The Mike Toole Show
by Mike Toole,
I've been thinking a lot about Tomorrow's Joe lately. It's because there's a new series on TV called Megalobox, a TV anime that's billed as the 50th anniversary project of the legendary boxing manga and anime. But it's an interesting variation on an anniversary project – rather than a sequel or remake of the classic story of a scrappy boxer called Joe teaming up with a washout coach to pursue fame and glory, it's a wild re-imagining of the original, featuring a near-future scrappy techno-boxer called Joe teaming up with a washout coach to pursue fortune and glory. The similarities and largely subtle and thematic; the characters overlap, but aren't precisely like the original. It helps that Megalobox looks and sounds great, one of the current season's most exciting offerings.
If you're reading this and feeling like I've written about Tomorrow's Joe before, it's because I have. I mentioned the series in my column about the TV anime's director, the great Osamu Dezaki, a couple of years back. (Actually, it was seven years ago. I've been on this beat for kind of a while, huh?) Tomorrow's Joe covered a lot of ground in its five years of serialization in Weekly Shonen. In Joe Yabuki, the series introduced a hero that the public could relate to. In boxing terms, Japan was enjoying a string of Olympic medals in the lighter weight classes, boosting the sport's profile. Meanwhile, the country's economic rebirth was in full swing, but there was still a sizeable underclass of working schubs, unskilled war vets, and poor families struggling to avoid being left behind. Joe, a teenaged orphan with no prospects, was the ideal figure to represent them, a young man who comes out of bad circumstances with talent and character to spare.
The manga was the creation of writer Asao Takamori and Tetsuya Chiba, a pair of established talents who complemented each other well. Takamori was just a pen name; the author's real name was Ikki Kajiwara, the scribe responsible for the red-hot baseball manga Star of the Giants! Kajiwara was obliged to use a pseudonym for Tomorrow's Joe to avoid getting in trouble with his editors. Chiba's most recent hit at the time of Tomorrow's Joe's debut was Harris's Whirlwind, a zippy but simple tale of a charismatic delinquent using his prodigious natural athletic talent to get out of his rut and excel not just in baseball, but also kendo, boxing, and soccer. Both creators had seen their work adapted for TV anime, so naturally, a TV anime version of Tomorrow's Joe was soon on the table.
At the time the anime was first discussed in hushed voices at Mushi Production, it seemed like a slam dunk—or rather, a knockout. The series was already a phenomenon in the pages of Weekly Shonen, with readers from around the country. One such reader was noted author, actor, and right-wing agitator Yukio Mishima, who showed up late one evening at the offices of Weekly Shonen, begging to buy a copy of the magazine. He'd been busy all day filming a movie, and had missed the chance to slip out to a newsstand and buy the new issue. He just had to have his Tomorrow's Joe—waiting until the morning was unacceptable! The office didn't have a cashier, but they happily gave him a copy of the magazine anyway.
Planning producer Masao Maruyama and director Osamu Dezaki quickly put together a pilot episode to attract sponsors and TV broadcasters. The pair initially kept the proceedings secret from studio head Osamu Tezuka, fearing that the notoriously egocentric God of Manga would frown on producing anime based on the competition's works. Dezaki created the film by studying Chiba's drawings and enlarging them, an approach that he would utterly reverse for the subsequent TV series. Soon enough, Tezuka was on board, and the resulting TV series is a masterpiece that didn't just draw something like 30% of viewers to tune in regularly (this sounds impressive, until you remember that there were only four or five TV networks at the time, and that pro wrestling routinely got half the country tuning in), but also defined the visual vocabulary that anime would use in the ensuing 50 years.
Just go and check out the Tomorrow's Joe film (full disclosure: that's a Discotek release, and I do work for them from time to time) or its sequel Tomorrow's Joe 2, which you can watch on Crunchyroll. Both works are full of seemingly simple visual tricks like dissolves, triple-takes, optical and lighting effects, match cuts, and of course, Dezaki's trademark “postcard memory” effect, in which a freeze frame is amped up dramatically by adding heavy black lines, giving it a painterly quality. Anime is lousy with these visual markers today, and it's pretty much entirely down to Tomorrow's Joe. Even today, the original 1970 TV series is eminently watchable; I'd compare it the Columbo TV films, which similarly still look incredible and feel quite sophisticated. If the series holds up this well, it must have seemed absolutely brilliant to viewers back in its day.
A dramatic device that Tomorrow's Joe really elevated in both manga and anime form is a rival character, an antagonist, that's almost as well-liked as the hero—sort of like Harry Lime from The Third Man, or Char Aznable from Gundam. Tomorrow's Joe version of that character is Toru Rikiishi, a hulking boxer that Joe meets in juvenile jail. Naturally, the two young men end up fighting; Joe's powerful but unrefined blows mostly fail to reach the talented and carefully trained Rikishii, but just once, Joe lands a classic cross-counter, momentarily stunning the pro fighter. Both flattered and enraged by the cocksure youngster, Rikiishi vows to face the kid in the ring—provided Joe has the moxie to make it as a pro. The cross counter is a perfect example of Tomorrow's Joe's reach. It's a pretty well-known boxing move, in which one fighter waits for their opponent to throw a jab and then uses that momentary opening to try and land a counterpunch, but once you start watching a lot of anime, you see it again.
And again, and again.
And again! Another cool thing that Tomorrow's Joe does with Rikiishi is a product of a weird little accident. When introducing the character, Chiba had been drawing him too large- - considerably bigger than Joe. Faced with the prospect of a rematch, readers quickly wrote in to point out that, with his size, Rikiishi was surely a featherweight, if not a lightweight, and wouldn't be eligible to fight a bantamweight like Joe. Chiba's writing partner Kajiwara had a brilliant solution—Rikiishi, recognizing this problem, would starve and dehydrate himself in order to slim down to Joe's weight class, risking his life in the process. As the TV anime continues, the ending theme switches to Rikiishi's insert theme song, highlighting his personal struggles as well as Joe's; when the final battle in the ring commences, the bigger fighter is absolutely ripped, but also unsettlingly skeletal.
To heighten the drama further, Kajiwara had another idea—they had to kill Joe's rival! But Chiba, who wanted to focus on the series' sense of struggle leading towards fulfillment (that's what the “Tomorrow” part of “Tomorrow's Joe” is all about, after all), objected. At a bar in Shinjuku, the two men argued over the details, and the bartender, upon hearing a couple of guys hollering about how they might have to kill someone, summoned the cops! Rikiishi's ultimate fate—or rather, Joe's reaction in the dressing room after the news is broken to him—is one of the most powerfully, stylishly melodramatic TV moments I've ever seen.
The original was so powerful, in fact, that it was brought back by Tokyo Movie Shinsha, who would endeavor to finish the adaptation of the now-classic manga. To ensure consistency, much of the key creative staff was borrowed from Madhouse, including director Osamu Dezaki. Maruyama didn't like the idea of going back to Tomorrow's Joe after a decade, so he stuck with Madhouse. (Someone remember to ask him why he did that at the next summer con he attends, would you?) One key player who was not returning was the voice of Joe's would-be love interest Yoko. To fill the role, TMS held a public audition, drawing more than a thousand applicants! Such is the sheer power and relevance of Tomorrow's Joe. At a key moment in one of his bouts, Joe, who now has trouble throwing powerful blows to the head thanks to his struggle with Rikiishi, takes a body blow and pukes his guts out. Dezaki, in a curious artistic flourish, makes the puke sparkly and glowing.
Once again, here's a purely visual reference that just keeps showing up again, and again.
And again! Dezaki himself was reportedly quite fond of the effect, and employed it in his own works like Hakugei and Black Jack. Remember, every time you see a scene in an anime where someone blows chunks and it's glowing, it's specifically because of Tomorrow's Joe. Joe himself has a rough fate in store at the end of Tomorrow's Joe, a surprisingly subtle denouement. He loses his big final match against champ Jose Mendoza by decision (note: later, a boxing scorekeeper carefully reviewed Joe's fight, counting the hits that the two boxers scored, and concluded that the judges' decision was the correct one), and as he slumps in his corner, an oddly peaceful expression falling over his face. He talks of having nothing left, of feeling like white ash. When his coach and girlfriend speak to him, he's unresponsive. Did Joe die? As Dezaki worked on the anime version, fans, who'd read the manga ending some years previously, wrote in, begging for a kinder ending for Joe, or at least a more certain one.
In the decades since, it's been left ambiguous, such that I don't really consider it a spoiler to discuss that iconic last scene. Chiba has said that he drew the scene in a rush, not really thinking about the implications. He's also said that he was unable to draw Joe afterwards for months. Even now, when he draws the character, no matter how careful and meticulous he is, he insists that it's just not the same. He can draw Joe, but he can't recreate the power and tone of the era from which Joe comes. One thing is for sure: in the early 80s, a New York TV distributor called Almi Films were all ready to market their hot new series Rocky Joe to the public. I've long heard that several episodes were dubbed (they make the basis of this sales trailer), but the producer got cold feet when they realized that Joe's story doesn't end quite like Rocky's. Meanwhile, that final scene sure looks familiar.
To further explore the Tomorrow's Joe phenomenon, I finally dug deep on another anniversary project, the 2003 35-year OVA series Futari no Joe, aka The Two Joes, aka Joe vs. Joe. This is a fabulously weird piece of work—its studio has gone bankrupt. It's littered with names of creators who worked on no anime prior to this, and none afterwards. One of the project planners is listed as Tomorrow's Joe writer Ikki Kajiwara, an unlikely feat as he had died some 15 years earlier. Upon closer inspection, it looks like this project is the creation of Kajiwara's brother Hisao Maki, who himself was (he passed away in 2012) a noted writer, mangaka, and karateka. None of his projects really caught fire in the west—his big hit, manga/cinema crime epic WARU, is mostly a Japan phenomenon; beyond that, he created manga spinoffs for Tiger Mask and Karate Master, and he also did a serialized novelization of the Ultra Q TV show.
The entire conceit of Joe vs. Joe seems to be “alright, here's a boxing story, but what if there are two dudes named Joe?!” The thing is, this isn't like pitting a Joe Yabuki type against a boxer eerily similar to him; it's just about a grounded, sincere boxer named Joe (dark hair) and an unsociable loner boxer named Joe (light hair) and how they eventually fight in the ring. Like Megalobox, Joe vs Joe studiously avoids direct, obvious references to the original work, but I think that's to the show's detriment—its weak characters and difficulty depicting boxing onscreen really work against it. Soon the Joes are training so much that the Good Joe learns how to dodge punches from multiple fighters while blindfolded, while the Bad Joe learns how to hit multiple times with a single punch!
In my quest to dig up information on this strange, early-2000s digipaint nightmare (seriously, the show looks like hell, nothing at all like its cover art!), I could find few direct references. Googling the series title only brought up more information about the original Tomorrow's Joe. In retrospect, I'm not sure anyone actually saw this. (Well, except for George. George watches everything!) You can get the two-disc series on Amazon for about seven bucks. If you're not a big boxing fan, you don't need to bother. On the other hand, if you're a hardcore Tomorrow's Joe completist, you don't need to bother. Eventually, the director matriculated, and ended up directing a few Yo-Kai Watch movies. I wonder if his previous influences can be felt?
Yeah, certainly looks that way! Once again, this makes the case for Tomorrow's Joe's importance. The series has also inspired a couple of live-action movies (I haven't seen the old one from the 70s, but the new one… well, if you hated the overacting and slathered-on CG visual effects of that Netflix Fullmetal Alchemist movie, you're in for a lot more of it here!), plus a variety of exhibitions and discussions of the material. In 2010, they recreated Joe's match with Rikishii as a radio broadcast, as if it were a live boxing match with real sports commentators.
Now, finally how does this Megalobox series succeed where earlier homages have fallen short? It works, because it doesn't try too hard to ape or analyze the original series; it's its own thing. There have been similarities in character (Junkyard Joe, Yuri, and Ms Shirato are obvious analogues of Joe Yabuki, Rikiishi, and Yuko) and a few familiar-looking character designs, but they're not obviously similar beyond that. The original Joe's a street kid with few prospects, but newer Joe has a steady job as a match-fixer as the series opens. The Joes strike a contrast—one is earnest, the other deeply cynical. But both are ultimately driven by their sport, and very sincere. Newer Joe's coach still has demons, but they're very different ones.
The series really works to recreate the moodiness of the original, rather than ticking off precise story homages. That's a daring approach—some fans will surely hear about this new Tomorrow's Joe and look hopefully for classic images and stories—but ultimately the correct one, if you ask me. At the end of the day, Tomorrow's Joe and Megalobox don't look that similar, you have to look closer to see where they link up.
Of course, Megalobox isn't the only currently-running TMS series that's throwing in Tomorrow's Joe hooks. Another series doing that right now? Lupin the 3rd Part V!
Here we have Joe riding pigs to cause chaos at Juvie Hall; there we have Rikiishi breaking down and trying to go off his diet for some water, only to find the tap tied up. Lupin the 3rd himself is using both of these time-honored techniques to try and temporarily make him dumber. This brings home the notion that Tomorrow's Joe is important. Viewers are simply expected to notice these references, and of course, many of us did just that! If you've watched more than a few anime, you've seen some Tomorrow's Joe references as well. If you think you haven't, then you've got some training to do. Report to the TV and fire up one of the releases I mentioned above for some intense Tomorrow's Joe endurance training! And if you're thinking of a crash diet to cut weight before the big fight, please consult a doctor first.
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