All right, I know the purpose of this little miniseries is to show that JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is greater than the sum of its memes, but…come on, man. If it wasn’t for ZA WARUDO, it might never have gotten the legs it did in the west.
Okay, that’s a reductive way of looking at things. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know much about JoJo until I found out about ZA WARUDO, and even then it stayed as a simple meme until the anime came out (an anime I’d eventually get around to in 2016, years after its start). And I know anime; I can’t imagine what it was like for people who don’t know anime. Anyone who gained exposure by virtue of rapid-fire screams, a cafeteria’s worth of knives, and a steamroller swan dive gained an irrepressible image burned into their very souls. But I guess any publicity is good publicity. If a meme opened the door to a wider appreciation of JoJo, then I think we should all count that as a win.
It’s no surprise, then, that Part 3 of JoJo -- Stardust Crusaders -- had some traction going into the big anime premiere (by which I mean David Production’s run, if it wasn’t clear already). “Oh, this is where that ZA WARUDO thing came from, right?” Billy McCrunchyroll might say one cool October evening. “Well then, maybe I should give it a look.” And the rest is history. Along with Stands, I guess. Stands are cool, which I’m sure various people have discovered well before this post.
But is Part 3 cool enough to match? That’s what I’m here to find out. Or…report on, I suppose. That seems like a better fit.
BREAK YOU DOWN, BREAK YOU DOWN, BREAK YOU DOWN
Let these SPOILERS fly free
With this hallowed post, STAND PROUD! (With spoilers.)
Part 5: Stardust Crusaders
(Or: In Which Roads are Rolled -- A Side)
Still not better than the first opening, but boy does this one get me pumped.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that when most people think of JoJo, this is what they jump to. I don’t blame them, but it’s funny that they’d want to go straight to Part 3 when Parts 1 and 2 are right there (now more than before, to be fair). I don’t think the previous parts are 100% required for enjoying Part 3, but seeing Jonathan and Joseph’s stories beforehand will enrich the overall experience. For those who are inconsolably eager to take the leap of faith? This is the setup.
It’s been about a century since Jonathan Joestar defeated his adoptive brother-turned vampire overlord Dio Brando. (I, uh, might have to retract that statement about Part 1 not being required.) In theory, that means that the Joestar bloodline can live in peace, along with the rest of the world. In practice, the vampire’s severed head is salvaged from its watery tomb -- only it turns out he’s got a body and an ambition that needs fulfilling. Having stolen his brother’s body and learned to use it as his own, Dio -- “reborn” as DIO -- takes up residence in Cairo, Egypt to consolidate his powers, command his forces, and get ready to dominate the world. As any altruistic villain would.
Enter: Jotaro Kujo, a 17-year-old high school student with a build like Superman and a bad attitude that’s just as big. Despite carrying Jonathan’s blood within him, he starts his story off in a jail cell -- the reason being that he’s certain an evil spirit has possessed him, and can bring more harm to others than his fists ever could. It isn’t long before Jotaro learns the truth from his grandfather, Joseph Joestar. To wit: Jotaro has awakened to his Stand, a ghostly entity and manifestation of his psychological, spiritual energy. More to the point, Joseph is out to recruit Jotaro for a special mission. Having learned that DIO is bumping around, Joseph -- now firmly in his sixties -- reasons that those who carry the Joestar bloodline have to defeat their ancient foe once and for all.
Jotaro doesn’t have much say in the matter, because he’s forced into a losing situation. His mother (and Joseph’s daughter) Holly has also awakened to her Stand power -- only it’s more of a curse than a blessing. DIO’s poisonous influence has left her with a Stand that’s slowly killing her, and the only way to stop it is to kill DIO instead. More specifically, the only way to stop it is to kill DIO within 50 days, or else Holly will run out of time and bite it. Jotaro rushes out and teams up with several other Stand users, and begins his trek from Japan to Egypt on a world tour wrought with danger. As any malicious hero would.
From a technical standpoint, I’d say that the anime receives another general bump in quality. It pretty much had to; the one-hit-KO mentality of Part 1 and the on-the-fly trickery of Part 2 are still present in Part 3, but there’s an added level of physicality from the Stands. It’d be a real tragedy if they were static at all times, but thankfully the production values have increased enough to create some impressive scenes and battles. (My personal joke is that Magician’s Red should be renamed Magician’s Budget, because usually when it shows up there’s a significant spike in quality.) There are some inconsistencies, but that’s to be expected from any anime series -- though my personal gripe is that sometimes it seems like the animators went nuts with the stylization of lines and added too many to the faces. It’s weird, but it’s more than possible to live with.
I think it’s safe to say that there’s been a stylistic shift, not just the crew going “Feel the wrath of our budget!” On one hand, it’s reflected in the soundtrack. The mix isn’t as eclectic as Part 2’s, but let’s not kid ourselves here; with tracks like Purple Thorns, Virtuous Pope, and of course Stardust Crusaders, you know your ears are in for a good time. With that in mind, it is crucial to take notice of the other songs that show up throughout the series. They’re trying to tell you what Stardust Crusaders is all about -- trying to sell you on a theme, or affect, or even an aesthetic.
Consider, for example, Dark Rebirth.
It’s just one of many, with tracks like Tension and Omen leading the charge. They’re songs meant to unsettle you, and leave you worried about what’s coming next. Alternatively, even the battle themes manage to convey that feeling of dread and tension; even if the Crusaders are destined to win, they’re put on the ropes visually and audibly. Decisive Battle isn’t just there to bring hype or show off how cool the heroes are as they defeat an enemy Stand user; it’s there to imply via music that said heroes are in a VERY bad position…which they are in most cases.
The music goes a long way, but it doesn’t work alone. Like I said before, the expectation going into JoJo is that it’s a colorful romp -- almost to a psychedelic degree. And sure, there’s tons of color; you’d expect no less from a series that randomly shifts colors whenever it’ll spice up a scene. Yet like Part 1 and Part 2 before it, the palette isn’t blindingly bright. It’s subdued. It’s muted. It’s exactly what a series like this needs. Even if it has humor, hype, and absurdity in spades, there’s more to it than that. So even before taking the actual story into account -- something that actively works to Araki’s pre-planned advantage -- the audience has more than enough evidence to make a claim about what sort of theme Stardust Crusaders is going for.
So here it is, then. The theme of Stardust Crusaders, the core idea that informs a huge percentage of the arc, is fear.
This is the part that made Stands a fixture of the series. Hamon still sees some play here thanks to Joseph (and from what I’ve heard, there’s a variant of it in Part 7), but from here on the focus is on those phantoms and the powers they grant their users. Fair enough. The assumption, though, is that each skirmish is a direct confrontation between one user and another -- one ghost punching at Mach speed, and another ghost punching faster than a Gatling gun’s rounds.
That’s what we’ve come to expect from the shonen genre/demographic, isn’t it? Head-to-head battles with lots of superpowers on display; even though JoJo predates a healthy number of them, the west got Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Bleach, and the like WAY before Araki’s brainchild could hit the States. I’d bet that people lapsed in and out of being anime fans well before the JoJo anime’s first episode even premiered.
But JoJo and Stardust Crusaders are different beasts compared to those other works. It’s not always about those direct confrontations; really, you could say that it’s rarely about those direct confrontations. Since the Crusaders have to go from Japan to Egypt (with no shortage of detours and speed bumps along the way), they’re constantly taken out of their element.
The strangers in strange lands have to adapt to more than just new environments; time and time again, they’re put in situations where the enemies have the advantage -- in intel, in positioning, in the element of surprise, you name it. In essence, nearly every Stand “battle” is a struggle to claim the game-winning advantage. An ORA ORA may be what resolves a situation, but Star Platinum has to get within punching range first. That’s a hell of a lot easier said than done -- which is proven constantly. It’s a scary though, knowing that your strongest weapon is useless without direct line of sight and the chance to stand within hugging distance.
Why, you could even call it…menacing.
See? I’m not just reaching here. This is stuff baked into JoJo that makes it progressively (and retroactively) stronger.
Need more proof? Fine. Okay, so here’s the thing you need to understand about Stands and their users. I’m going to make a list of the enemy forces -- Stand, user, or mere pawn of either -- that DIO sends in to take care of Jotaro and his crew. It’s not in any particular order, and it’s not 100% comprehensive, but you should get the idea. Try to find the common link between all of them. Ready? Good.
So, here’s a list of things that threaten the Crusaders over the course of the story.
--a brainwashed high school student
--a nurse turned into a murderous puppet
--a brainwashed avenger
--an old man on a plane
--a bounty hunter/gunman
--an axe-wielding creeper
--a blind man in the desert
--a sea captain
--a cruise ship
--a serial killer
--a series of bad dreams
--children hired to cheat on the bad guys’ behalf
--a haggler trying to sell kebabs
--a fake sun (with not-fake temperatures)
--a beautiful lady
--another beautiful lady
--anything with a reflective surface
--an electrical socket
--a sentient sword
--a sentient sword’s mind-controlled slaves
--a village of strung-up corpses
--an old lady with two right hands
--a shapeshifting narcissist
--a shapeshifting stooge
--a falcon wearing a spiffy hat
--a tyrannical vampire
--a tyrannical vampire’s biggest fanboy (sans pants)
The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that there’s a lot of silly stuff in JoJo. This is a series that takes that silly stuff and plays it with an incredible level of seriousness; sure, it sounds absurd when removed from context, but taken straightly in-universe? Pretty much everything in this list and beyond is a legitimate threat. I mean, one of the Stand users has a comic book that predicts the future with 100% accuracy, and the only reason he didn’t kill everyone was because he was saddled with partners that screwed up at the last second.
The good guys consistently have to claw their way up just to make it an even fight. After all, in most cases the only one who knows the enemy Stand users’ powers are the users and DIO (presumably). Conversely, by the time they spring into action (or spring their traps, more accurately), the baddies know all about the good guys’ abilities and how to counter them. Jotaro and Polnareff are close-range fighters. Avdol can’t just throw out his fire whenever or wherever he wants, like the inside of a plane or submarine. Kakyoin’s better at long range and sneak attacks, and can’t compete with head-on brute force. Joseph can’t do shit with his Stand, at least not directly.
So you’ve got five guys (eventually six, via Iggy the dog) who have to travel the globe in 50 days to stop an evil vampire and save a crippled family member. Again and again, they have to rush to new locations -- so they have to rush into enemy territory again and again. And when they aren’t directly in enemy territory, they’re intercepted by enemies. Those same enemies have an intimate understanding of what their powers can do, and how they can use them to utterly ruin the Crusaders’ day.
And that’s overlooking the big issue here. You saw that list above, right? Based on that, there’s a simple point worth observing: a Stand, Stand user, or any related threat (however tangentially) can be anywhere. Anyone. Anything. DIO’s influence has spread far and wide, even when the boss himself sits comfortably in the shadows of his Cairo mansion. He doesn’t have to lift a finger to put pressure on the good guys, because even the first bad guy or two puts them on blast.
Furthermore, those baddies don’t have anything to concern themselves with but payment from DIO (and in the case of those loyal to the cause, it’s not even that). They’re free to put as many people as they want at risk. The heroes have to defend themselves and the innocent; it reaches a point where they can’t travel freely, for fear of others getting caught in the crossfire. Collateral damage, and all that.
Imagine that feeling. Imagine what it’s like, knowing that your little road trip will only end once you clash with a vampire so dangerous and cunning that he managed to steal the body of the world’s noblest hero and survive for a century. Before you can even stand in the same country as him, you have to brave his gauntlet of super-powered assassins. Those same assassins know who you are, what you look like, where you’re going, and what you can do. Even the silliest among them can infiltrate your group -- which means that in some cases, you can’t even trust your closest friends.
They have various countermeasures in place, along with the element of surprise -- and frequently, the environmental advantage. Some of them only need ten minutes to kill you; others can do it in a fraction of the time. Sure, you can win if you get within arm’s reach of them, but their strategies -- and abilities, more often than not -- are geared in such a way that you can’t just punch them out. Not without extreme effort…and the likelihood that you’ll be dead before you even form a fist.
They know you. They’ve been watching you. And they can strike when you least expect it. It’s the purest form of paranoia fuel the world may ever know.
It’ not just paranoia for paranoia’s sake, either. It actually has an effect on the heroes. The Crusaders have to be extra careful about how they proceed, because they’re already forced to contend with impersonators before the 1/4th point of the first season. They’ve always got to look over their shoulders, travel in groups, and keep track of time so that they can spring into action if someone’s taking too long in the bathroom. It’s a serious psychological strain to have to go through that over nearly two months, and different people will handle it differently. Polnareff charges into every situation pretty much headfirst; that implies that he’s utterly unwilling to let anything disturb his little (and effectively free) expedition. The same goes for Jotaro, arguably, though he’s not so gung-ho or flippant about his bizarre adventure.
Joseph and Avdol have to be the adults, and thus need to put the most effort into keeping the group in good condition. Part 2 Joseph may have been a wild rebel, but this time around he’s going out of his way to protect others -- acting as the de facto leader with a slew of preparations and orders. Even if he takes on the role of taskmaster, it’s not enough to safeguard everyone from the dread they feel along the way. Nor is it enough to erase the pressure he tries to keep from the others. His daughter’s life is on the line, after all; he isn’t jumping at the chance to remind the others of it, but every so often he can’t keep it a secret very well. More than DIO himself, Joseph fears failure -- and the thought that he may have to live in a world without his sweet little girl.
Avdol takes that fear -- and the responsibility born from it -- on a personal level. Having been the first one to see DIO in the flesh, he knows that the villain is a real threat even before he unleashes his Stand. As such, his mission is as much to support the Joestars as it is to protect his comrades from any dangers that crop up. Always worried, always intent, always focused, always driven to “do the right thing”; Avdol can’t help but play the guardian, to the point where it consumes him. He doesn’t want to lose anyone, even if the people he’s traveling with are mostly guys he’s just met. And because of his noble aspirations, he dies. Twice.
But nobody has it worse than Kakyoin. Even though Avdol encountered DIO first, Kakyoin was the one who became a mind-controlled puppet (alongside Polnareff, at some point). That’s a horrifying experience in its own right, but the green-clad Crusader’s troubles don’t stop there. The Death 13 arc -- one of my personal favorites in all of Part 3 -- emphasizes just how much thematic heft is packed into the story. Kakyoin is ensnared in the latest Stand user’s trap: dreams that can and will kill them in their sleep. Even if he wakes up screaming (or thrashes violently in his sleep), he can’t do anything about it; he just wakes up without a single memory to show for it. Or any evidence, for that matter.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Kakoyin takes advantage of the “what happens in the dream happens for real” rule and carves a message into his arm to warn the others. It doesn’t work.
The others start seriously worrying about Kakyoin -- worrying that the stress of their journey has gotten the best of him. They seriously consider leaving him behind so that he can take care of himself. Worse yet, Kakyoin himself can’t do much to prove them wrong for being so concerned. His doubts get the best of him; it’s not just his comrades that end up wondering if he’s going insane, and it leads to some pretty harrowing moments throughout the arc. He does eventually manage to beat Death 13 and save his friends, but the nature of the enemy Stand’s power makes it so that no one will ever know. Ostensibly, that means Kakyoin has zero proof that he won’t go off the deep end. That’s some pretty heavy stuff.
It’s a sequence that wouldn’t work unless there was a concentrated effort. But it does work, because the concept of fear is one that’s woven into Stardust Crusaders from start to finish. The anime’s audiovisual features are huge factors that lend themselves toward that conclusion, but it’s the overall story -- the work that Araki put in roughly 20 years ago -- that helps to sell this story as more than just fuel for internet memes. In case it wasn’t clear, I’ll say it plainly here: there’s a damn good reason why JoJo is as popular as it is, why it continues to endure, why it’s served as an inspiration, and why it’s just plain delightful to watch.
But with that all said? This is absolutely the weakest, most flawed entry in the franchise I’ve seen yet.
That’s a pretty heady claim. You know -- the kind of claim that’d take an additional post to go over. But it’s not like that’s happening anytime soon, right?
Oh no, I’ve gone and jinxed it. While using the wrong “to be continued” logo, no less!