Joe Yabuki: Anime’s Greatest Boxer? Perhaps
Let me start by saying that like many before me. I hated Joe in the beginning of this series as he was immature, and a brat. One who couldn’t see the big picture and was driven my his own selfish needs and nothing anything else. I haven’t been put off by a character like him in a very long time. This should have been my first hint that this anime was going to be special because by the end of it I felt attached to the protagonist. I understood what he was trying to achieve, and at each emotional turning point, my heart was touched with his burning desire to overcome his circumstance. Once you see the entire story as a whole you understand why he was in such an irrational state. He was poor, homeless, and an outcast. He was a delinquent and like many troubled children they easily end up in a life of crime. Yet there are many who find something to focus on and in our capitalistic society, this usually is sports. As you think of the many athletes who the populous worship today they often came from a lower socio-economic status. So for Joe boxing was a salvation one which he would love beyond reason. Once he had a rival, and friend in Rikishi he finally becomes focused on a goal and once he was focused on a goal he did everything in his power to achieve it. He trained, and fought with everything he had. Joe never threw in the towel if he was going down he was going down until he was knocked out unconscious or time had expired. Each challenge he faced he rose to meet it with everything he had. He wasn’t the most gifted technical fighter, he wasn’t the fastest, nor was he the strongest. Joe was the most resilient. A character trait that I think is what makes Joe stand out, and is a shining light in this series. He had nothing, and he even went to juvenile prison for fraud. It is at this low point in which he finally starts rebounding (granted it takes a while) once he does he becomes one of the most fiercest fighters.
Joe in the boxing ring is an allegory for life itself. You may be given a poor poker hand in life but that shouldn’t stop you from giving it your best. Yabuki represents this theme of never quitting even in the face of overwhelming odds. He didn’t fight for money, honor, or respect. He did it because he loved it, and wanted to fight until his inner fire turned to white ash (one of the most iconic scenes in Ashita No Joe). Joe did just that as he saw it through to the very end. There were many times he could have taken chosen the life of those around him who did settle down, and worked in an honest job. Instead, he wanted to see his boxing career to the very end. The conversation between Noriko (a girl who at one point in story had strong feelings for him) highlights this point as she ended up marrying Joe’s best friend, but only because she finally understood that outside of boxing he had no room for ‘love’ and his other possible love interest Yoko a rich girl whose hobby was running a boxing gym and promoting bouts also ran into this dilemma in the end as well. Yet perhaps he could have loved her because unlike Noriko she understood the passion of a boxer. And it becomes painfully obvious Joe doesn’t think about his future beyond the next fight since the next one might be his last.
Which bring me to the ending of the anime. The ending is ambitious in many regards but the conventional theory is that he dies in the ring but after reading Hox’s piece as his interpretation that Joe actually does live but is done fighting is most probably the most realistic ending even if it may not be the one I personally accept. The facts show that most boxers don’t actually die in the ring, but end up with mental disorders (dementia, bipolar, etc.) because of repeated concussions this may lead to drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide, but the actual act of dying in the ring is rare in modern boxing. So the odds are against Joe of actually dying in the ring. He most probably ends up as many fighters do as mentally crippled being restricted to a hospital bed the rest of his life. Luckily for him, the woman who loves him Yoko is rich and can afford to provide medical care until his death. So the probability is that Hox is right and Joe does live afterward, but his fighting career is over.
I can’t accept this interpretation of the ending because I hate it. Most people want Joe alive because he can be with Yoko after but the manga/anime clearly states he’s already showing effects of brain damage. Why would you want an epic character like Joe Yabuki to be living the life of a vegetable? It doesn’t befit him he should go out like his friend Rikiishi did.
So I like to think he did die on that day and gave Yoko his gloves so she could always remember him. Yoko who visits the graves of both Risiiki and Joe. Leaving roses in honor of their legacies as great warriors.
It must suck being Yoko even if she is rich and beautiful and pretty much set for life. All the fighters she has actually cared for end up dying or brain dead. The loss of both Joe and Rikiishi must weigh heavy upon her. Yet she is one of the most pro-female characters I’ve come across especially since she faces the reality that boxing is a man’s world and she often struggles to get the proper respect from the men who are boxers. Eventually, she does, and becomes a respected businesswoman and is able to connect with the emotions of the fighters she promotes. If Joe’s end is sad then, of course, hers is as well. Boxing ended up taking the people she respected, and cared for. Most importantly it took away the man she loved but boxing also gave her the opportunity to meet these great people. Yoko is framed in the beginning to be a spoiled rich girl who gives to the poor because she has so much not because she truly desires to. Joe ends up being wrong about her and at the end acknowledges. Yoko is actually a very caring, and warm person who cares for boxers but also has a love for the sport herself. Of the mental strength, and fearless one must have when testing his life in the ring.