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Buried Treasure
Ashita no Joe

by Justin Sevakis,

It's a story intimately familiar to any fan who's seen a sports anime, heard the internal monologue of the star athlete, and felt the intensity of the protagonist. The soccer star for whom every fiber of their being rests on making that one last kick. The go player who might just advance to the next round and live to see another day. The boxer, every fight a fight for their professional lives.

It's a staple of the anime genre, and a default condition for every young spunky hero who dreams of being the best and is willing to give everything to be there. Every single anime hero owes something to Joe Yabuki, the young juvenile delinquent turned boxer in the seminal anime series Ashita no Joe. They owe this to Joe because Joe is ubiquitous: every Japanese guy older than 30 (and probably quite a few younger than that) remembers his battles, his quests to be the best, and what ultimately became of him. It's the symbol of achievement, the essence of manhood. To understand Ashita no Joe is to understand the mind of a nation.

The story may seem rote today, or even quaint. Joe Yabuki, a troubled young street urchin, a teen runaway whose only talent is in his fists, simultaneously attracts the interests of an old has-been boxer named Danpei and the police department. He's a hero to the local children, but that doesn't stop him from picking stupid fights with the cops and getting taken in. Placed under arrest and sentenced to do time in a juvenile detention facility, Joe seems like he's headed for rock bottom. But Danpei is not willing to give up on him. Neither, it seems, is fellow prisoner Rikiishi, who used to be a boxing prodigy himself. Together, they'll bring the boxing ring to the prison, and some order and direction to Joe's life.

As Joe slowly becomes immersed in boxing, he slowly changes from directionless and angry into a driven, motivated individual. Rikiishi becomes Joe's friend and rival, and as soon as he's out of prison he's back in the ring, and fiending for a rematch with Joe. Joe's interest is mutual.

It's hilarious how many anime fans know Ashita no Joe through the myriad times it's been parodied, and yet have never seen the show itself. With references to its legendary ending seeming to pop up almost everywhere (most recently by Kamina in Gurren Lagann) and the series itself regularly topping Japanese polls of "most popular anime ever," few would argue that the show is easily one of the genre's most influential.

And yet, for American anime fans, seeing Ashita no Joe has been all but impossible: a circular failure of both supply and demand. All this has changed, strangely, in the last year: the original TV series has started to get fansubbed (albeit very slowly), and Hong Kong distributor Tai Seng, seemingly out of nowhere, released the movie compilation of the first series on DVD in the United States. Retitled "Champion Joe," this is the two-and-a-half hour film version was cut together by TMS Entertainment in 1980 to prepare audiences for the second series nearly ten years after the original first aired.

Only having access to the movie version is both a blessing and a curse. The original 1970 show is very slow moving by modern standards, and the faster pace mandated by the film version makes for much more riveting viewing. That said, compressing 79 episodes down to a two and a half hour feature means shedding a lot of what made the show great to begin with. Whole characters and subplots are missing (such as when Danpei ditches the difficult Joe while he's still in the Juvenile detention facility and opts to train a weakling instead), and character development suffers quite a bit. We get the gist of the story, but a lot of things don't quite make sense anymore.

In either version, I had trouble relating to Joe initially. He's simply not a likable protagonist at first: he's an angry juvenile delinquent with no respect for anybody, no patience, and no drive. He's an obnoxious kid who constantly picks fights and gets in people's faces whenever possible. Simply, Joe is a jerk. But what's compelling is in how he changes: as a street urchin, his smug smile seems to cover up a sense of being abandoned by the world and slowly, through Danpei's persistence, he begins to feel a sense of belonging to boxing. It becomes his sole raison d'être; a singular reason to get up in the morning. Joe trains. Joe kicks butt.

Ashita no Joe burst onto the scene in 1970, directed by a young Osamu Dezaki, who with this series honed his sense of emotional gravitas and theatrical surrealism he later perfected in such works as Rose of Versailles, Nobody's Boy Remi and Blackjack. It's hard to explain today just how nuts Japan was over Ashita no Joe. When a main character died, there was a 700-person funeral procession for him (organized by famed performance artist Shūji Terayama). The sense of drama is as uniquely Japanese and cornball as its theme songs (both opening and ending sequences are ridiculously over-the-top Enka tunes): a sense that a good life is one lived deliberately, and dying a good death is just as important.

The stilted, aged animation certainly does nothing to add to the series' accessibility, but the tone of the show is so melodramatic that it's hard to imagine newer fans taking it seriously anyway. Even when things aren't a matter of life or death, they're treated like they are. Early on, when Joe is beaten in seemingly inconsequential street fights, the dark pencil shading and screwed up eyes make him look not just defeated, but dead and partially decomposed. Nonetheless, even the most cloying of newbie bait owes a debt to Ashita no Joe, defining both the spunky shonen hero and his borderline homoerotic obsession with his rival.

Tai Seng dubbed Champion Joe, and it's a bizarre dub indeed. The performances themselves are largely decent: wooden, but wooden in a way that somehow fits the clumsy, antiquated animation in a quaint sort of way. The script adaptation isn't terrible either. No, where the dub really falls down is in its technical execution. The film is so old, no separated music and effects track was available. Tai Seng had no soundtrack CD to work from either. The result is that any music with dialogue over it gets either silenced awkwardly (like someone hit the mute button) or replaced with generic and more recent-sounding music from a royalty-free library. Sound effects fare even worse: one remarkably bad scene involving a brawl is literally replaced with shouting and a strange clicking sound. The (completely uncredited) performances are good enough that one is inclined to occasionally give the English track a chance, but within five minutes an embarrassingly bad moment like that will inevitably send the viewer fleeing back to the safety of the Japanese audio.

About a year ago I really got into Hajime no Ippo, despite having little interest in sports (and zero in boxing). I ended up marathoning the entire series in about 2 weeks, which is no small feat when you're working full time. It's a delight to revisit its obvious inspiration, especially when I can see echoes of it in nearly every other shonen action series ever made. Ashita no Joe is more than the seminial sports anime classic. It's easily as responsible for the direction of the art form as anything Osamu Tezuka ever did.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
Tai Seng's DVD is not a great disc. There are lots of digibeta dropouts on their master, and the transfer itself is clearly an old laserdisc print, bearing the telltale signs of having been done on an ancient tube telecine. The subtitles, though mostly accurate, are timed by someone who clearly doesn't know Japanese and are at times impossible to follow. The dub has its moments, but as noted above has so many problems that it's not worth watching. Nonetheless, it's all we've got, and lord knows the anime market is not kind to old stuff, so this is probably all we ever will get.

Over in Japan, of course, far more love has been given to the show, including a much improved new restored transfer that came out a few years ago in two ridiculously expensive boxed sets and with ne'er a subtitle in sight. And the fansub, which may, in a few years, finally reach episode 10.

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