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Gutsy manga classic that pulls no punches

by Kaori Shoji

Konjo-nashi (gutless) is a word often used to describe today’s Japanese youth. But the people using it are frankly wakkachyainai (clueless). The truth is, young people love konjo (guts). They want it, they admire it. They’d ooze konjo from every pore — if they could. And to prove it, an increasing number of them are reading “Ashita no Jo (Jo of Tomorrow).”

“Ashita no Jo” is a legendary manga first produced in the late 1960s that captured generations of Japanese in its iron grip, never to let go.

If you don’t believe me, just ask. Your sour-faced forty something kacho (section chief) sitting two desks down will get all choked up about the adventures of Jo, his archrival Rikiishi and his eternal muse and nemesis, Yoko. A thirtysomething cafe owner will tell you his favorite character wasn’t Jo, but his supportive best friend Nishi. And now teenage skateboarders are passing around Jo books, exchanging insights on the Web and sporting T-shirts that say: “Itsumademo Jo (Jo Forever).”

One wonders why Jo has never been snapped up by some Hollywood plot thief, because his story just screams for a screen treatment. To recount: Jo Yabuki, a homeless boy who one day wanders into Tokyo’s Sanya daylaboring district, hooks up with one-eyed former boxer Danpei Tange. Under his watchful eye, Jo matures into a world-class bantamweight champion.

Written by Tetsuya Chiba, the Jo series became so popular that a real-life funeral was held to mourn Rikiishi when the character died after a gut-wrenching match with Jo. The manga characters inhabit a taut world, all right. The poet Shuji Terayama coined the phrase shikakui jyanguru (square-shaped jungle) to describe Jo’s boxing ring. Deep down, the Japanese know that Rocky Balboa is a tenderfooted softie compared to Jo Yabuki.

Jo was plagued by inner demons that never let him rest, relax or build normal relationships with others. He turned his back on security and happiness and kept pushing himself to fight.

Fans still wax lyrical about how, when an opponent knocked Jo out flat on the mat, old Danpei would clench his big gnarly fists and scream: “Tate! Tatsunda, Jo! (Stand! Stand up, Jo!)” By then, the ring would be slick from Jo’s blood and sweat and he would have taken more punches than was humanly possible. Still, he’d give a lopsided smile, rise slowly to his feet and say: “Mada owacchya inaiyo. (It ain’t over yet).”

When one potential girlfriend asked why he wasn’t interested in taking her out and having a good time, like other young guys, Jo tossed her an answer destined to go down as one of the best lines ever uttered by a Japanese male character: “I want to burn out. I wanna burn so brightly and so fiercely that when the flame is gone, there’s gonna be just a mound of white ashes and nothing else. No smoke, no charred remains. Just white ash.”

This shiroi hai (white ash) has inspired millions of guys to try out the exact same words, in all kinds of settings, on millions of Japanese women who secretly roll their eyes and inwardly sigh: “Oh no, not Jo again.”

Jo’s emergence and popularity was a sign of the times that created him. His maxim “utsubeshi (must punch),” his willpower and his gaze fixed firmly on ashita (tomorrow) just scream to be recognized as the attitude and work ethic of Japan during the rapid-growth phase of its economy. Times were hard, then, but with work and still harder work, it was believed, triumph was just around the corner — and all the better if one combusted into white ashes in the process.

Judging from the strip’s revived popularity, the spirit of Jo lives on. That must just mean we Japanese are more masochistic than we think.