From Ali to Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby to The Fighter, Hollywood has never been short of boxing films in the recent contemporary years, with stories based on biographies mostly capturing the attention of viewers who yearn to comprehend the appeal behind this gladiatorial sport. Japan too has its fair share of films such as Box screened here last year, and now Tomorrow's Joe, adapted from the evergreen, popular manga Ashita no Jo created by Ikki Kajiwara and Tetsuya Chiba, spanning the 60s to the 70s and extending its popularity through anime as well.
Directed by Fumihiko Sori, Tomorrow's Joe is that blast from the past thanks to the wonderfully crafted misc-en-scene in every scene, bringing us back to the struggling 60s and early 70s of post-war Japan. This in itself is admirable by the filmmakers to painstakingly create the look, and feel even, of the era, rather than to opt for the easy way out to adapt and update it for the look of today, and not that it can't be done, but you can bet that the magical charm that existed throughtout the film in part due to nostalgia, will be totally lost.
But for a boxing film, the action counts more than accuracy pertaining to the signs of the times, and thankfully this film did everything right in choreographing action that can be seen clearly by the naked eye, and not have to resort to quick edits or cutaways to mask the actors' obvious lack of professional boxing ability. You can see each punch and block, done at normal speed and when slowed down to a crawl to achieve maximum impact, coupled with powerful sound design that puts you either at ringside, or over the shoulder of the fighter, or adopting the first person perspective. It is this variation of angles that constantly engages and allow in part to see and feel the damage caused by each blow. The fights were also deliberately stylized in design, with swooping camera movements weaving about the boxing ring, and the background crowd almost disappearing to allow your attention to be focused on the fighters.
The titular Joe Yabuki is played by Tomohisa Yamashita, with the protagonist being a juvenile drifter who found himself involved in street brawls more often than not. His most recent brawl made Dampei Tange (Teruyuki Kagawa) sit up and take notice of this raw diamond who has all the right moves, except for the polishing and training to be a pedigree bantamweight fighter. But Joe gets thrown into prison soon after, and it is there that he met his best friend Nishi (Katsuya), while becoming a fierce rival to Toru Rikiishi (Yuseke Iseya), a top fighter spending time in prison. Danpei becomes Joe's trainer teaching and imparting the basics of boxing through notes, and the narrative basically takes us through most of the first part of the manga series, save for a few minor subplots dropped that wouldn't be consequential in the film, choosing to focus strictly on the rivalry between Joe and Rikiishi.
Tomohisa Yamashita plays Joe to manga perfection, and kudos too to the art director for getting the characters all look similar to their original source material. He's almost no fat, complete with floppy fringe, with Tomohisa portraying Joe with a carefree attitude. Yusuke Iseya as his rival Rikiishi also has a body in the film to die for, and seriously one knows the kind of work that goes on behind the scenes during film preparation to achieve a body like that. Yusuke endows his character with a streak of arrogance, hell bent on taking Joe on in the ring and defeating him in the open in the same weight class, and these two are like the quintessential hero and villain pair, where one needs the other in other to justify their own existence. But perhaps the one whom you will sit up and take notice, is Teruyuki Kagawa as Danpei, whose makeup is top notch to allow the character actor to disappear behind a bald pate and broken, buck teeth.
If there is a message in this film, it is the usual never back down from adversity, and that the underdog must know and exercise perseverance and determination even if the odds are stacked against them. Joe represents that never say die attitude that's encouraged to be adopted, even when being knocked down it's almost a given to find within one's reserves, something to continue upon to stand up and fight with defiance in what you deem true and right. The story ties this in closely with Joe's distaste for Rikiishi's manager Yoko Shiraki (Karina) in a subplot dealing with her embarrassment of her background and roots, and constantly finding opportunities to get rid of a community of slum dwellers to make way for a swanky new sports community with the existing residents not being part of that plan. Given the OccupyWallStreet movement, this rise of the working class against the elite who have resources, cannot be more pronounced.
Tomorrow's Joe follows the broad outline of its manga episodes quite accurately, but in doing so doesn't offer anything new to its fan base other than to see their beloved hero represented and played out in the flesh. For non-fans, its rather generic tale of zero turned hero is thematically done to death, and doesn't offer anything compelling, with the rivalry being there without diving into depth to explore what drives these men to do what they do obsessively, especially in Rikiishi's case of having to drop his weight drastically to compete in the same class, when there is absolutely no need to given his career title-shot.
Still there will be those who will enjoy the simplistic, direct approach in telling the story using a rote formula, and find amusement in the way Joe is actually a one-trick pony with his counter-crosses and penchant for deliberately letting his guard down to lull opponents into complacency. The story doesn't end here just yet with the second half of the mythos being a larger challenge for Joe, but it's anyone's guess whether that sequel and follow up film will be made. For what it's worth with its typicalness, Tomorrow's Joe is still recommended viewing for fans of any of the actors, or of the genre.