Yabuki Joe is left downhearted and hopeless after a certain tragic event. In attempt to put the past behind him, Joe leaves the gym behind and begins wandering. On his travels he comes across the likes of Wolf Kanagushi and Goromaki Gondo, men who unintentionally fan the dying embers inside him, leading him to putting his wanderings to an end. His return home puts Joe back on the path to boxing, but unknown to himself and his trainer, he now suffers deep-set issues holding him back from fighting. In attempt to quell those issues, Carlos Rivera, a world renowned boxer is invited from Venezuela to help Joe recover.
The original Ashita no Joe is often regarded as the anime medium’s first true masterpiece – in spite of some key flaws that prevent it from truly being one. As such, it is exceptional more for its time than anything else. The same cannot be said, however, of Ashita no Joe 2, which is an improvement in almost every regard.
The most obvious reason for this is that when the original series was airing, the manga was not yet complete, resulting in a slow pace and an abundance of filler to avoid catching up with the source material. This sequel, however, aired long after the manga’s conclusion, resulting in it being far more concise and focused.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the first arc of the series, which covers the same story arc as last 25 episodes of the first series, following the events of the manga faithfully so as to preserve continuity (as the events of the two are significantly different in execution). If so inclined, one could skip directly from episode 54 of season 1 to episode 1 of season 2. The plot here is a marked improvement on the previous attempt, not only clocking in at half the length but also providing a significantly stronger character arc for Joe during his recovery from the events of season 1.
It also does a considerably better job of establishing Joe’s bond with his new rival Carlos Rivera, an instantly lovable rogue with a similarly playful attitude and tragic backstory to Joe’s, both of which immediately cement them as each other’s counterparts. The only omissions are elements of Carlos’ backstory specified only in the first series that fleshed Carlos out slightly more, but this isn’t as important when compared to how well this series builds his chemistry with Joe.
The sequel has also made a tremendous improvement in all technical aspects. The first season was legendary director Osamu Dezaki at the start of his career, and while it was artistically rough around the edges, even then they showed an incredible artistic flair and introduced techniques never before seen in anime, pushing the envelope and crafting an aesthetic that made the show visually striking in spite of its technical limitations. This series shows Dezaki ten years later, at this point a seasoned professional who has over the last decade mastered his craft. Ashita no Joe 2 is one of the most visually spectacular anime of its era, with polished and fluid animation that nonetheless retains the rough, sketchy charm of its first season. The fight scenes have fantastic choreography, even going so far as to for each boxer to have a distinctive style of fighting. Even outside of the boxing matches, there’s a clear emphasis placed on body language and character movement. The only major technical fault is in the voice acting – more specifically the Engrish. Most of the Engrish in this is to a surprisingly high standard with most extras and minor characters sounding plausibly American. The exception is José Mendoza, by far the most significant English-speaking character in the series, and the only one whose actor clearly does not speak a word of English despite it being José’s only spoken language.
While corners are cut in the name of cheaper animation, as with all Dezaki anime this is achieved through the use of clever techniques that improve the dramatic presentation of the anime rather than marring it. Most common amongst them are repeating the same shot three times to great dramatic effect, use of obscuring shadows, and the “postcard memories” technique, wherein a detailed watercolour painting is used to portray dramatic moments in favour of animation. All of these contribute to the exceptional cinematography present throughout Ashita no Joe 2. The music in this series is similarly excellent, albeit dated, and with certain tracks being overused. However, Dezaki often does more with the absence of music, creating an eerie and tense atmosphere, often combined with his signature long takes and wide shots exemplifying his masterful cinematography.
The new filler-free approach that Ashita no Joe 2 takes leads to substantially better pacing than the original, keeping an exciting and fast pace compared to the slow burn of the original – and the presence of Joe’s fanclub of children has been significantly reduced as a (welcome) result. There is a slight lull in the middle episodes, however – some of this is well-utilized for character development, but there is a brief stretch of its run in which Joe faces a series of opponents who contribute little to nothing to the plot and are noticeably flat characters compared to the usual high standard this series keeps – most notably Harimao, who was awful in every way, sticking out especially due to how over-the-top he is both in personality and boxing style – he feels like he comes from another show entirely.
He is the exception, however, as Joe’s supporting cast is otherwise excellent. Along with Carlos, we are also introduced to several other new rival boxers, most notably Kim Yong-bu (the debut role of now-legendary seiyuu Norio Wakamoto) and José Mendoza (who is built up from early on to be, in essence, the final boss of Ashita no Joe).
But the standout is, of course, still Yabuki Joe himself. Joe’s character arc is the pinnacle of Ashita no Joe’s primary thematic focus – character growth. It’s remarkable to see Joe go from where he was at the start of season 1 to where he is at the end – the changes in how he views himself, his friends, and boxing. Even moreso because of how subtle his development is, being slow enough as to never seem forced whilst still being a clear and pronounced change.
Ashita no Joe 2 is by no means perfect – along with a few aforementioned flaws, there is a major plothole regarding Joe’s weight class, his struggle with which is a major plot point during the Kim Yong-bu arc but which is immediately dropped without explanation the moment this plot thread is over. However, in spite of its imperfections, Ashita no Joe is absolutely worthy of its legacy. It’s a compelling story with exceptional directing and characterization, one that pushed the bar for what anime was capable of and left a tremendous cultural impact – the final shot of the series going on to be perhaps the single most parodied and referenced scene in anime history.