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Tea Leaves

Burn on, Joe: Manga icon lifts a nation's spirits

Saga of 1960s street boxer finds new popularity in Japan

An exhibition on the legendary Japanese manga "Tomorrow's Joe" at the Setagaya Bungakukan in Tokyo.   © Kyodo

The fate of the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo may still be hanging in the balance, but one indirectly related event is already in progress. That is the "Tomorrow's Joe" exhibition, which I recently viewed at the Bungakukan (Literary Museum) in the city's Setagaya Ward.

"Tomorrow's Joe" is probably Japan's most famous sports manga. Serialized in Weekly Shonen Magazine from 1968 to 1973, it has sold over 20 million copies in book form and spawned two hit TV anime series and three films. More than that, it summed up a whole era and way of thinking that still resounds in today's Japan.

Joe Yabuki, the young boxer who is the hero of the story, remains a symbol of living with maximum intensity, no matter how daunting the odds. He is known for his famous words when, toward the end of his last fight, his faithful cornerman is about to throw in the towel. "Old man, I'm begging you... let me carry on... until there's nothing left of me but white ashes," says Joe.

On the day I visited, the diverse range of attendees included young women, families and numerous manga geeks as well as some chaps old enough to have read the first instalment when it was hot off the press. Of the two joint creators, story writer Ikki Kajiwara passed away over 30 years ago, but artist Tetsuya Chiba is still active, a living legend on the manga scene.

In a recent publication, he describes the background to his creation of Joe. "Back then, the economy was developing rapidly, but at the same time there was a negative side to it. We'd lost our Japanese soul and sense of self-respect, also many people were suffering from pollution, and the beauty of the natural environment was being destroyed. Anyway, however you look at it, we wanted to recover from that terrible lost war and charge forward with reckless abandon."

Young Joe's story is a dark one. He arrives out of nowhere, with no friends or relatives, and demonstrates his street-fighting prowess on the mean streets of the Sanya flop-house district of Tokyo. Mythic heroes, from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker, always need a wise mentor to guide them. Joe's Merlin is a facially scarred, one-eyed ex-boxer who sells his blood for booze money.

Joe is on the cute side of handsome, but the fights are gory and death lurks nearby. In one particularly disturbing scene, we see one of Joe's opponents as a young boy bashing out the brains of his father. Chiba based that gruesome incident on his childhood memories of fleeing Manchuria among scenes of chaos and violence at the end of World War II.

The manga was a tremendous success with students, including radical extremists. The leader of the nine-man armed group which hijacked a Japan Airlines plane and flew to North Korea in 1970 declared in the group's statement of responsibility: "Make no mistake -- we are Tomorrow's Joe." Most of the members of the Japanese Communist League Red Army Faction involved in that incident are dead now, but four remain in North Korea, including the former bass player of Les Rallizes Denudes, a famed proto-punk band.

There were fans on the other side of the political spectrum too. One summer night in 1969, an editor working late at the offices of publisher Kodansha was amazed to find himself confronted by a vexed Yukio Mishima. "I can't wait until tomorrow for 'Tomorrow's Joe,'" said the great novelist and militant nationalist as he demanded an advance copy of the magazine, worried that his busy schedule would prevent him from procuring one. The editor quickly obliged.

"Tomorrow's Joe" reached its apogee of fame in 1970 when poet and countercultural icon Shuji Terayama arranged a funeral to mark the death in the ring of Yabuki's great rival, Toru Rikiishi. The exhibit in Setagaya features a mock-up of a boxing ring and contemporary photos of this bizarre ceremony.

Around 800 mourners, ranging from junior high school kids to office workers, attended that event. Also present was Masahiko "Fighting" Harada, a pal of Terayama and a former bantamweight and flyweight world boxing champion, as well as the manga's two creators. A senior priest from the Soto Zen sect chanted sutras while musty incense wafted over a black-bordered portrait of the "deceased" manga character. In Japanese Buddhist style, he was given an elaborate "new name" to prevent him being called back to this world.

Terayama claimed that the square-jawed Rikiishi, who was dating the daughter of a super-wealthy zaibatsu family, represented the pro-U.S. moneyed elite. Joe, on the other hand, starts off as a petty criminal who dreams of using his ill-gotten gains to build playgrounds and clinics in the slums. In Terayama's eyes, he stood for revolution, and his defeat by Rikiishi (who dies after winning the bout against Joe) symbolized the establishment's knockout victory over the radical left.

Terayama's interpretation was creative, but if "Tomorrow's Joe" were merely a political fable, it would be forgotten today. The reality is that Joe and Rikiishi had a lot in common. They first meet at a juvenile prison where Rikiishi has been sent for beating up a spectator who insulted him. Joe is in awe of Rikiishi's prowess and there is a mutual attraction based on their opposing personalities. In order to make their final match-up possible, Rikiishi reduces his weight by a fifth and drops from welterweight to bantamweight so that he can fight the lighter Joe. This extraordinary feat almost guarantees that Rikiishi will lose.

Haunted by his responsibility for his rival's death, Joe falls into a deep personal and professional slump, until he learns to take Rikiishi's courage as his inspiration. His future victories are dedicated to the man he loved and killed.

This is a Japanese story, so there is no Hollywood ending. Joe reaches the top rank of boxers but, unlike Harada, never becomes world champion.

What actually happens at the end of his final bout is still a matter of debate. One thing is for sure -- reigning world champion Jose Mendoza is marked forever by his encounter with Yabuki.

Ultimately, "Tomorrow's Joe" is a classic because it tells a compelling story of personal growth. Joe is a lazy, thieving street kid who becomes a man under the influence of mentors, friends and, above all, the sport. Yet it is his inner wildness that makes him such an awesome fighter. He gives everything he has and more because that is the only way he knows to live.

Not many of us can battle on relentlessly like Joe Yabuki, but now more than ever we need his example.

The exhibition at Setagaya Bungakukan continues until March 31.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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