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Monday, January 9, 2012

Joe vs. Joe: A "Joe" By Any Other Name is Still Not Joe Yabuki

Though he welcomed in the New Year on January 1, Hisao Maki unfortunately died the next day due to undisclosed causes. Maki was the younger brother to the late Ikki Kajiwara (creator of sports manga Ashita no Joe, Tiger Mask, & Star of the Giants), but that's not to say that the littler brother didn't have a fair resume of his own. His main mark in Japan was as the writer of the hard-boiled action manga WARU, which spawned a multitude of live-action movies, two of which were directed by Takashi Miike, and he was also helping produce the upcoming live-action movie based on Tiger Mask... Which, to go on a tangent, seems to not truly understand what Tiger Mask is actually about, turning a man who donned a mask and wrestled for the orphanage that he lived at into a man who wears a "power suit" and becomes a masked superhero. Hell, the movie was green-lit due to a string of donations orphanages in Japan received during the 2010/2011 holidays and actually had a revival during this holiday, yet the movie doesn't seem to understand what Tiger Mask really stands for. But, to get back on topic, Hisao Maki was also the creator of a boxing story inspired by Ashita no Joe, which in 2003 was adapted into a 6-episode OVA... Which in 2008 was then released in North America by a hentai distributor! I give you Joe vs. Joe.

Joe vs. Joe, originally called Futari no Joe/The Two Joes in Japan, was a story Hisao Maki co-created with Koichi Kimura. Though ANN does credit it as being an Ashita no Joe spin-off, I feel that it's an incorrect description and rather the story is simply influenced by Kajiwara's legendary boxing drama. It focuses on two main characters who become rivals and the story climaxes with the eventual battle between the two, much like how Joe Yabuki and rival Tohru Rikiishi meet up, become rivals, and then finally battle in the ring. Unfortunately, that minor connection to Ashita no Joe leads to a comparison that really shows off how inferior Joe vs. Joe is to the "original" Joe, but on it's own this OVA is still a neat enough boxing story.

Joe Yuuki is the son to a rich family who looks down on anyone he considers below him, which is just about everyone, and is also one of Shibuya's top DJs. Joe Akamine is a delivery boy from a regular family who is also training to become a professional boxer. In order to raise a little extra money one day, as well train a little more, Akamine decides to offer a challenge to anyone in the park to beat him. Yuuki sees this and becomes infuriated that someone can be that cocky, but when he fights Akamine he is soundly defeated. Upon hearing that Akamine is looking to become a pro boxer, Yuuki decides to take up boxing as well. At the same time Maki Takakura, a professional model, meets Yuuki by chance and becomes interested in his goal... Especially when they find out that Akamine is being trained by George Takizawa, a former world-champion boxer as well as Setsuko's father who she has had a falling out with.

As you can see, the major part of the story is all about the lives of both Joes and how this meeting between the two ends up changing them, hopefully for the better. This is shown all the more by how different the two Joes are portrayed. Akamine is the "good guy" who simply has a love for boxing and wants nothing more than to bring a better life for himself and his friends, while Yuuki is the "bad guy" who wants nothing more than show his superiority, especially when faced with a humiliating defeat previously. This difference in portrayals is shown even in their boxing styles, where Akamine uses technique and form, while Yuuki uses an animalistic style that's all about simply destroying you opponent. It's easy to see that you're supposed to cheer for Akamine and boo at Yuuki. That's not to say that Yuuki doesn't have his reasons for being the guy he is, though, as there is a small bit of character development where it's shown that Yuuki's hateful behavior is likely caused from a troubled childhood relationship with his father. Still, it can be hard to honestly care for Yuuki, even when he does show a good side to him, especially when it's involving him and Maki. Hell, even at the end, where Yuuki does go through a bit of a redemption, it can be hard to still like him. I don't think that's a bad thing, though, as having two likable characters would make it hard to really get behind either of them. Having one Joe be an asshole while the other is your usual good guy works well enough here.

The supporting cast isn't that bad, either. Maki and her father's relationship is troubled, mainly coming the fact that Maki's mother died while her father had won a world title, making her hate boxing in general. Yet even though she hates boxing she still sides with Yuuki, like as if this was her way of getting back at her father, even though George Takizawa is mostly understanding of her anger and wants nothing more than for her to accept him back into her life. There's also Ryuichi, Akamine's friend and boxing gym-mate who also wants to show what he's made of. Though Ryuichi does get his small spot to shine, his focus is mostly there to be friend when Akamine needs him. Finally there's Yu, a small child who looks up to Akamine like he's a big brother and would love to follow in his steps, even though Yu was born with fragile bones. Oddly enough, the intro sequence for each episode shows Yu on an operating table, giving the idea that Akamine is fighting to give Yu hope to live, yet nothing like that ever comes up; a bit of a fake out there. That oddity aside, the supporting cast isn't bad by any means. But, again, to compare them to Ashita no Joe's cast would only put them down; they may be a good cast, but they certainly aren't that good.

If there's one real problem with this OVA, it's just that it is a little generic. Quite simply, this is a story about two guys who have the same name but opposing personalities and their eventual fight in the ring. You really can't look for anything more than that in this OVA, but the execution doesn't really need for it to be anything more than that. It honestly comes off like a long version of a boxing movie that Hollywood could make any time it wanted one. Thankfully that final fight, which is the entire last episode, is a good one and has some really nice moments to it, but if you were to come into this OVA expecting a great character drama, like Ashita no Joe, a fun-but-crazy action title, like Ring ni Kakero 1, or even a short story about a boxer's rise, like Hajime no Ippo, you'll come out disappointed. Joe vs. Joe is generic in concept, but at the very least it's executed well enough.

This OVA was animated by Office Ao, which normally does "In-Between" animation, and was directed & head written by Shigeharu Takahashi, who is mostly a storyboarder and episode director. If anything, this is probably one of the larger reasons why this OVA comes off as a bit generic. The animation is mostly fluid but at the same time it isn't anything memorable, though the final fight has some really nice motion to it, and the character designs, done by Yoshitaka Yasuda (who mostly does key animation & direction), are sleek enough to catch your interest but overall aren't truly memorable, either. I can't tell who did the music, but it's mostly a soundtrack that fits the scenes well but won't stay in your mind after you finish watching. On the other hand, the opening theme, "Tomo yo" by Yuji Ohya (of rock band Shady Dolls), is a really neat slow song that is memorable, though it doesn't really get you pumped for any boxing action. The ending theme is a simple instrumental that can calm you down well enough, but this OVA doesn't really get you pumped up in the first place.

The Japanese cast isn't that bad here. Yuuki is voiced by Koji Yusa (Sanosuke Harada in Hakuoki, Lunatic in Tiger & Bunny), and he does a good job keeping Yuuki cocky while Akamine is voiced by Daisuke Kishio (Van in ZOIDS: Chatoic Century, Tsukune Aono in Rosario + Vampire), who keeps him nice and calm. The rest of the cast is mostly smaller-name seiyuu. There is an English dub by TripWire Productions, and it's a good one. Mike Sinterniklaas (Gai from GaoGaiGar, Sasuke from Sengoku BASARA) does a really good job making Yuuki sound like the pompous asshole that he is while Dan Green (Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh!, Demon Eyes Kyo from Samurai Deeper Kyo) drops his usually-heard gruffer voice and gives Akamine the innocent and humble feel that he's meant to exude. The rest of the cast is mostly smaller-name voice actors outside of Tom Wayland (head of TripWire as well as a known voice actor) and Veronica Taylor (who plays a smaller-role secondary character), but they all do a good job as well. The dub is also a surprisingly dirty-mouthed affair, so maybe the kids shouldn't watch this.

Since this OVA is a bit generic, one could argue that it's release in North America is more interesting than the OVA itself. In 2008 this OVA was released across two DVDs by a company called AnimeWho (as in an owl, not the famous rock band). I could say that AnimeWho was a newcomer to the industry, but that would be a lie, as AnimeWho was in fact an off-shoot of JapanAnime, a company that released in hentai in North America, and this offshoot was simply a way for JapanAnime for continue releasing anime during a troubled hentai licensing period. From what I can tell, the North American hentai industry has seen better days, mainly due to the fact that the Japanese now censor all of their anime with mosaics, and when North American companies want to release hentai with no censorship, the Japanese would rather not license it out... At least, that's what I think is the trouble. Anyway, AnimeWho released both DVDs of Joe vs. Joe and then promptly disappeared from the industry (so much for "bringing to market the highest quality anime titles" that "will put us at the forefront of the industry" [taken from AnimeWho's website]), and JapanAnime hasn't released anything since 2009. It's a minor shame, too, as AnimeWho's DVD releases were really good in terms of what they offered: English & Japanese audio, English & Spanish subtitles, English dub outtakes (which are really funny), and even the option to choose between yellow subtitles or white subtitles. Oh well, at least AnimeWho fully released what they licensed and they gave us the strangest DVD casing I've ever seen, as both volumes came in an "AceCase", which holds the DVD from the top and bottom rather than from the hole in the middle (i.e. what every other DVD case does). Can't say the same with companies like Anime Crash & Illumitoon, who didn't finish anything they started, though I hope I can say the same with Anime Midstream and their release of Matchless Raijin-Oh.

This cover is really awesome, & I'll give AnimeWho credit for that.

Joe vs. Joe is an okay boxing anime. It's nowhere near as memorable as Ashita no Joe, which influenced it, and it's pretty generic to boot. But, at the same time, it's nowhere near a horribly-produced OVA. Sports anime in and of itself is rarely released in North America, so on the one hand we kind of have to take what we get. Luckily, this is still just fine to watch, though don't go expecting anything groundbreaking or the like. It's also dirt cheap now; though Right Stuf only has the first DVD at a slight discount, Amazon is selling both DVDs brand new for about $3 each. At that price it's hard to say "No", honestly. It's certainly nowhere near the quality of what I consider to be "The Three Pillars of Boxing Anime & Manga", but Joe vs. Joe certainly isn't a bad way to spend an afternoon or evening anime viewing.

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