‘Joe, Tomorrow’ Is a Portrait of a Beloved Boxer in His Own Words (Tokyo International Film Festival 2015)
It shouldn’t work. By all textbook, school-assignment parameters of the effective movie, this should not be as gripping as it consistently is. Why? How? By the twenty-minute mark, I stopped asking, sat back, and simply started listening. Directors often say that the essence of cinema is a face talking. No film testifies more to this than Joe, Tomorrow, a documentary that is almost nothing but a face talking. As a depiction of the soul of a boxer, it is as far from the desperate frenetics of Raging Bull as Moneyball was from the roaring crowds of something like The Natural. Yet the film stays with you as long as any of those films, and without trying nearly as hard.
Ask any athlete what it is that drives them to their often ridiculous lengths of expenditure. They won’t tell you. They can’t. They’ll either administer a vague, one-size-fits-all answer or simply tell you, “I don’t know.” This is not a diversion tactic, at least not consciously. There is something intrinsic to being a high watermark of physical capability that requires a person to be without inhibition, incapable of pause. The faculties required for them to look that deeply inward would prevent them from being the athletes that they are. They are not dumb, not at all; they are simply blind to everything but the road ahead.
Joichiro “Joe” Tatsuyoshi, one of Japan’s most prized boxers, seems different almost immediately, but not too different. Since suffering a detached retina early in his career, he has been advised to retire for his own sake. He refuses. In the decades since, he has been bludgeoned, shattered, and otherwise defeated almost as many times as he’s seen victory. When asked to give it up, he never budges. The film, made over the course of 20 years, attempts to coax out a reason why not, and his responses to every question are clear, measured, and erudite. As we watch him, however, there is a certain succumbed powerlessness in his eyes that tells us he is aware of the very blindness that makes him a great athlete. Above marriage, parenthood, and the death of his father, boxing is the one mast to which he continues to cling, and he refuses to have it taken from him, perhaps out of desperation.
The film is constructed from a series of interviews with Joichiro recorded between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four. The only boxing footage in the film is used to mark transitions in time, distances between interviews. All information not conveyed by Joichiro himself is either placed on screen or briefly spoken by a narrator. As far as craft is concerned, that’s all I can tell you because that’s all that there is. What results from this is a work as complex as it is simple, as commanding as it is quiet. It is pure Joe in his own words, and if you decide to let him in, you will have the privilege of watching him grow over the course of two decades. You will watch his skin leather, his hair grey, and his mind settle into a life he grasps so tightly it’s as if he’s afraid to lose it.
Because I saw this movie at the Tokyo International Film Festival, it likely won’t see a North American release until next year. That’s a genuine shame, because Joe, Tomorrow is one of the very best films I’ve seen this year. I am aware that some people will find it boring and plain. This saddens me.
Spencer Moleda is a freelance writer, script supervisor, and motion picture researcher residing in Los Angeles, California. His experience ranges from reviewing movies to providing creative guidance to fledgling film projects. You can reach him at: www.spencermoleda.com