Tomorrow’s Joe (Ashita No Joe): Film Review

A pugilist film with over-crafted action scenes and under-written characters.

The boxing scenes are circus acts with hi-tech dazzle, but under Fumihiko Sori’s direction, the moves, the handsome production and even handsomer leads are too “clean” to convey pain or power on a gut level.

HONG KONG — Tomorrow’s Joe traces how a slum dog and star pro-boxer come together for their once-in-a-lifetime tryst in the ring. Set in Tokyo during Japan’s frugal post-war years, the film should be all about struggle, ambition and indomitable will. Sure enough, the boxing scenes are circus acts with hi-tech dazzle, but under Fumihiko Sori’s direction, the moves, the handsome production and even handsomer leads are too “clean” to convey either pain or power on a gut level.

Tomorrow’s Joe is the first live-action adaptation of a hit Japanese serial manga that ran from 1968-1973, twice made into anime. The film’s commercial performance was sturdy, while overseas sales should capitalize on having pretty boy Tomohisa Yamashita (who gained Asian popularity with Kurosagi) as Joe.

In a ramen-house in Tokyo’s poorest neighborhood, vagabond Joe Yabuki gets into a brawl with some thugs. Unexpectedly, the scrawny but angel-faced lad wastes them. He catches the eyes of Yoko (Karina), granddaughter and heiress to the Shiraki Consortium, and retired boxer Danpei Tange (Teruyuki Kagawa).

Joe is dispatched to prison for a year. There he meets pro-boxer Toru Rikiishi (Yusuke Iseya, Sukiyaki Western Django), who belongs to Yoko’s sports stable. Yoko arranges an exhibition match for the two. With coaching by Tange, who sends him a postcard everyday teaching him new moves, Joe surprises Rikiishi with a cross counter. The match results in a dramatic draw that spurs both men to stake their lives on a professional square-up once out of jail.

Eriko Shinozaki’s lean screenplay sticks to the film’s five fight scenes, tightening the pace as Joe moves up from instinctual wildcat fisticuffs to tutored jabs and cuts. Any dramatic content in between are dull melodramatic fillers. Keiji Hashimoto’s combative cinematography goes berserk with slo-mos and freeze frames, alternating with swiping camera moves. This mannered approach gives action scenes a fresh visual impact, but is also a blow to the continuity and grace of movement.

It’s noticeable that both leading actors have undergone training for the film but only Iseya makes his physical drive palpable. Overall, characterization remains superficial, especially of the two supporting roles. Tange has no past, even though he is a key father figure who inspires Joe to envisage a future beyond daily survival. His interaction with Joe lacks any emotional bond beyond coaching or preaching of platitudes. There’s a subplot delving into Yoko’s childhood, which led to her hostility to Joe and his lot, but it is touched on in such an oblique way it exacerbates her character’s inconsistency.

Technical credits are tip-top. The meticulously recreated set is accompanied by stylized de-saturation of some colors and rich saturation of others to give a faded photo look. A mellow yet playful jazz harmonica score tops it all.

Opened: In Japan Feb. 11
Production: TBS Radio & Communications, TBS, Film Partners
Cast: Tomohisa Yamashita, Yusuke Iseya, Karina, Teruyuki Kawaga
Director: Fumihiko Sori
Screenwriter: Eriko Shinozaki
Based on the manga by: Takamori Asao, Tetsuya Chiba
Executive producer: Kazuya Hamada
Planning producer: Hidenori Iyoda
Director of photography: Keiji Hashimoto
Production designer: Takashi Sasaki
Music: Reiji Kitazato, Tetsuya Takahashi
Costume designer: Kayoko Ishikawa
Sales: Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS)
No rating, 132 minutes

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