[OWLS Blog Tour] How a Scoundrel from the Slums Became an Icon: The Rise and Fall of Joe Yabuki

Hey Hey Heroes, Travelers, and Wandering NPCs, I’m back with my second OWLS Blog Tour post of the new year! What’s that you say? You don’t know about OWLS? Well, for those of you new here, OWLS or Otaku Wariors for Liberty and Self-Respect is a group of bloggers, vloggers, and writers who seek to promote acceptance and equality through thoughtful community activism, with an otaku twist! Each month we decide on a theme and each member writes a post or records a video, on that theme through the lens of something from pop culture. We have been known to cover a wide range of topics, from anime and manga to video games and film, most subject matter is up for discussion so long as it fits with our monthly theme.  This month’s theme is Competition!

In honor of the 2018 Winter Olympics, this month topic will focus on the theme, “Competition” because the Olympics is where athletes from all countries join together to compete in sporting events. Through these events, we see how “competition” brings out the grit, the teamwork, and the competitive spirit within athletes. This month, we will be exploring anime and pop culture media that discusses the good and the bad when it comes to competition and what it can teach us about ourselves and the world around us.

February 2018 “Competition” Blog Tour Prompt

I’m just one in a long line of Blog Tour stops this month, and I highly recommend checking them all out when you have the time. Just before me was Auri  from over at Manga Toritsukareru Koto, with her phenomenal post about Aoharu x Kikanjuu.

For this month’s tour I decided to go with the classic fighting anime Ashita no Joe, which just celebrated it’s 50th Anniversary back in January.  I absolutely love this series and it’s a damn shame that a series as influential as Ashita no Joe doesn’t get the attention it deserves! So I’m going to give this gem its time in the sun (again), by looking at the anime’s protagonist Joe Yabuki and how such a flawed individual managed to take the boxing world by storm!

Ashita no Joe: An Iconic Boxing Relic

Ashita no Joe is a 20 volume boxing manga series written by Asao Takamori and illustrated by Tetsuya Chiba, that debuted in Weekly Shonen Magazine in January 1968. The series ran until 1973, spawning several adaptations over the years including two anime series (1970 and 1980 respectively), two anime films, and two live-action films (the first in 1970 starring Shōji Ishibashi, the second in 2011 starring Tomohisa Yamashita). Not to mention it’s influence on many of today’s long running boxing anime like Hajime no Ippo, which has paid homage to the series quite a few times in its 29 year run! Internationally the series is known as Champion Joe, Rocky Joe or as simply Joe.


Joe, a teenage orphan in the slums of the Doya streets, meets Danpei, a homeless, alcoholic ex-boxing coach. Danpei, seeing Joe’s boxing talent, decides to train him. When Joe is sent to a terrible juvenile home for petty crimes, he meets Rikiishi who becomes his boxing rival. Danpei arrives at the home to help Joe to train in order to defeat Rikiishi. When Joe decides to seriously pursue boxing, Danpei cannot get a coaching license because of his reputation as a drunk.


The series is gritty and raw, and deliciously tragic, but it speaks to me on a spiritual level. Yeah, it’s dated as hell, and yeah the art leaves much to be desired, but it’s a story with a lot of heart and soul. I cannot recommend this series enough, I never really cared for fighting anime, I still don’t, but Ashita no Joe was special, I grips you in a way so few anime manage to do, you really feel for the characters and their struggles, not because you’re supposed to, but because you empathize with them. You feel their pain, their suffering, things rarely end nicely, they have to work for their ending and even then it doesn’t always wrap up the way you’d expect.  I literally cried at the end of this series, and I mean, ugly cried, snot running down my face and everything, because it hit me in a place I didn’t even know I had, the loss was real because I didn’t just watch these characters for 76 episodes, I experienced their journey with them…

Fighting for Your Tomorrow: An Ode to the Tragic Hero

The cultural impact of the series in Japan has remained consistent to this day, the series still ranking fairly high on most popularity polls and a lot of that has to do with the series’ protagonist Joe Yabuki. Unlike most underdog protagonists, Joe isn’t a goodie two shoes, mary sue, he’s an asshole, whose rise from poverty to fame was meant to be a representation of the struggling lower class in Japan at a time when the country was experiencing drastic social and economic transitions.

Tragic hero (noun)

a great or virtuous character in a dramatic tragedy who is destined for downfall, suffering, or defeat


For millions, Joe Yabuki was meant to be a tragic hero, a manifestation of their plight and beacon of hope. Of course, by their very definition, tragic heroes aren’t meant to instill hope, more so as a testament of the follies of hubris or some other damning character flaw. Like the story of Icarus and the classical heroes of old they are meant to be a warning against flying too high or too fast, for daring to reach too far outside one’s station. So, why is it that a scrappy selfish, and deeply flawed young man from the slums, managed to rise to the level of cult icon, whose influence is still felt in media both from within Japan and globally? What makes Joe someone that people want to emulate rather than vilify?

American dream (noun)

the ideal that every US citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.

It’s because, despite all of his flaws, and he has many, Joe Yabuki promises that even the worst of us can carve out our own piece of the pie, if only we work hard enough for it, in the states we’d say that Joe is the embodiment of the American Dream. He starts at rock bottom an orphan with no wealth or pedigree who uses his street smarts and natural fighting ability to quite literally punch his way into the hearts of a nation. His deplorable personality and delinquent nature notwithstanding, of course, because let’s be real, Joe is a piece of shit at the start of the series, he thinks nothing of using people to get what he wants and heaven have mercy on anyone that thinks they can change him! He is the absolute bottom of the barrel, and most of the misfortune that befalls him early on is brought on by his own selfish and frivolous nature. He’s the kind of guy your mother warned you about, and yet there is something charming about a gruff world weary teen with an I don’t care attitude that goes out of his way to stick it to the man whenever he can! He’s the face of revolution, of civil disobedience, Joe is the embodiment of the kind of person we secretly wish we could be; confident.

His flaws don’t matter, because at the end of the day, Joe beats the system, he claws his way up to the top and he does it with his own two hands. He doesn’t use flashy gimmicks to win the day, he carves out his own tomorrow by living the life he wants on his own terms.

Standing in My Path: The Importance of Rivals in Competition

Throughout the series, Joe has a number of opponents and rivals, but none are as integral to Joe’s overall development as Tōru Rikiishi. He is the person that finally motivates Joe into taking boxing seriously.  Rikiishi was a former prodigy boxer who was sent to prison after he beat an audience member within an inch of their life after they accuses him of rigging a fight. Of course Joe is no better having been thrown in prison for swindling a rich woman out of a shit ton of money and for being an all around jerk. The pair meet in prison, when Joe hearing that Rikiishi was a former boxer, challenges him to a match and get’s the shit knocked out of him, but not before landing a beautiful cross counter straight to Rikiishi’s face. The fight ends with both men flat on their backs, but it plants the seeds of rivalry between them and they promise to challenge one another again in an official match once they leave prison.

joe train.png


From that point forward, Joe throws himself into boxing, training relentlessly, while working his way up the Bantamweight ranks, armed with the very cross-counter move that he used on Rikiishi. After, defeating opponent after opponent, Joe finally earns the right to fight Rikiishi despite the boxer being a full three weight classes ahead of him and on his way to being number one in his class. But, Rikiishi puts everything on hold to settle the score with the fledgling boxer, who he sees not just as a rival, but as the one thing standing in the way of his path to greatness. This is a man that has everything going for him, fame and fortune right at his finger tips, and yet all of that is meaningless if he doesn’t take down Joe, a no name boxer from the slums that knocked him on his ass years ago.

For Joe, Rikiishi is one of the last remnants of his past that he must overcome before he can ever move forward both as a boxer and as an individual. It’s an emotionally charged event for both men and one that will determine their very futures. So, when both men finally meet in the ring, they are each willing to put everything on the line, and they do just that! It is a spectacular match consisting of eight nail biting rounds, I mean, blow for blow action, that pushes both fighters to their limits both mentally and physically. Ultimately, Rikiishi is victorious, defeating Joe once and for all, fair and square! But, just before he shakes Joe’s hand and finally claims his victory, Rikiishi collapses, eventually dying from the combined strain of his training and a brutal head shot from Joe a few rounds earlier. While his death is ruled an accident, the incident greatly shakes the young boxer to the point that he is unable to perform his signature move let alone box.


This one incident serves as a turning point in Joe’s characterization, before this, he was a reckless, half-cocked, delinquent with no regard for anyone or anything, not even his own life. But, after, he becomes more aware of the consequences of his actions and his own fallibility. Before this point, Joe was just skating through life, without much direction or purpose, even his desire to be a boxing champ stemmed from his own selfish desire to be the best, solely because he could. Afterwards, he fights not just for himself, but for Rikiishi, whose life he snuffed out before his dreams could be fully realized, for the people who put their hopes and dreams in him when he was crawling around in the dirt, and of course for himself. But, rather than being a selfish desire, it is one full of purpose, Joe carries with him the hopes and dreams of all those that came before him and every one that comes after, and that is what makes Joe such an icon. It’s not his natural fighting prowess, nor is it his pluck, that has ingratiated him to readers and viewers across the globe, but the spirit of what he as a character embodies, hope for a better tomorrow.

Which Way is Tomorrow?: Carrying the Torch for the Next Generation

In Ashita no Joe it isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about living your life by your own terms, carving out your own future. Joe isn’t perfect, nor is he what we’d call a “hero”, he is human, he’s flawed, he makes mistakes. But, no matter how many times he is knocked down, he gets back up and gives it his all. Competition is like that too, it’s cheesy, but ‘it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game’; the outcome doesn’t matter so long as you give it your all along the way.

Joe 2

At the end of the day Joe is a tragic hero, so like Moses and Achilles, he never reaches the promise land, nor does he reap the benefits of his accomplishments. But, that doesn’t matter, because Joe died the way he lived; by his own rules. His rivalry with Rikiishi was the inciting incident that spurred Joe on his journey of redemption and the final scenes of the anime definitely capture that change (hell the final panels of the manga are fucking fantastic too). Joe comes a long way from his start as an arrogant, scoundrel, not because he needs to do better for himself, but because he is carrying the weight of everyone else’s hopes and dreams. And that is what redeems him as a character and solidifies him as an icon in the hearts and minds of his fans.

joe 3.jpg

The competition aspects of the series are used to highlight Joe’s growth as a character, he learns from them , growing as a boxer and as an individual, with each loss and each win, he takes with him a piece of that experience. He carries them with him into each match, ultimately rising beyond his faults, and that is what the spirit of competition is really about: learning, growing, and adapting.

Right, so that’s all I have to say about that, there are still a ton of blog tour stops left in the February 2018 Tour, next up is Matt from Matt in the Hat, so definitely be on the look out for that posts on the 7th!! Also if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the Official OWLS Twitter account @OWLSbloggers and the Official OWLS Blog, to stay up to date on all OWLS news and announcements!

If you are interested in becoming a member of the OWLS team, please feel free to fill out the contact form, HERE! So don’t be afraid to reach out to any of us on our blogs, on twitter, or at the contact page to learn more about us!! You just need an open mind and a willingness to have fun! Catch you guys on the flipside! 

10 thoughts on “[OWLS Blog Tour] How a Scoundrel from the Slums Became an Icon: The Rise and Fall of Joe Yabuki

  1. I definitely need to read this one!
    A manga/ anime about fighting and I missed that?! How?!
    Also, I think you should be fined for pushing a title all the way up my fifty something tbr list, Poke-san. I protest!

Gush about cute otome boys~