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October 31, 2016

Shower Thoughts with Stardust Crusaders (Part 1)

Here’s an important question right off the bat: what is the difference between the Stands in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders and the Personas from Persona 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1?

They’re extremely similar, so I don’t blame anyone for getting confused by the two.  Men and women tap into a mix of psychological and spiritual power to summon crazy-looking warriors to fight on their behalf.  Only a chosen few can manifest them; the rest are lucky to even see them.  Unreal powers are slung around as easily as a softball in a pickup game of catch.  They’ve been the centerpieces of multiple fighting games.  They’ve experienced no shortage of popularity over the years, if not a surge in fan interest.  Honestly, I’d say that at this point, the fact that there’s no dedicated JoJo X Persona game is an affront to every deity imaginable.  Magician’s Red vs. Take-Mikazuchi?  Come on, that’s easy money.

It should go without saying, but I’m a fan of both franchises -- and it just so happens that I’ve been grinding my way through as much JoJo as possible over the past few months.  As a result, I’ve finally done what thousands (if not millions) of fans have done already, and completed Part 3 -- Stardust Crusaders.  And now I can tackle the question for myself.  Not the question of “is this any good”, oh no.  (Though I’ll be doing that anyway at some point.)  No, I think it’s time for me to split hairs on an ultimately inconsequential issue.

I have a theory -- a shaky theory, but a theory nonetheless.  The Personas are what you really are deep down.  The Stands are what you want to be…but fail to be regardless.

That’s a bold claim, I know.  And in a sense, it’s one that’s popping up way too early; why would someone who hasn’t written anything on Part 1 or Part 2 even think of jumping ahead to Part 3?  Well, Part 3 is fresh on my mind by virtue of finishing it most recently.  There are things that I can think of that might be worth saying (or reading about, maybe) right now, instead of waiting for a post in the distant future.  Besides, I’ve been down this road before.  I want to talk about some of the characters, and I’m guessing that if I try to do that in a comprehensive post on Part 3, it’ll blow past the 7000-word mark.  So I’ll do it here and now to keep things manageable.

Now then.  Let me say this to start: I like Part 3.  I like it a lot.  Still, I can’t say it’s my favorite of the JoJo franchise so far; if anything, it’s in third place, and that won’t change for a while yet.  Top honors go to Part 1, but Part 2 is literally just a step below it.  Comparatively?  Part 3 is several steps behind and below Part 2.  That sounds pretty damning, but think of it this way: being a few steps behind the other JoJo parts is nothing to be ashamed of when we’re talking about a staircase that scrapes the heavens themselves.

I’ll explain why I think Part 3 is super-solid (along with the other Parts) at a later date.  But for now?  Let’s talk about Stands.

The weird thing about Stands is that, by their very nature, they turn pretty much every direct battle into an indirect one.  Anime and manga in the shonen demographic feature plenty of fights, but they tend to focus on one-on-one battles between super-powered rivals.  DBZ and Naruto are prime examples, but let’s not forget that Part 1 and Part 2 of JoJo had its characters hash it out with good old fisticuffs.  Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that -- body modifications, buffs, debuffs, and trickery all feature prominently -- but the point remains.  It’s usually about a straight-on duel between opposing parties.  With Part 3, the Stands create an entirely different approach to each engagement.  Setting aside the fact that it’s technically a 2-on-2 duel (most of the time), it’s often less about overpowering a foe and more about breaking down their strategy.

At a base level, battles in Stardust Crusaders are won based on three principles:
1) Figure out who/where the Stand user is
2) Figure out what the Stand’s power is
3) Figure out how to counter/disable the Stand’s power

A lot of fights may end with the expected ORA ORA ORA thing, but Jotaro and crew have to fight for their right to land the finishing blow(s).  Plus, the Crusaders are usually at a disadvantage; they’re ambushed by Stand users, and their powers are already well-known by that point.  So it’s usually a matter of reversing their fortune and regaining the advantage -- an advantage that’s usually lost depending on the environment they’re in.  What this means is that instead of every fight being a Mach speed punch-up, they’re usually cerebral struggles for control of (and momentum in) a given situation.

Alternatively?  It’s less about this…

…And more about this.

It’s something that’s appreciable, for sure.  But it’s expected and unexpected at the same time, if you can believe that.  If your knowledge of JoJo comes solely from memes, JPEGs, and random clips, then the assumption is probably that there’s a lot of posing and rapid-fire punching.  Being manly, being fabulous, being GAR, etc.  But it’s typically not that simple.  Even though virtually every member of the cast is beefy as hell (even a simple student like Kakyoin looks ready to shred his uniform), it’s actually pretty uncommon for the boys to do the actual, head-on fighting.  It’s all done with their Stands.

Makes sense, I suppose.  I don’t doubt that Jotaro could murder people with a breath, but his Star Platinum is shown to be able to punch through diamonds with a rush that could outstrip the average Gatling gun.  Best to leave it to the more capable of the two, right?  Then again, that just highlights the necessity of the Stand battles’ cerebral nature.  Star Platinum’s stats are a hair away from god-tier, so letting it run wild means that virtually every straight-up fight becomes a curb stomp.  Seriously, this is what happens once Jotaro gets his hands on you.

Cripes, it’s a wonder Steely Dan wasn’t liquefied on the spot.

Whatever the case, Stands create an interesting -- if unspoken -- dynamic in the show.  Success with them usually doesn’t come down to a display of brute force, but of cunning and preparation.  Alternatively, it’s a matter of using the abilities you have to outstrip the enemy abilities -- even if it means thinking several miles outside the box.  Based on that, it’s a safe bet that the Stand users have put a lot of time and energy into figuring out how to get the most out of their phantom partners. 

Take Steely Dan up there, for example.  How many head-on fights do you think he’s going to win with a Stand that’s virtually microscopic?  Not a lot, I’m guessing.  So he had to figure out how to use it effectively, and did; he admits that his Stand is incredibly weak, but gears it in such a way that any pain dealt to him is dealt several times over to whatever target his Stand (The Lovers) can sink its claws into.  He wisely decides to set his mark beforehand, and ends up using Joseph Joestar -- the guy who basically conned his way to victory in Part 2 -- as a hostage under penalty of lethal brain damage.

If sucking at playing fighting games has taught me anything, it’s that the more you practice with or use a character, the deeper your bond with them becomes.  Learning how to use a Stand likely works on the same principle; you learn the ins and outs and what to do in a rough situation, sure, but your appreciation has to increase over time -- especially when you plan to use that Stand in a life-or-death struggle.  With that in mind, there’s a difference between a fighting game character and a Stand that’s worth pointing out.

As a Guilty Gear player, I’m a big fan of Axl Low.  I’ve been that way for years.  But even if that’s true, I didn’t make Axl; he’s just someone I happened to glom onto, and someone designed to tick boxes for gamers across the world.  He may act on my behalf in a match, but there’s a gap between me and Axl; he’s not me in any sense of the word.  If I had a Stand, however, things would be different.  True, I wouldn’t have created it either, so it’s not like I’d have any say on whether I got a wild-haired warrior or a crab-clawed parasite.  The tradeoff is that even if I didn’t make my own Stand, I’d still have an intrinsic, intimate connection with it.

It’s one thing to train with a fighting game character.  It’s another thing entirely to train with your metaphysical embodiment.

I mean, have you seen some of the latest Personas?  All of them look slick as hell, albeit for differing reasons.  And going solely by the Persona 4 canon, it’s something you have to earn.  If you aren’t able to get past the “I am a Shadow, the true self” phase, then you’ll end up getting slaughtered by a monstrous version of your darkest thoughts.  Accept yourself, though, and you get an embodiment of your strength, tailor-made to suit you and your tastes.  The graceful heiress gets a winged, flowery dancer.  The rough-and-tumble punk gets a hulking robot with bone decals.  The wannabe cool kid gets a stylish disco ninja frog.  And so on, and so forth.  The forms are esoteric, but they’re representations of the self.

So what does that mean for JoJo and Stands?  It’s muddy territory, to be perfectly honest.  Depending on your interpretation, the Stands are still representations of who you are deep down.  But I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that; if it was, then why would Joseph’s Hermit Purple end up being a bunch of thorny vines?  Why would Steely Dan get a tiny bug?  Why would anyone get anything?

The simplest answer is probably that the creator, Hirohiko Araki, pretty much just made whatever he thought was cool.  I mean, I can’t blame him for it, but boy does it make for some inconsistency.

Still, I don’t think I’m that far off-base.  For starters, there’s no great endeavor or revelation involved when it comes to getting your Stand (and for the sake of argument, let’s just leave out the other Parts’ content/revelations for now).  You don’t get a chance to discover or face your true self in an in-depth, introspective moment.  Once you’ve got it, it’s yours.  That’s the form it takes, give or take an evolution.  I can just imagine the reaction that some of these guys had upon discovering that their Stand was a pile of vines, a puddle of water, or even an electrical socket.  How do you work with that?  Nature finds a way, I suppose.

But assuming that these people are all adequately briefed on what Stands are, it had to have left them wondering what it says about them.  “Is this the real me?”  “Is this who I am deep down?”  That’d be the stuff running through my head, at least.  But again, it’s not that simple.  Even if it varies from character to character, I feel like the Stands are embodiments of desires, not just the self.  It’s about what the Stand users want to do, and what they want to be. 

That’s the thing, though.  In the grand scheme of things, those desires will go unheeded.  Normal people can’t see Stands (under normal circumstances), and it’s safe to say that they can’t go around sensing their presence, either.  So really, the interaction between Stands and normies -- the show of desires given form -- comes down to either “screw with the environment” or “murder the crap out of people”.  That’s hardly a way to get your point across, but it’s what you’ve got to deal with when invisibility is forced upon you.

So in a way, you can think of Stands as repressed, unfulfilled desires -- but because of their very nature and the circumstances thrust their way (i.e. battles with other Stand users), they’re inherently incapable of being successful.  And think about it: even when they are seen -- when one of the Crusaders meets a crony of DIO, and vice versa -- there’s no attempt at trying to bond or understand one another.  It’s just a chance for one party to try and beat down another. 

“What you want is less important than what I want,” they might imply.  Or “I will deny you, because you would deny me -- as countless others have before.”  At least in the Persona users’ case, they’re using their accepted (and even embraced) powers to try and make the world a better place.  In JoJo, it’s just a matter of trying to get what you want, and woe to anyone in your way.  The enemy Stand users are in it for money, bloodlust, or just plain survival.  The Crusaders are obviously part of the nobler camp, but the thrust of their journey is still partly “beat the shit out of a century-old vampire to save a doting mother”.

I don’t need to put up a spoiler warning to tell you that the good guys win.  So it follows that, inevitably, every enemy Stand user that steps up to bat will strike out hard -- literally in one late-game instance.  Given that our heroes have to stomp all over every enemy assassin sent their way, that means there are almost two dozen Stand users to beat up over the course of the anime adaptation.  There isn’t exactly a lot of time to characterize a cast that large; it makes me wonder what got cut from the original manga, but seeing the story behind guys like N’Doul or Rubber Soul isn’t ultra-necessary.  (Though in all honesty, I’m a fan of N’Doul.)  That’s kind of what their Stands are for, albeit in an abbreviated form.  Taking their appearances into account can help, but if you think critically about what they stand for, then maybe you’ll be able to get more out of each character in spite of their lack of development.

Does Steely Dan want to be a tiny, wimpy insect?  I doubt it.  But it goes beyond that; Steely Dan wants to be untouchable, which is why he’d rather use heroes and innocents as hostages than go in for the kill.  It doesn’t work out, because his Stand gets ensnared and dragged out into the open -- which, of course, leads to his liquefaction. 

Then there’s Enyaba, DIO’s right hand woman; she wants to be judge, jury, and executioner -- someone who she can strike down for crossing her, her boss, or her son.  It doesn’t work out, because when she tries to go all Punisher on Jotaro -- itself following her failure to keep her identity hidden -- she ends up nearly suffocating in the most humiliating way possible.  I guess that’s what you get for trying to use a semi-sentient cloud to do your dirty work.

I could go on about the villains, but there are WAY too many of them to go on about at length, and some of them are such bit players that I can’t be bothered to remember their names.  So let’s switch gears and talk about what really matters: the Stardust Crusaders.  As the five (and eventually six) main characters, it’s only natural for them to get their time to shine, as well as the most fleshing out.  In all honesty I’m not 100% sure how I feel about them -- and Part 3 at large -- in terms of characterization.  I’m satisfied with the entry as-is, but I can’t help but feel like I’m left wanting.  Like I got a good meal, but not quite a large enough portion.  I’ll sort out my thoughts later on.

For what it’s worth, though?  It’s a very good sign when your biggest complaint is that you want to see more of these characters.  So let’s have at it, starting with…a stopping point.

Yep.  Might as well cut it off here.  But don’t worry; I’ll be back soon with a deep look at each of the Stardust Crusaders and their Stands.  Will I offer up something substantive?  I don’t know, but there’ll probably be a lot of words involved.  So yes, then!  Or maybe no!  Who knows?  Who cares?  Just go for it!  Shut up!

Okay, don’t shut up.  Just -- let’s just be cool for a minute, OK?

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