I should probably start off this post by making something very clear. There are tons of factors that decide whether a story -- a game, a movie, a book, a TV show, or whatever -- is good. Even if that’s true, I think we can all agree that characters make up a good chunk of those factors. As I’ve said, characters create opportunities; if they’re engaging, then they can take an audience to some incredible highs. If they’re bad, then it’s the equivalent of jamming Mount Olympus into your eyeball.
It’s pretty easy to throw around the claim that “characters should be likable”. And yeah, that’s a big part of it. But let’s not get bogged down by strict definitions; “likable” doesn’t have to mean that the character is an admirable, noble member of society. He or she doesn’t have to be a bang-up hero, because otherwise we would ignore villains by default. It’s about making sure that, by writing and/or design, there’s something compelling about a character. That should be understood by everyone, because it’s certainly something understood by JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and its creator, Hirohiko Araki.
So now that I’ve said all that, let me make a claim about Battle Tendency. A huge chunk of the named characters are assholes. And that’s awesome.
Your next line is…
What? You didn’t tell me there were SPOILERS in this post!
…Except I kind of did. I lead in with this red text for a reason, people.
Part 4: Battle Tendency (again)
(Or: No Shirt, No Shoes, MANSERVICE -- B Side)
So in the last post, I said that they key thematic heft behind Part 2 of the series is respect. Of course, if you read the paragraphs above this one, you’d say that I’m crazy (or crazier than usual) for saying as much. A terrible person is a terrible person, and hardly someone worthy of respect. Why would anyone choose to show any amount of adoration or approval to a person -- fictional or not -- that goes out of their way to make life harder on others? It’s counterintuitive.
Yet there are countless cries online that “Joseph is best JoJo”. And compared to the gentlemanly Jonathan -- his direct grandfather -- Joseph is anything but a gentleman. He’s got a bad temper. He’s petty. He’s prone to bouts of jealousy. He’s willing to creep on ladies when he knows he won’t get caught. He skips school. He leaves normal dudes as bloody heaps on the street. He’s reckless enough to empty out a tommy gun by firing into a packed restaurant. His core gimmick is trolling his foes by saying their next line before they do. At a base level, he comes off as the most obnoxious person on the east coast -- and of an entire decade, while we’re at it.
Even if that’s true, it’s not as if Joseph is irredeemable. He’s the story’s hero for a reason, one that goes beyond “that bloody destiny” or “da plot”. He’s got heroic qualities, like refusing to stand idly by when a woman’s life is on the line. Rough around the edges as he may be, he’s still fiercely loyal to his friends and family (including his grandma Erina and his more-or-less grandfather Speedwagon). And as you can guess from the video above, his greatest weapon is his cunning and trickery. On-the-fly strategies are woven into JoJo’s lifeblood more than the eclectic poses -- and that’s saying something -- but Joseph’s the one who codified their presence. It’s more than a little welcome, to say the least.
But let’s back up to that second point. In a shonen production, it’s all too common for the lead to care about his pals, and go berserk whenever they’re in danger. That’s not to the demographics’ detriment, even if it was played out back in the eighties. Joseph loves his grandma, and he’ll do what he can to make her happy. Likewise, he goes off the rails once he finds out (however untrue) that Speedwagon was killed via betrayal. He has a personal web, and a personal code of honor to match -- small in spread, but harder than steel. As the story progresses, that web gets wider and wider.
So here’s the clincher, and likely the reason why people prefer Joseph to, say, Jonathan (and Jotaro, I’d bet). Of those three JoJos, Joseph has the most obvious, most defined arc.
As much as I love Jonathan, his progression as a character is easy to shrug off because A) he’s already close to being saintly so he’s got no vices to overcome, and B) he goes through muted, negative character development by way of his blooming hatred of Dio. Jotaro is…well, he’s muted in a LOT of ways, but I’ll get to him eventually. In any case, people have come to expect character arcs that take a guy or lady with problems and foibles, and then have them rise above their issues via the trials of the plot. The coward learns to have courage. The loner learns about the power of friendship. The selfish jerk learns to care about something besides him.
Joseph, I think, falls into that third general category. There’s no doubt that he’d rush to the rescue of Erina got kidnapped, because she’s metaphorically within arm’s reach of him. And yes, he’d save strangers who are suffering within his line of sight. The issue is that outside of that, I’d argue that Joseph doesn’t have respect for anyone too far outside his personal web. The sparks fly -- literally -- when he meets fellow Hamon user Caesar Zeppelli; you’d think that they’d learn to bond with one another instantly thanks to their unique powers and heroic lineage, but NOPE! Joseph’s gotta try to knock Caesar down a peg just because he’s wooing a pretty girl.
Then he meets Lisa Lisa, the person who’s primed to help him learn how to use his Hamon effectively…and he spends most of those early moments looking down on her, raging at her, and aiming to exact his revenge once he wraps up his hellish training. (And he goes on to peep on her in the bathtub, which is likely a move he’s destined to regret.) He doesn’t seem to think too highly of his opponents at first, either; yeah, he’s itching to beat them up and save the innocent, but he tries to go on the attack with a technique he isn’t even sure will work, just to try and one-up Caesar for his special technique. Unsurprisingly, New York’s JoJo nearly experiences death by tornado.
Respect isn’t something that Joseph is eager to give out. While it’s true that respect is something that you’ve got to earn, the fact that he’s so willing to trash talk, mess with, and shrug off anyone outside of his comfort zone says a lot about his character. On the other hand, it gives him something to prove that he’s progressing as a character. Joseph starts out with an antagonistic relationship with Caesar, but after experiencing some nightmarish Hamon trials (where the two of them mutually assist one another), they come to understand and even like one another. Likewise, Lisa Lisa becomes more than just someone to ogle; she becomes a pillar of strength, solidarity, and serenity -- albeit one with a genuine human side underneath her façade. Speaking of pillars, Joseph starts to see guys like Wamuu and Esidisi in a different light by clashing with them. Even if they’re enemies, he learns to appreciate their pride, honor, and nobility -- their decorum as ancient warriors that inspires him to be more than just a street thug with some good connections.
So I guess I should clarify something. You can pare down Battle Tendency to the theme of “respect”, but if you wanted to expand it? I’d say it goes something like “Hey, you’re an asshole, but you’re still a pretty cool guy I can’t help but like.” I mean, this part even has Nazis that Joseph comes hairs away from befriending.
Let’s be clear: Joseph is bad at giving respect where it’s due, but a lot of the other characters don’t make it easy on him. Caesar starts out thinking of Joseph as a country bumpkin and a total load. Lisa Lisa is standoffish to the point of something very near prejudice. The Pillar Men laugh at our heroes before walking off, with a trail of bodies in their wake. Stroheim made it much easier for Santana to run amok, primarily so he could give Germany an edge on the battlefield. These guys aren’t going to be nominated for any superlatives in their high school yearbooks, that’s for sure.
First impressions all around are less than ideal, but as these warriors -- of Hamon, of the Pillar, and beyond -- spend time with one another, they learn that there’s plenty to like. Joseph is on the wrong side of the Pillar Men and their dark ambition, but when it comes down to fighting them one on one (because of course they do), New York’s JoJo learns firsthand that they’re proud, honorable warriors with immense skill as well as intelligence. Through the battlefield, they come to understand one another; that goes both ways, because the guy that the baddies once saw as a buffoon redeems himself well before the last crackle of Hamon echoes.
In that sense, there’s an obvious advantage Part 2 has over Part 1. It’s not just Joseph that changes over the course of the story. Granted how much any given viewer will think they transform will vary, but the shifts are there. Even if they aren’t, there’s still plenty to take away from the bond between Joseph and Caesar -- who in the intro remind me of Billy and Jimmy Lee whenever they’re locking limbs.
Joseph and Caesar start off as bitter rivals -- the slob versus the snob, relatively speaking. Under normal circumstances, they probably would’ve fought until the blood went flying; with the Pillar Men on the rise and the importance of furthering their Hamon training, they’re forced to work together to beat their ancient foes. Technically they put aside their differences, but character-wise they go extremely well together. I liken it to that movie Blades of Glory; Joseph’s a showman who (tricks aside) goes in guns blazing and improvises on the fly. Caesar’s a technician with knowledge and skill (and skills) in the field. In the end, though, they’ve got lots in common where it counts. But by seeing one another struggle -- with the murderous superhumans, with rigorous training, with the swath of destruction, and with the legacy of their bloody destiny -- they learn to see past more than themselves, and their preconceived notions.
Tragically, their arcs don’t progress far enough to prevent a terrible fate. To reiterate, Joseph is the grandson of Jonathan Joestar, the hero of Part 1. Caesar is the grandson of Will A. Zeppelli, the mentor of Part 1; notably, Jonathan’s victory wouldn’t have been possible if Will hadn’t sacrificed himself and given the gentleman a power boost. It’s no stretch to assume that his late grandfather is a touchy subject for Caesar, largely because of the respect he has for his family as a whole. Joseph, on the other hand, was locked out of the loop. He doesn’t know jack about Jonathan, his direct father, or the battle with Dio in the 1880s. So at one point, Caesar basically says “I have to do this, for my bloodline!” Then Joseph basically says “Bloodline? Who cares about that?” He, uh, shouldn’t have done that.
In hindsight, Caesar’s death was probably super-preventable. Joseph didn’t make things better by egging him on (however unintentionally), but Caesar gave into his anger at a time when the hot-blooded one of the team was saying “Hey, we need to think this through first.” Rushing in with only the vaguest traces of a plan didn’t stop Caesar from coming within seconds of taking out Wamuu, but the fact that he went in alone to defend his family’s honor meant that he didn’t have a cushion or backup plan just in case things went south. In that sense, Caesar’s overabundance of respect led to his downfall, while Joseph’s lack of respect (at that point, at least) saved his life.
It kind of leads to an interesting dilemma, doesn’t it? Does one character have to sacrifice his life just to give the hero -- an owner of the Joestar bloodline -- a chance to win? It’s a bit troubling to think that the lead can’t accomplish much (or at least make it to the finish line) without somebody throwing down his or her body as an impromptu stair step. On the other hand, it could be a thematic thing; maybe the Joestar curse is one that puts each successive heir in a position where loneliness is their default setting. Speedwagon and Erina aside (and Smokey, albeit incidentally), Joseph starts out a rebel without a cause. Then he befriends Caesar, and then Caesar dies right when their bond has reached a high point. Bitter stuff, that.
But I digress. The important thing is that Caesar bites it in what I assume is one of the most infamous moments in the entire franchise -- a golden moment for Joseph to show just how much respect and love he has for his fallen friend. Respect alone isn’t enough to bring Caesar back, but it does give him the spark to fight harder and grow stronger where it counts…even if tears had to be shed.
Don’t feel too bad about Caesar, though. I’m sure nobody will ever die again in JoJo.
In any case, I’m inclined to believe that the theme of respect -- its pros and cons -- isn’t just something I gleaned from reading way too far into the series. Whereas most characters gain respect (and Joseph himself earns it from those who would rightfully write him off), main villain Kars either refuses it or loses it as the story progresses. It’s to be expected, of course; Kars is an asshole and the shit king of the Pillar Men as a result. It was basically his idea and ambition to evolve past his already sky-scraping limits, so anyone who stands in his way is up for a sweet taste of his homemade murder. But even if the Pillar Men are bad guys, there are still things that make them sort of admirable.
Esidisi and Wamuu prove that they’ve got noble spirits -- a code of honor, a willingness to observe rules/tradition/fair play, and ultimately, the chance to see more than just whatever props up their egos. Kars…well, Kars doesn’t. He’s willing to launch a sneak attack on Lisa Lisa to immediately end their “honorable” duel. Combining the Stone Mask and the Red Stone of Aja doesn’t come down to him winning it fairly; he basically pulls a fast one to cheat his way into ultimate life. He’s willing to badmouth his men not even 12 hours after they bite it, and revels in the fact that only he gets to be the ultimate life-form.
I mean, seriously. Dio may be a son of a bitch, but Kars is right up there with him -- a guy you just love to hate.
I’m of two minds about Kars’ defeat. It’s not that it’s a bad way to finish him off, even if it relies on a HUGE string of circumstances and lucky saves (which to be sure is a standard of the franchise), but there are two ways of looking at how it fits thematically. Kars ends up getting blown into space to drift eternally, unable to return or use any of his newfound superpowers to save his life -- and it reaches a point where he just stops thinking. Prior to that, though? He ends up in that situation because Joseph -- with an assist from a volcano activated by Kars’ super-Hamon and the Red Stone -- cons him into that position. Even though the Pillar Men boss could’ve finished off our hero in any number of ways, he screwed up in the typical “Imma gloat all over ya” fashion you’d expect from villains.
So because Kars lacks respect for Joseph -- the guy who by that point had beaten three separate Pillar Men almost singlehandedly, and very nearly killed Kars via plane crash -- he thinks he can just waltz right up and go for a flashy finish. That’s one way of looking at it. Or, alternatively, you could argue that Kars shows too much respect for Joseph and seals his fate. He assumes that the volcano eruption was part of Joseph’s scheme, and in the process is left wide open for the rock pelting that sends him out of Earth’s loving embrace. It was only thanks to Joseph’s last-minute will to survive that he made just the right move he needed, but Kars -- someone with basic pattern recognition, at least -- thinks that he got conned. “Cheated” is more appropriate, but the end result is the same. Kars is knocked right outta the park.
And thus, Battle Tendency draws to a close -- well, after a “funeral” for Joseph despite him being very much alive. How does it stack up with Phantom Blood? I wouldn’t fault anyone for putting Part 2 above Part 1. This entry is certainly doing more to offer up the laughs and absurdity, all in an effort to live up to the “Bizarre” in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It does sort of lose a sense of that theatrical bombast that I adored in Part 1, but I can’t say it’s a loss or a detriment to this entry. Different in this case doesn’t equal worse. It just means that there was a different intention, and a drive to pursue a new style of sorts.
In all honesty, my complaints about Part 2 are pretty limited. There are issues, of course. I wish Lisa Lisa had more to do (and didn’t just smack around some goons before losing instantly to Kars). As you can guess, there were times when I found myself going “Wait, what?” when something absurd happened vis a vis Joseph’s fight for victory -- disbelief-straining stuff that made me go “There’s no way you could’ve thought of that” or “You couldn’t have possibly set that up in the amount of time you had”. But overall, I feel like I’ve been rewarded for my time investment. As I should. Part 1 still edges out Part 2 for me (personally speaking), but the gap between them is about as thick as the average penny.
So now I have a question: is Hirohiko Araki a genius? Ideally of the "evil" variety?
I don’t think the theme of respect here (and bonds in Part 1) was an accident. There’s just too much that feeds back into that single idea, directly or subtly. Mostly directly, because…well, look at what anime we’re talking about, but you get the idea. Thought went into this, and we as viewers have the chance to think in turn because of the level of execution. It’s not as if JoJo as a whole is extremely complex or pushing the boundaries of literature, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do with gusto and skill.
That brings me to my next point. Again, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is on its eighth part, and has been running for about 30 years. That’s a lot of ground that needs to be covered, and a lot of content that needs to be produced. How do you stay consistent, entertaining, and fresh enough to delight fans old and new? One possible answer -- the answer proposed by JoJo itself -- is to constantly reinvent the metaphorical wheel. Phantom Blood is its own beast; Battle Tendency is another. The same applies to each consecutive entry; they have commonalities and a central affect, but the fact that they can be so varied has to stand for something. Or to put it in shade-throwing terms: how is it that stuff like Naruto or Bleach can peter out in 15 years (if that) while JoJo can stay strong for twice as long? I guess the answer is that Araki knows what he’s doing -- an artist who has the sense to write a good story.
Oh boy. This is awkward.