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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Champion Joe: Remember Kid, There's Heroes & There's Legends...

I actually kind of hesitate to review this, simply because it's one of the most iconic titles in anime & manga history. I mean, even if you've never seen it, hence why I'm reviewing it, you've at least heard of the name Ashita no Joe.

Debuting in Kodansha's Weekly Shonen Magazine back in 1968, Ashita no Joe/Tomorrow's Joe by Tetsuya Chiba (art) & Ikki Kajiwara/Asao Takamori (story) is not just a classic manga, it's one of the rare ones to be worthy of being called the classic manga. It ran for 20 volumes until mid-1973, inspiring the entire nation of Japan throughout its run. Honest-to-god funerals were held in honor of two of the characters after their respective deaths in the story! It has inspired too many other manga to count & is still referenced and payed homage to to this very day. When I reviewed the Ring ni Kakero 1 manga last year I often brought up how Masami Kurumada made his creation in direct homage to Joe, so think about it this way: One could very well argue that without Ashita no Joe Weekly Shonen Jump wouldn't have become as gigantic as it did. Naturally, when something is this popular it gets adapted into anime, and it did.

Though Osamu Tezuka left his original anime studio in 1968, Mushi Production made an anime adaptation of Ashita no Joe that aired on Fuji TV from 1970-1971, lasting 79 episodes. It wound up being one of Mushi's last big productions before declaring bankruptcy in 1973; the Mushi Pro that exists now is a different entity that owns the old studio's work. It was similarly successful & obviously only ended because the manga had not finished by then. Joe, though, had staying power & would return to anime in less than a decade. In 1980 TMS Entertainment was planning on making a new anime, Ashita no Joe 2, which would tell the second half of the manga, so Fuji Film & Nippon Herald, along with TMS, decided to make a compilation movie that would cover the first 52 episodes of Mushi's anime, which is where Joe 2 would continue off from, so that newcomers can get caught up on the story that needs to be known. Defying all logic & expectations, this compilation movie would get licensed 28 years later by the now defunct Chinese-production licensing company Tai Seng Entertainment under the name Champion Joe, their sole anime release (ignoring Chinese/Japanese co-production Legend of Condor Hero); not only that, but they even dubbed it! With CrunchyRoll now being the home to an official English-subbed stream of TMS' anime, renamed Champion Joe 2 to match Tai Seng's release, I think it's only proper to finally review this classic among classics.

Joe Yabuki is an orphan who lives in the slums of Tokyo during the Showa Era, following his own code. He'll use whoever he wants, do anything he wants, & fights anyone he wants (for no real reason even). One day a fight he gets into with some yakuza is seen by a drunkard who finds Joe's punches to be amazing. The drunkard, Danpei Tange, is a former boxing coach who offers to train Joe into a pro boxer. Joe refuses, finding boxing to be dumb, but begrudgingly agrees to some training, if only for his own amusement. After getting arrested & thrown into a dangerous juvenile hall, though, Joe meets Tohru Rikiishi, a pro boxer who's serving time for getting into a violent fight. Rikiishi gives Joe his first real absolute loss before finishing his time & being released. Joe, determined to defeat Rikishi, fully accepts Danpei's offer once he's released & enters the professional boxing world.

There are two main reasons why Ashita no Joe is a classic among classics, and the first is simply because of the characters. There's no getting around it, so it's best to get it out of the way: Joe Yabuki is simply an iconic character in the history of anime & manga. He starts off as a complete asshole, not caring for anyone but himself, but that's partially due to the era when the manga debuted. This was Japan before the economic bubble began, with lots of people stuck in less-than-ideal circumstances; naturally, a lot of Japanese took a cynical look at the world around them. Joe was essentially one of them, and parents even complained about how he might influence the young readers to became just like him, but what made the character work was how he evolved. Early on Joe gets sent to a "special" juvenile hall, and though Joe keeps his cocky behavior he soon learns humility in the form of Tohru Rikiishi. Whereas Joe is essentially a loose cannon & uncontrollable, Rikiishi is laid back & composed, not to mention a better & stronger fighter. Through the two's interactions in juvi they learn the opposite from each other, with Rikiishi only giving in to his desires when it comes to Joe & Joe learning to actually listen & respect others through his rival. These two characters are simply a perfect match for each other & both are equally as visually iconic: Joe's jacket, red shirt, & flat hat are simply inseparable from the character, & Rikiishi's s***-eating grin is the stuff of legend.

It's the best I could do with the DVD's video quality

If Rikiishi is the one who gives Joe a real sense of drive in life, though, it's Danpei Tange who gives him meaning. Danpei & Joe essentially work as if they need each other in life, as Joe brings Danpei out of his drunkard ways & Danpei's boxing training gives Joe's urge to fight a purpose & form of use. Alongside Danpei is Mammoth Nishi, a fellow juvi "inmate" who becomes friends with Joe & even desires to become a boxer because of Joe & Danpei. Nishi takes the role of "lovable lug" who helps out as Joe's second & training buddy; he's just so likable that you wish his matches were shown so you can cheer for him. Finally, there's Yoko Shiraki, the granddaughter of the head of Shiraki Boxing Club, which helps Rikiishi return to pro boxing. Yoko sometimes gives off the feeling of being a sort of "rich girl who knows nothing of the real world", and Joe even tries calling her out on that once or twice, but you find out that she knows more than first impressions give off & even is shown to be very caring; she obviously has feelings for Rikiishi but respects Joe as well. There are also a group of young kids who Joe befriends, but their importance in this movie is lessened to the point of being nothing more than side characters. You can't help but really enjoy everyone in this cast, & all of them have become archetypes that have been used over & over.

The other reason for Joe's status as a classic is a relatively simple one to describe: The story is just that damn good. The general idea is essentially a "rags to riches" story, but in place of physical "riches" are the ones that can't be seen, i.e. becoming a better person. As mentioned, the real showcase here is Joe's journey from an incorrigible ruffian to a respectable & loved boxer that one would want to model his/her life off of. Kajiwara & Chiba don't try to fast-forward this message, either, as even in movie form you don't get a true boxing match until about 1/3 into the runtime. Up until then it's all about the characters & showcasing how Joe meets Danpei, gets arrested, meets Nishi & then Rikiishi, and then finally does the story actually utilize boxing as a means to do combat. Really, though, you don't care that the boxing doesn't become a larger focus until later because the story up until then is beautifully told. Though I do consider Joe to be one of the "Three Pillars of Boxing Anime & Manga", at the same time the boxing element is more of a means to an end, with the character drama being the larger focus; the story didn't need boxing to work, but through boxing the story works at its finest.

Still, this is a compilation movie that covers 52 episodes of anime, so how does it work from that perspective? Well first we should consider how much is told, so let's go over the main story points that are covered. There's the introduction, Joe's arrest & introduction to juvi, the introduction of Rikiishi & the first fight between the two, Rikiishi's release form juvi followed by Joe's release, Danpei's denial to have his gym be officially recognized by the boxing association (due to his bad behavior in the "bad old days"), Joe forcing the association to recognize Danpei by messing with rookie boxer Wolf Kanagushi, the Joe/Wolf match, Rikiishi's wild weight loss regiment (featherweight to bantamweight) so that he can fight Joe, & finally the Joe/Rikiishi rematch... That's a lot to cover! Luckily, the movie knows this & totals to a good 2.5 hours long, and you definitely get a lot of content in that amount of time. Going through the entire movie actually feels like you experience an actual journey, and though it's obvious that numerous elements of the story have been removed (I can name a couple from the first hour-ish of content, and I hear the stuff with Wolf is cut down), you still get the major impact of what needs to be known & the iconic end of the Joe/Rikiishi match still feels absolutely genuine & un-rushed. A big part of that is likely because the creators themselves were personally involved with this compilation movie, with Ikki Kajiwara serving as general supervisor/"Supreme Commander" (literally, his position was 総指揮/soushiki) & Tetsuya Chiba acting as a direct supervisor; this movie was not considered "done" until those two gave the okay. This is easily one of the best compilation movies I have seen, because it still delivers everything that made the anime work.

As much as the manga was iconic, the anime itself was similarly so from a production standpoint. This show marked the directorial debut for the legendary, late Osamu Dezaki, and even marked the first time he worked with his character design partner Akio Sugino. It also featured early work of fellow anime legends Yoshiyuki Tomino (storyboards), Masao Maruyama ("Project Initiation"), & the late Shingo Araki (episode direction). The fact that this was an early work for all of these men doesn't really show, though, as the animation looks great to this day, though it definitely has aged & looks of the time. The simplest way to put it is that the way the Ashita no Joe anime looks will likely never be recreated in this day & age outside of moments that are purposefully referencing the anime. It's hand-drawn aesthetic is simply something that has been lost with the use of digital animation, and the debut of Dezaki & Sugino as a duo introduced what would be their most iconic design element: The "Postcard Memories". Dezaki's penchant for dramatic styling mixed with Sugino's intense drawing style resulted in moments that were purposefully nothing more than still images, but those images were filled with so much emotion, impact, & atmosphere that a lot of animated sequences still can't quite match to this day. Joe was simply something that could be imitated but never truly duplicated.

While Dezaki is credited for this movie as "Chief Director", the compiling itself was lead by director Yoichiro Fukuda, who was known more for live-action work; in fact, this seems to be Fukuda's sole anime work. Even the music was changed from Masao Yagi's original TV work; in place is the work of Kunihiko Suzuki (another live-action expert). Normally I'd say something about the music, but in all honesty there isn't much to be said due to the movie's relative lack of it. It's not non-existent by any means, and in fact it's generally really good, but the movie does go through a lot without ever using any bit of background music. If anything, it really helps give the movie a gritty, realistic touch; it was no doubt a directorial choice & it works well. The opening theme has also been changed from Isao Bitou's amazingly subdued yet hot-blooded anthem, but that doesn't mean that the replacement is bad. Instead, "Ashita no Joe ~Utsukushiki Okami Tachi~" by Takeshi Obo is just as fitting as the original song but in a different way. Instead of being as gritty as the animation itself, Obo's song is a perfect match for Joe's rise from gutter trash to respectable boxer. The ending theme, "Knock-Out" by Yasuo Shimizu, is also different from the TV series' two endings by being much more high-energy & works well as the last bit of audio you hear, but overall doesn't quite match the opening theme; still cool, though.

The Japanese voice cast for the original Ashita no Joe anime features some iconic voices, but, surprisingly enough, only a few actually returned for this movie. One that returned was Teruhiko Aoi, the voice of Joe Yabuki. Aoi, a live-action actor, has only ever performed one anime character in his entire career & he made it count. Whereas the manga made Joe into a cultural icon for young Japanese citizens, Aoi gave the character a voice, and it was a voice that fulfilled the cockiness, attitude, & even emotional moments of Joe; Teruhiko Aoi was, is, & will always be Joe Yabuki. Even a 10 year gap between the original anime & the movie, plus the sequel series, didn't hinder the performance in any way. Another returning voice was Jukei Fujioka, who voiced Danpei. Similarly to Aoi, Fujioka has only voiced one anime character & it is Joe's coach, and Fujioka's performance is the original "old man coach" performance. The roughness of his voice, the emotion delivered, & vocal chemistry with his character's "boy" have made Fujioka's Danpei the essential voice of the character; every other voice of Danpei just seems to imitate this original performance. The only other notable return performances are that Tamio Ohki (Chief Aramaki in Ghost in the Shell, Ken-Goh in Eureka Seven) as Mikinosuke Shiraki, Yoko's grandfather, & Fuyumi Shiraishi (Mirai Yashima in Gundam) as Sachi, the most notable & memorable of the little kids Joe befriends. Toshiyuki Hosokawa plays Rikiishi (replacing Shuusei Nakamura), who plays the character very well by keeping him polite & serious, yet always ready for a fight. Shiro Kishibe plays Nishi (replacing Toku Nishio), who delivers a surprisingly soft-spoken performance that actually fits the relatively gentle giant nicely. Finally, Fumi Dan voices Yoko in a fittingly polite way, though there are still hints of the character's "higher up" upbringing to be found. All three of these replacement actors would return for the compilation movie for TMS' anime in 1981.

As I mentioned at the beginning, not only did Tai Seng release this movie on DVD but they also dubbed it. Unfortunately, for a lot of older anime like this the music & effects track tends to either get lost or destroyed, hence why anime this old rarely gets dubbed now. Tai Seng's solution, in turn, is an interesting one: Make their own M&E track. The dub uses its own sound effects & utilizes a completely original soundtrack, likely culled from royalty free vaults, and there's actually a good bit more music in the dub than there is in the original Japanese audio. On its own the dub music isn't too bad & does fit the era the movie was made in, but the constant use of music kind of removes the grittiness of the original Japanese. The execution of this is very odd, though, in that the new sound effects come off as lacking any real "punch" (pun intended?) at times, and the music is handled even more oddly. Literally, when characters have to start talking at times music will usually simply stop out of nowhere or even just fade out in just a second, if a fade out is even used. Hell, the dub even "cheats" by using the Japanese soundtrack for scenes that don't involve any voice work, but if the next scene has talking the Japanese music will simply cut out quickly or even just switch to the dub music with almost no fading. Probably the most awkward moment, though, is when Joe & Wolf first trade blows outside the ring. The dub uses the Japanese audio, sound effects & all, to maintain the feel of the scene... And you even hear Wolf's coach say "Wolf" in Japanese! From a technical standpoint this dub is pretty damn weird, which is sad to say because the dub actually isn't half bad.

Yeah, no joke, Tai Seng's dub of Ashita no Joe is actually kind of good! Granted, the performances are kind of stilted & wooden at times (some might say appropriately so for the era), almost everyone over-pronounces Rikiishi's name as "Riki-Ishi", and Wolf's name is completely murdered into "Okani" (because the subs did the same), but overall it's actually completely watchable & even enjoyable. Unfortunately, Tai Seng doesn't credit anyone for the dub so I can't give proper credit where it's due; Tai Seng was based out of San Francisco, though, so maybe people from that area can identify some of the actors. Anyway, Joe's dub voice is very fitting for the character, delivering a lot of the cockiness & attitude that Aoi brought the character decades ago. Rikiishi's voice is also fitting, maintaining a gruff yet sophisticated air, much like Hosokawa's performance. Danpei sounds just as old & tired as the character needs to be, & though Nishi's dub voice doesn't quite match Kishibe's performance it still works okay enough. Finally, Yoko's performance makes her sound just as caring as the Japanese voice does. It's very much a dub that's far from perfect, some might find the deliveries a little too wooden at times, and the way the music & effects are utilized can actually detract her & there, but the English dub actually kind of becomes slightly fitting for the title it's used for, especially in regards to the time it came from.

Ashita no Joe is considered one of the all-time classics for good reason, but it's lack of availability in North America made it something that most anime fans would only know of by name. Tai Seng's "Champion Joe" DVD release in 2008 was by no means perfect (it's letterboxed & there are better masters out there, not to mention the cover looking like a bootleg), but it was great to finally see some form of this iconic series see an official release over here. As preparation for TMS' TV continuation it works magnificently, mainly because it doesn't try to cram everything you need to know into a short time frame. Sure, 2.5 hours can make it sound like a slog to get through, but you'll be too entranced by the iconic characters & excellent story to really care. Admittedly, fansubs for the original TV series have finally gone past episode 52 at this point & you could watch those, but sometimes you just want to support the official way. Unfortunately, though I did report on a price drop for this DVD as the third post I ever made on this blog, it has since gone out-of-print & now commands a pretty hefty price; I'm sure CrunchyRoll streaming TMS' series won't help now, either. Luckily, there still is a way to watch this movie at a great price digitally. New Video Group/Cinedigm, who has been doing more & more anime lately (Saint Seiya & Toei's Mononoke, baby!), was apparently the distributor for Tai Seng & is still offering this compilation movie over on iTunes for only $9.99! There is one catch, though: It's apparently dub-only. Still, if you feel you can't watch Champion Joe 2 over at CrunchyRoll without seeing the first half, and don't want to rely on fansubs, then this digital method is still a fine way to do so; the dub isn't ideal, but it's still way better than anyone could have ever expected. Really, what it comes down to is that Ashita no Joe is something that has to be seen, and the fact that you can actually do so legally in English, in some form or another, is amazing.


  1. Great Review. I recently watched the anime and found it to be basically the "Rocky before Rocky" as a huge anime fan myself I was surprised that I have missed this gem for so long. The cultural impact of this series in Japan is profound and it's a shame that with anime only really booming in the 1990's and beyond many fans of the medium have missed out on such an inspiring title.

    I am curious to what you thought of the ending which is perhaps what the series ends up being most known for.

    Also since I have just discovered your blog I look forward to reading your content.

    1. For my thoughts on the ending, there's my follow up review about the second TV series, but in general it was the perfect way to finish up the story. Ashita no Joe is seriously one of my all-time favorite anime, and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to watch it legally & review it without having to rely on fansubs.