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December 26, 2016

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Blogging (Part 3)

“There’s no way Joseph is the best JoJo.”

I’m not usually one to play the contrarian, even though it seems like that with some of my less-than-ideal opinions (like anything that has to do with Naughty Dog).  I’d like to think that I’m able to rise above preconceptions and biases to speak clearly and honestly about subjects.  But for the life of me -- and even now -- I cannot say that Joseph Joestar is the best lead JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has to offer.

Hear me out on this.  Joseph is the hero of Part 2 -- Battle Tendency -- which ran from 1987 to 1989 in manga form, and from December 2012 to April 2013 in anime form.  The former came out forever and a day ago, while the latter is fresher on people’s minds (thanks to all sorts of memes, to generalize).  Either way, there’s a LOT of content to go through.  Remember, there are eight different JoJo sagas out there, with the latest of the bunch still in production.  There’s a ton that people still need to be exposed to and given the chance to digest.  Even if we peel away 75% of the context of each arc, we still need to put every JoJo under the microscope.  Those who are 100% up to date with the manga can probably do that, but for everyone else?  How can you say “Joseph is the best” when at a bare-ass minimum, we’ve still got to get through Giorno, Joylene, Johnny, and Gappy Josuke?

Now, you can say “Joseph is my favorite JoJo so far”, because that’s much easier and more credible to quantify.  It’s an opinion with good grounding.  So with all of that said, I’ll declare this: no, Joseph is not my favorite JoJo so far.  But he’s still a good, good, good, good, damn good character.  And the same applies to Battle Tendency.

Like a bloody SPOILERS
Burning like a bloody SPOILERS
Some SPOILERS pound through your veins…and this post

Still hasn’t topped the first opening, but damned if this isn’t a great entry.

Part 3: Battle Tendency
(Or: No Shirt, No Shoes, MANSERVICE -- A Side)

Once again, here’s the setup.  With the vampire overlord Dio defeated and left to rot away in the ocean depths, the canon picks up several decades later.  It’s now 1938 in New York, with the story following behind the back of Joseph Joestar -- a hot-blooded rebel who happens to share the blood and surname of his grandfather, Jonathan.  The battle between said grandfather and Dio is still sending out ripples (ha) that affect the world on levels small and large; one of Jonathan’s former comrades opts to follow Dio’s example, and becomes an immortal vampire.  It doesn’t work out thanks to a liberal ass-whooping from Joseph, but the treacherous act makes even bigger waves.

The crux of the story is that it expands on the JoJo lore.  The Stone Mask is a powerful artifact, as Part 1 demonstrated -- but this time around, the origin of the mask is revealed.  It may be able to turn people into vampires, but the creators are the real threat: the Pillar Men, a race of superhumans who (under the tutelage of Kars and a small splinter group) opted to use the mask to evolve into ultimate life-forms.  Joseph ain’t havin’ that, of course, so he steps in to thwart their plans as soundly as he can.  They need the Red Stone of Aja to convert the Mask into its perfect form, but until then they’re still vampires (albeit a much stronger and deadlier variant).  And as you know, the best way to kill a vampire in the JoJo universe is to pump it full of Hamon.  And guess what Joseph does all the time?

Don’t dwell on it, though.  The core theme of Battle Tendency is much more important.  And while Phantom Blood put a lot of stock into bonds, this newer entry threw as much weight as it could behind respect.

But before I talk any more about the story or explain my claim, I want to go over the anime in general.  Last time I was kind of down on David Production’s…uh, production for its uneven animation quality.  This time around, though?  I don’t remember every moment with frame-perfect clarity, but on the whole I feel like there’s been a bump in quality.  Even if my mind started to fail me, I can confidently say that there are more top-quality scenes in Part 2 than there are in Part 1.  That’s a given considering the content in those scenes, but you get the idea.  It’s just an overall better-looking instalment, despite a greater length and (presumably) a bigger hit to the wallet.  The characters look better on average, and the action beats are more active; while there have been concessions made to bring Araki’s tale to life, the aesthetic in general is still well above serviceable.

There is something that I find interesting, though -- not really a complaint, but an observation.  The expectation with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is that it’s a crazy, colorful romp through strange worlds with stranger people.  You say the Part 2 opening, didn’t you?  It’s practically psychedelic.  But then you get to the actual anime, and the palette is much more subdued.  Desaturated.  I’m a guy who likes products with a good amount of color, and will lash out at drab brown and grays (or overdone filters) whenever they pop up.  JoJo is the last place I expected to see everything looking like it was washed out and left outside for a year and a half.

The funny thing is that overall, I’m OK with Part 2 (and Part 3 by extension -- and Part 1 by proxy) holding back on the colors.  It’s not hypocrisy; it’s because no matter what the memes may tell you, a subdued palette is tonally consistent with the stuff that goes on here.

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…most of the time.

Much like Phantom Blood, there’s a theatrical undercurrent that runs through Battle Tendency.  Likewise, there’s no shortage of grim moments, high tension, and some truly grisly moments.  An incredibly colorful palette usually implies lots of fun and humor (though Diamond is Unbreakable is the exception, but I’ll get to that).  It’s only natural that, given the presence of the inherently-murderous Pillar Men, the color scheme opts to match that.  That’s not to say that Part 2 is devoid of silliness or levity, but when it’s time to get serious, boy is it serious.  Also, it’s kind of a moot point to worry about colors when this series consistently changes colors whenever it damn well feels like it.

It’s also worth noting that Part 2 has an incredibly strong soundtrack to its name.  That’s consistent with the other JoJo parts (and I’m salivating over the chance to hear what Part 5 has to offer), but I think that Part 2’s music edges out Part 1’s.  That’s not to discount the latter, but the former has some golden tunes like Burning Colosseum, Il mare eterno nella mia anima, and of course, Overdrive.  It’s not just the quality of those tracks (and more), but the eclectic mix of them.  David Production played hopscotch with genres, and scored big because of it. 

Of course, they only needed one song to score big.

So.  The Pillar Men, then.

The Pillar Men are emblematic of why JoJo as a whole is so great -- and obviously, why Part 2 is such a pleasure to watch.  Pared down to basics, they’re basically super-vampires; they’re vulnerable to Hamon-based attacks, though it’s not necessarily a one-hit kill.  Even so, pure sunlight WILL kill them instantly.  It’s actually a plot point, in the sense that these towering Aztec demigods have to hide inside an old mansion/hotel during the day unless they want to disintegrate.  Kinda puts the kibosh on plans for world domination, doesn’t it?

I guess that’s why they need the Stone Mask and the Red Stone so desperately.  Getting wrecked by something as simple as a warm day in April isn’t a trait I’d call intimidating -- so obviously, they’d want to surpass that by forcibly evolving their bodies to a new plateau.  (Their leader, Kars, is especially adamant about that.)  Really, though, the Pillar Men are already tough enough on their own.  They’re huge and ripped, for one thing.  As super-vampires, they not only have the same enhanced strength, durability, and regeneration, but can actually gain power by eating lesser vampires…which means that guys like Dio would’ve essentially been livestock lined up for the slaughter.  Even so, there’s more to the Pillar Men than being “like vampires, but better”.  Those differences are what elevate Battle Tendency into something more than just “HAHA JOSEPH SAID THAT LINE HE ALWAYS SAYS.”

It’s true that by the installment’s end, the Pillar Men get their backstory fully revealed via an expository flashback.  Before that, though?  Everybody’s trying to figure out what the Pillar Men are supposed to be.  Joseph and Speedwagon get hints of them at the outset, but the latter -- thanks to kidnapping by Nazi soldiers/researches -- gets to see what they are firsthand.  And, no joke, I was absolutely riveted by the process.  Not the Nazi kidnapping, of course.  The other stuff.

The Pillar Men -- Kars, Wamuu, Esidisi, and Santana -- are the baddies this time around, by there’s more to them than that.  Battle Tendency treats them less like bosses for Joseph to smack down on the way to the end credits, and more like unholy abominations.  Eldritch in nature, so to speak.  The German warmongers want to harness the power of the Pillar Men to score a logistical edge against their foes, but their research turns up stuff that defies reality.  Even though they look like Adonis with horns, their nature and skill set makes for villains that are strangely captivating.

To wit: their bodies are 100% malleable, which lets them bend around enemy attacks and slide through tiny spaces.  They’re blob monsters that can suck up anything they want, be they bullets or grown men -- and when they eat vampires, they actually get bigger and stronger.  They can control, distort, and rip out sections of their body to do whatever they wish, up to and including attacking foes with superheated blood vessels.  All they have to do to kill a normal man -- to tear him in half -- is brush against him.  The stakes have been raised -- maybe higher than Dio ever could.

So what do the Pillar Men bring to the table?  Why do they prove that JoJo is well-deserved of its status, popularity, and acclaim?  You could name a ton of different answers, but for simplicity’s sake you can pare it down to three things -- the same things that the Pillar Men embody.

1) A compelling, can’t-look-away nature
Like a lot of people, I’ve been watching JoJo through Crunchyroll (directly on my PC monitor, because it seems to hate my tablet now).  It feels like I have to set aside time and focus each time I crunch in an episode -- or two, or three, or four -- because it’s a show that demands as much attention as possible.  Part of that is probably because I’m watching a subtitled version, so it’s a hassle trying to eat crab cakes and learn the weakness of the enemy Stand du jour.  But even when I’m not cramming food down my throat, it’s hard -- if not impossible -- to refuse 100% attention to JoJo.

One of the central questions of the arc is a simple one: who are the Pillar Men?  Answers are given directly, of course, but indirectly through the baddies’ words and actions.  They’re monsters in human form, seemingly owning idealized physiques but containing untold horrors within (and even beyond that, their “perfection” is so overstated that it throws them out of whack).  They’re intelligent beings with agendas and goals -- but crucially, they’re men who have a definite hierarchy and code of honor…except for Kars, but I’ll get to him another time.  They’re tactical geniuses thanks to their incredibly long-lived lives; it’s almost to the point where they don’t need to use their superpowers.

What I’m getting at here is that watching the Pillar Men, Battle Tendency, and JoJo in general is a learning experience.  It’s very hard to guess exactly what’s going to happen in any given episode, because it feels like anything could happen.  (Was anyone out there legitimately expecting Esidisi to blubber like a toddler with a skinned knee?)  You know the good guys are going to win eventually, but they have to work for it in a manner that’s impossible to resist.  And that’s because of…

2) An uncanny level of tension
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about JoJo, it’s that its battles are not about the meme-tastic ORA ORA ORA/MUDA MUDA MUDA punch rushes.  I know that’s a given since Battle Tendency doesn’t have Stands, but here’s the thing: even when Star Platinum does make his debut, the franchise still sticks to its guns -- fighters that use absurd abilities, cunning strategies, environmental assists, and dumb luck to win.  So it’s not about who can hit the fastest or hardest; it’s about who can outwit who and open them up for an attack.  And remember, we’re dealing with Hamon vs. vampires; one good hit is all it takes to cripple an opponent, if not kill them outright. 

Well, except when blood loss is involved.  JoJo plays, huh, fast and loose with blood loss and injuries.  Rule of thumb: if it’s not plot-relevant, then spraying gallons of blood into the air is a stylistic choice.

In any case, the Pillar Men present a legitimate threat to Joseph and crew each time they cross paths.  Even Santana, who’s basically the Raditz of the group, is treated as less of a goon and more of The Thing reimagined as a protein junkie gym rat.  How do you beat a guy who can use your tricks -- like some high-level yomi -- better than you ever could?  How do you stop someone whose tornado attacks already left you a bloody mess once before?  How do you fight a guy whose blade attacks might as well move at the speed of light?  The odds are never in Joseph’s favor unless he forces them to be, in the same way that Prometheus was tasked with pushing a boulder up a hill.

(I can’t decide if the dub is the greatest thing ever or the worst thing ever…so I’ll just say “It’s aight” and move on.)

There’s a level of tension here on a macro scale vis a vis the plot and the nature of these characters.  But there are tons of individual moments where you can’t help but gasp.  Joseph’s inability to use a large crossbow effectively; Caesar making a tactical error and creating some highly-exploitable shadows; Kars’ threat to the hostage Lisa Lisa’s life; the instances are vast and varied, but the end result is always a skirmish that evolves beyond “punch them to death”.

And yes, it’s all a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  Of course Kars and crew are going to lose eventually.  That’s a given, because bad guys have a pretty low success rate in the world of fiction.  But damned if this series doesn’t try to make it as convincing as possible that these guys are a threat, whose myriad abilities and plans are designed to leave you on the edge of your seat.  I mean, Esidisi was willing to hitch a ride on Joseph’s back as a disembodied brain just to get his runback; it’s an unpredictable turn of events, but it’s appreciable all the same.  The sheer otherworldliness of the Pillar Men makes for some golden opportunities in the story, which thankfully get tapped before the end. 

And because of it, there’s…

3) A sense of cathartic adoration
Okay, so I mentioned earlier that the major theme of Battle Tendency is respect, but what does that mean?  Well, there are a number of story-based reasons for it, but let me say this to start: Kars is an asshole.  All of the Pillar Men are, ostensibly -- or at least those that are running amok on the surface.  Their mission, as something very close to gods already, is to mash a couple of MacGuffins together so they can become even godlier.  They have very little regard for the humans they tower over, unless they do something to earn respect.  (And even then, it’s a crap shoot.)  They refuse to wear much more than their skivvies, so clearly they’re not willing to think of the children.

But as an audience -- as outsiders looking into this fictional universe -- it’s hard to resist being compelled by this batch of baddies.  They’re terrible people whose earnest wish for self-improvement -- for seizure of their destiny -- doesn’t justify their collateral damage or end goal (or the destruction they might cause in the future).  They are the villains, without question.  Even so, villains can be compelling and charismatic; hell, in a good story they arguably should be.  Whether you sympathize with their plights or accept that they’re the “love to hate” sort of people, they should get some sort of response out of you.

And guess what?  That’s exactly what the Pillar Men -- and JoJo as a whole -- do.  As strange as they may be, as unsettling as they may be, and as absurd as they may be, they have a mission in mind.  They accomplish them with gusto.  Given that, it’s hard not to show respect.

But I’m being vaguer than I’m comfortable with.  What do I mean, exactly?  What specific points support my claim about respect?  Why have I just barely talked about Joseph?

The answer to that last question is…because this post is pretty much over for now.  Tune in next time when I talk about Battle Tendency some more.  And try not to get lost in Joseph’s eyes.  He’s a dreamboat or something.

Be still, my heart.

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