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July 7, 2016

“Just Turn Your Brain Off!”

Welp.  The last horse has finally crossed the finish line.

Even though I’ve known about it for years, and even though people have urged me for just as long, I’ve finally taken the plunge and started watching JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure in earnest.  It’s not as if I hate the franchise, because even my formerly-shallow understanding of the Joestar bloodline’s exploits have told me “This is a thing I need to get into.”  I would’ve gotten into it sooner, but every time I tried, I did so with my tablet -- which I’ve found is not at all conducive to Crunchyroll usage.  Eventually it flat-out decided to say that it was incompatible with the site, so I did what I should’ve done ages ago and watched it on my PC.  Not all at once, mind, but over time.  Progressively, if and when I get the chance.  (Who’ll write stupidly-long posts, if not I?)

For the record, I’m all done with Part 1 (Phantom Blood) and Part 2 (Battle Tendency).  I’ve got an uphill battle ahead, considering that Part 3 (Stardust Crusaders) is longer than both of the first two parts combined.  Still, it’ll be worth it so I can get to Part 4 (Diamond is Unbreakable), AKA the part I’ve been hyped about for ages now.  I don’t know what’s wrong with the guys in-universe; I think Josuke’s hair is pretty cool…though I could be biased.  I’ve always had a soft spot for delinquent-type characters.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say more about JoJo in the future.  In fact, let’s go ahead and start now -- because there’s a topic tied to it that’s pretty important.  And it relates to video games, too!  And media in general, really.  Yeah, I’m seriously playing the magician here.


So if anyone reading this is unaware, JoJo in general follows the story of the Joestars.  Well, the names vary from one saga to the next, but they’re all bound by blood ties, and the star-shaped birthmark near their necks.  In any case, each saga follows the struggle between a carrier of the star-shaped birthmark (with his/her friends) and whatever criminals want to abuse the superhuman powers du jour for personal gain.  To wit, those “criminals” include vampires, zombies, Aztec demigods, and psychics; those “superhuman powers” include weaponized yoga, Lovecraftian bodily functions, manifestations of life energy, and whatever absurd strategies they can come up with.  It feels like JoJo straddles the line between brilliance and endless ass pulls, but that’s part of the charm.

It’s a safe bet that JoJo wouldn’t be a top ranker on Know Your Meme if not for its, uh, particulars.  Having been bumping around for a good thirty years, the franchise has had a lot of time to prove its fabulousness; bold color palettes, ridiculous poses, and moments so insane that the “bizarre” moniker is truly earned.  Vampire horses, killer bubbles, virtually everything related to Dio Brando, and of course, the infamous Za Warudo -- they all show up in some capacity, and things only get weirder from there.  The Stands (read: Personas) that have become a staple of the franchise don’t really take control until Part 3; if I had to guess, that’s when things get absolutely nuts.  And this is a series that had this happen without a second thought.

Does using a video from the dub make me a terrible person?  Maybe, but whatever.  Soak in that accent.

I haven’t seen every last episode or know every last detail, but at this stage I can pretty much confirm that I’m a JoJo fan.  I understand why it’s endured all these years, and why it’s got a dedicated fanbase -- though the recent anime adaptation has certainly helped its case in the western world.  With that said, I’m not wholly convinced that everybody likes JoJo for the exact same reasons.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; it’s just that people are taking different roads to get to the same destination of “I like this thing.”  In a perfect world, I’d have a platform to probe every last fan to figure out why he or she likes such a bizarre adventure.  But since I don’t, I’ll have to go with conjecture for now.

Call me presumptuous, but I suspect that JoJo wouldn’t have gotten the foothold it did in the west without memes.  Fabulousness!  Poses!  Za Warudo!  That’s all that matters, right?  Well, there’s also manliness; a lot of people would probably give the franchise the GAR award just for showing up, and it’s not hard to see why.  Then again, that kind of feeds into my point.  The franchise has a reputation built up that’s hard to ignore, and it’s carved out a niche as sharply cut as the Pillar Men’s muscles, but I’d argue that JoJo rises above the “dankness”.

I’m no franchise expert, obviously.  Based on what I’ve seen, though, JoJo is about more than just poses and crazy powers.  Some of the sequences in there have levels of tension that I never would’ve thought possible.  Characters have arcs, but more importantly feed into the greater thematic heft of their respective parts.  And even if Dio is basically the Meme-Lord, he makes me ask a lot of questions -- not just about the story, but about storytelling, and even the world at large.

As impossible as it seems, JoJo has gotten me thinking. 

In my book, that’s a good thing.  It means that I’m engaging with a story -- trying to get more out of it, thinking critically, and learning for all sorts of future gains.  That’s how it should be, even with a mere twenty-two minute anime; what should be strictly limited to a passive experience (thanks to the medium, and the screen keeping me sealed off from the action) becomes active as I try to sort out my thoughts, opinions, and feelings.  It’s partly to help me improve as a writer, because I could hardly call myself one if I couldn’t intuit what works and what doesn’t in a story.

But more importantly, being able to engage with a story improves my understanding of it.  And when I understand it, I can appreciate what it does right that much more.  I’m not going to sit here and pretend like JoJo is an absolute masterpiece, or brilliance incarnate.  I’ve seen people call it dumb, and it’s not hard to see why.  But A) that dumbness is part of why it works, and B) it’d be a disservice to the franchise to just say “it’s dumb” and ignore the quality that’s regularly on display.  Even though I kind of already knew it was coming, I legitimately had to fight back tears at the end of Part 1.

It just goes to show you how important it is to engage with fiction, no matter what medium you’re dealing with.  It’s a skill that’s beneficial in general, even if you’re not secretly campaigning to become a writing hero; even basic thought put into your favorite story can be helpful, enlightening, and fun.  Especially fun, depending on your level of nerdiness.  Alternatively, engaging with a story and figuring out what doesn’t work will help you point out problem signs in the future, with different stories.  You don’t have to tolerate bad content, and you’ll have a lower chance of it if you keep putting that brain of yours to work.

So like the title implies, I don’t subscribe to the “turn your brain off” mentality that some people would espouse.  Trust me, I’ve taken heat for it; my brother’s legitimately convinced that I can’t enjoy anything, and says that “not everything has to be a masterpiece” as a means to justify a night watching unforgivable dreck.  I can’t go to the movies without conversations coming to a halt so everyone can hear what I thought of the latest flick -- as if I’m expected to step onstage and perform for them. 

But social pressures aside, it raises of the question of what I’m allowed to enjoy.  I swore off The Walking Dead years ago for (what I think are) legitimate reasons, so what happens when I talk to a guy who thinks the show is still hype?  How do I go back to God of War after being repulsed by virtually everything that’s happened in the franchise so far?  What happens when analyzing a story takes precedence over enjoying a game -- to the point where the former makes the latter impossible or forces me into some painful situations?

Being me isn’t what I’d call enviable, and for a number of reasons.  Analyzing, digesting, and overthinking are things I’m basically trained to do, and subconsciously in some cases.  Sometimes it leads to good situations, like with JoJo.  Other times, it makes me lament the mere possibility of my existence, like with the modern Final Fantasy games.  Even if it comes off as a burden sometimes, it’s still something that I find worthwhile -- and I hope others do, too.  Not just people who read my stuff, of course.

When it comes to games, there have been some pretty heated debates about what make it a game.  By extension, there have been questions of “what gamers want” and what the industry should give them.  I think we’ve reached peak capacity on modern military shooters, and we’re getting there with open-world games (if we aren’t there already).  The same old tricks aren’t going to work forever; gamers are going to catch on, back away, and leave companies without a way to restock the war chest. 

Even those that are willing to “turn their brain off” are still going to be on the lookout for fun -- and if a game can’t deliver that, then they’ll avoid it without a single tear shed.  That’s a rosy assumption, sure, but I’d bet that even if they aren’t overtly analyzing a game for its quality or artistic merit, they’re still smart enough to know when the latest release isn’t cutting it.

Games -- and the industry that houses them -- are getting more complex.  More technology is going into them, along with more resources, more thought, and more stakes.  But the beauty of the situation is that there’s room for all sorts of games.  That’s true of every medium, sure, given that there’s a little thing called a “genre” out there in the big bad world.  Regardless, games are in a position to take advantage of that infinite potential -- in genres and beyond them -- by providing active experiences instead of passive ones.  You’re inherently invited to engage with what’s on display, because you can’t do a single thing unless you engage -- unless you pick up that controller and press some buttons. 

The days of Galaga and Joust have been over for ages now.  Games can do more, say more, and be more -- and we’ve already started seeing what that means for the medium.  In the wake of devs getting older and starting families, we’re seeing the so-called “dadification” of games play out before our eyes.  Indie devs have started using their projects as ways to communicate ideas, whether it’s with the so-called walking simulators or through heavier works like That Dragon, Cancer.  But you don’t even have to look that far to find games with more to digest; despite being part of the justifiably-maligned JRPG genre, I’d argue that Tales of Zestiria stares the messiah archetype/character trajectory straight in the face and comes out stronger for it.

So I guess there’s a question that needs answering.  Someone in the brain-off camp might ask me why I would go so far with a bunch of fantasy worlds that don’t even remotely matter in the grand scheme of things.  And I’d answer that with a question: “Why wouldn’t you?”

Why wouldn’t you want to get a little something extra out of a story you love?  Why wouldn’t you form a bond with the plot, characters, and adventure at large?  Why wouldn’t you want to understand the intent of the creator, and find a newfound level of respect?  Why wouldn’t you try to gain a fresh new perspective about yourself, the circumstances, or the world you live in?  Why wouldn’t you find the drive to better yourself through the takeaways of a good story?  Why wouldn’t you try to have more fun?

Yes, some works don’t exactly lend themselves to a line-by-line analysis or weeks of meticulously-plotted headcanon.  With that said, let’s not try and assume that it’s entirely impossible, or utterly useless.  It’s not required, but it’s not the grounds for immediate rejection.  If it was, then games, books, anime, TV shows, movies, and more would become much sadder in general.  If we start arbitrarily deciding that we know all there is to know about mostly-untapped stories -- if we refuse to even try, or reject before gaining even a shred of context -- ten we might as well pack it up now.  The moment we start to limit ourselves is the moment we start to fail.  And I’d sure hate for those limits to start crippling us anytime soon.

I want to embrace a world with limitless creative potential.  And call it a hunch, but I think you do, too.

And that’s my peace for now.  Hope you enjoyed, and now I’m off to watch more JoJo.  I just found out what Hermit Purple’s actual power really is, and it’s so esoteric and specific I burst out laughing.

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