Ten or so episodes of Ashita no Joe convince one that many Christian themes run through it. One even locates a Christ figure in Rikiishi and a Marian character in Yoko Shiraki. Therefore, Joe Yabuki (especially when one considers the slang “average Joe”) might be looked on as an everyman–a representative of graceless humanity needing a Savior. In this article, I do not wish to belabor Rikiishi’s parallels to Christ: his standing head and shoulders above ordinary mortals, his generally meek and polite personality, how his weight loss reminds one of Christ fasting in the desert, Yoko as a woman who fulfills the role of the Lady of Sorrows for Rikiishi, etc. Instead, I wish to ponder the curious choice of Ikki Kajiwara to make the Christ figure as the story’s antagonist. In what ways might Christ, the friend of sinners, also be viewed antagonistically by his followers?
If memory serves me right, the Pearl-Poet gives Christ the title “Conqueror of Christians” in his poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” Does that not take my dear readers aback? What does he mean by the title “Conqueror of Christians”? Aren’t we His by virtue of our supernatural regeneration in baptism? What does it mean that Christ conquers His followers? The simple fact of the matter is that we are very unlike Christ. Where Christ possesses infinite virtue, we can often boast infinite vice. We would repeat the same sins infinitely unless God’s grace brings them to an end. All Christians in a state of grace have all the virtues in some degree, but not sufficiently as to prevent us making a hell out of heaven should we be transported the eternal fatherland this very moment. The realm of the vices in the arena in which our antagonism to Christ resides, and Christ must conquer us in this arena.
This is not to say that we do not love Our Savior at the very same time as we stumble and vex Our Lord by continually placing obstacles to His grace. We see the same phenomenon in Joe Yabuki’s relationship to Rikiishi. At first, Joe knows little about Rikiishi save for his power and despises him. He just wants the opportunity to knock him out in the ring. But, as the series progresses, Joe becomes aware of both how awesome of a boxer Rikiishi is and Rikiishi’s own fondness for Joe. Their very rivalry and ability to bring out the best in each other strengthens their bond.
This very love and admiration for Rikiishi drives Joe to train relentlessly. Joe is frustrated by the gap between his skill and Rikiishi’s and wishes to close this gap as soon as possible by exercise. My dear readers might be familiar with the fact that the word ascetic derives from the Greek verb ασκεω, which means “I exercise.” In a similar way, ascetics are driven by the sole goal of the beatific vision and engage in spiritual exercises and the practice of the virtues in order to align themselves with Christ more closely. Perhaps not to the same degree as a monk, but we are all called to exercise our love of God and love of others in order to rid ourselves of the spiritual fat of the vices. The many failures and stumbles on the road to virtue might make the soul frustrated and angry with both himself and God. But, this frustration is the reaction of pride: patience aided by the grace of God conquers all things. We testify our faith in God more by our patient perseverance than by particular victories over vice. After all, we have no hope outside of God’s goodness and ought to abandon ourselves to the goodness of God completely.
Human beings are sinful. To paraphrase St. Francis de Sales, our antagonism towards God’s laws–however slightly–will persist for a full five minutes after we are dead. But, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The satisfaction of attaining perfect human excellence awaits us not in this life–neither for Joe Yabuki nor for us.