe worked at whilst still a rookie – loved him dearly, that is until Tange told him. Joe couldn’t have realised this love and found something other than boxing either, since Noriko ended up settling for Nishi. In turn, Joe also lost one of his only friends, Nishi, and he became truly alone.

Arguably, Tange was the only friendship Joe had, but this was never a healthy one, with him constantly abusing the old man and going against his wishes. In any case, their relationship was firmly based on the fact that Tange could train Joe to win and advance in the boxing world. Once Joe saw Jose and his family in Hawaii, the fact that he had nothing left to him apart from boxing probably became clear to him – the expression on his face clearly suggests that. Thus, can you really blame a man with nothing else for wanting to die doing the only thing he loved? Even if this was out of a sense of obligation, boxing truly was the only arena Joe could shine in. And in the end, Joe shined brighter than anyone – shining so bright that he burnt up.

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But, for all of Joe’s efforts, it’s important to realise that he didn’t become the champion. In the end, he wasn’t able to beat Jose. His opponent’s dedication to training and skill eventually got the better of Joe – even his furious proletarian spirit wasn’t enough to bridge the immense technical gap between him and his opponent.

It’s easy to see the tragedy in this. Joe’s death was not a triumphant one, but a fruitless one based on a false sense of obligation to his trauma. Even Jose couldn’t feel satisfaction in his victory, his hair turning white due to the shock of the fight. In turn, seeing someone with nothing to lose, ready to die, made him realise that he had too much to lose – dying in the ring would leave his wife and children alone in this world. Jose likely never fought again, and probably had to shoulder the trauma of Joe’s death for the rest of his life, just like Joe had to shoulder Riikishi’s.

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In the end, Joe was never the champion – he was always “Tomorrow’s Joe”. Never happy with being static, always striving to become the best, trying to get the best of his trauma. In the end, he failed. But does this make him less of a hero? Surely a hero tries his hardest, despite the odds. And Joe, for all of his flaws, will certainly always be my hero.


This was the first idea for a post that popped into my head after reading the series, so this one is probably the most developed out of this series of posts. Let me know what you thought by leaving a comment or via Twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Yabuki Joe”

  1. I don’t agree that Joe’s death was tragic nor did he have a desire to die. Remember what he said Noriko. There was a flame burning inside him. He turned white hot when he fought Jose and then he burned out. That’s what he wanted. His death was incidental. For those that loved Joe it was a tragedy but for Joe himself, he reached his destination. That’s what happened to Riikishi and ultimately the fate of Joe Yabuki.

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  2. I just read this series, and was blown away. This was an engaging reflection on it, with many good points. I agree that Joe exemplifies a kind of tragic hero. However, I disagree somewhat, with the sentiment that the tragic aspect is a result of Joe’s failure to confront his trauma, and that his death represents a failure in this sense. This is not to say that the ideal of masculinity that Joe represents is something that should be endorsed. Indeed, I suspect there is a lot more to be said concerning the resonance of such ideals in post-war Japan. Nonetheless, I view Joe’s actions in terms of a fidelity to this ideal, rather than a disavowal of the reality of a trauma he experienced. And I think it is precisely this fidelity that makes him heroic. I don’t think Joe reflecting on the violence of his nature, repudiating it, and retiring to a life of middle class comfort would not have been heroic, though it may have been more commendable in many respects. Just as in ancient tragedy, the character Antigone is a tragic hero because she refuses to relent from the the principle she represents, and provides her brother burial rights, even though had she not done so, there would have been an ostensibly better outcome for all. She does not do so because her character makes this option unthinkable to her.

    This is also why the fact that Joe was not victorious is also somewhat redundant, he did not require a victory in order to maintain fidelity to the ideal. He simply had to exhaust the wellspring of his youth for its sake. In terms of the actual fighting, Joe being punch drunk meant he was never going achieve his full potential, he was, as Jose noted, ‘not the real Joe Yabuki’, a ‘ghost’. But Joe’s was a character forged in violence, boxing had indeed become everything to him. Realistically, any other alternative than complete fidelity to the ideal would have resulted in a more pitiful kind of ending; Joe as another drunk Danpae, or brain damaged Carlos Riveria. Joe is tragically beyond the reach of the feminine. He dies, not as a result of failing to confront his trauma, but rather fully conscious of it, choosing it deliberately. So while I agree that it would be too much to call Joe’s death ‘triumphant’, I can’t bring myself to call it ‘fruitless’ either. It is genuinely tragic, but the true nature of the tragic, I think, tends to evade these categories, and is tinged instead with a kind of fatalist necessity.

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