Tomorrow’s Joe (2011, Japan)

Tomorrow’s Joe is a reworking, 40+ years down the track, of the boxing manga Ashita no Joe, which had already inspired a 79-episode TV series, two feature films (one anime) and another spin-off. It’s a Rocky-esque rags-to-not-quite-riches underdog story, with prison setting the tone for what is to come. 

Its hero is Joe Yabuki (pop star Tomohisa Yamashita), a troubled young man who was abandoned by his parents when he was a child, and who has since spent his time picking up a criminal history and knocking around in the slums of Tokyo. But we soon establish that he also has a good heart – leaping (maybe a little too vigorously) to the defence of a drunken old man, Dampei Tange (Teruyuki Kawaga) who is being attacked, and fighting all comers – Yakuza, strangers (and, after he is placed in juvenile detention for a year, cellmates, guards and other assorted prisoners who get in his way). A quiet, enigmatic, self-contained young man, he lets his fists do the talking. One senses a bit of an underlying anger problem.

It’s while he’s in prison that he is introduced to boxing as a sport, and is pitted against another young fighter, Toru Rikiishi (Yûsuke Iseya), who already has a professional career. Rikiishi is being managed by a beautiful, rich young woman, Yoko Shiraki (Karina), whom we learn was also abandoned to the slums as a child… but who has somehow reconnected with her wealthy grandfather and is now running part of his empire. Joe, on the other hand, receives postcards from the grateful ex-pug whom he saved, Tange, who sees Joe’s potential and appoints himself as his trainer: “Left jab – for tomorrow…”.

The much-awaited fight between Joe and Rikiishi is, well… novel. Joe, who in his street brawling shows extraordinary skill in balancing attack and defence, forgets all his defensive instincts in the ring. He is knocked down but keeps getting back up (a little Cool Hand Luke-ish, you might say), and then lands one final desperate counter-punch just as he wears the punch that knocks him out also: a double KO, and a draw! The lack of a full resolution eats away at them both.

When Joe and Rikiishi get out, they are both keen for a rematch. Rikiishi and others in the Shiraki stable train in state-of-the-art facilities, with Yoko also having a heavy emotional investment in her man. Joe and the Tange camp train in a rundown gym in the slums, which the Shirakis plan to bulldoze in order to build an expensive new sports training centre (not for use by the poor, one imagines). While Joe’s training is a picture of orthodoxy, come fight day his career progression is entirely due to his idiosyncratic and unorthodox approach – dropping his guard, taunting his opponent (Ali-style), being knocked down and responding at the last moment with a lethal counter-punch… which his opponents soon learn to await.

The rematch between Joe and arch-rival Rikiishi eventually occurs. Rikiishi has to shed a lot of weight to get down to bantamweight, and Joe has to learn to fight. The outcome is, well… novel.

The story is not about prison; prison is merely the setting for more of Joe’s untamed fighting and the start of his rivalry with Rikiishi and his learning. It is, in part, a battle between the rich & powerful and the poor, in part about honour and loyalty and triumph through adversity, but it is also about Joe finding meaning through boxing and particularly through his connection to Rikiishi: “(I have) never felt more alive than when I’m in the ring.” Foxing, guard down, getting battered, knocked down and struggling to his feet. But with a view to tomorrow.




Posted on March 13th, 2020 at 11:17 am. Updated on March 19th, 2020 at 3:49 pm.

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