Yep, more anime (I’m on a kick)!
I’ll write about something (anything) else soon, I assure you.
By way of cultural osmosis, I’ve been aware of this series for years now but – much like my contrarian stance to never watch Titanic (still haven’t, just ’cause) – purposefully avoided it out of spite for the frequency and intensity of its mention. My curiosity peaked not due to any of the ecstatic praise I heard but this video by Marcus Turner who, not unlike myself, found himself exhausted by said praise from its weirdly reverent fans. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? His complaints are entirely valid and I share many (but not all) of his issues, but it’s this one clip – presented without any context there and here – that made me determined to finally watch it:
It’s the juxtaposition between the mundane and inexplicable, making something commonplace and taken for granted eerie and untrustworthy, that pulled me in. The scene takes place later within the fourth story-arc, “Diamond is Unbreakable,” but – given my overwhelming boredom and having the first three available on Netflix – I thought I may as well see everything leading up to it to pass the time. So, does the series live up to its ludicrous hype? Yes and no. Like, 50/50, maybe? To be more accurate, it fluctuates between 15/85 and 90/10 depending on the episode and its importance (or lack thereof) to the story-arc overall. I know it’s confusing…
Lemme explain, and bear with me.
Let’s Fighting Love!
Shōnen manga and anime is less a subgenre than it is entertainment based on targeting a specific demographic – in this case, male youths between the ages of 12 and 18. They actually encompass a number of genres but, given popular trends, it’s usually associated with series that emphasize action with an epic scope and tendency towards having large casts. Such action sequences could last for multiple chapters/episodes and featuring dozens of characters – many of whom are perfunctory like love interests, secondary antagonists, or redshirts. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is an exemplar along with Dragon Ball and its influence can be seen in titles like One Piece, Hunter x Hunter, and more recently My Hero Academia. Though incredibly popular in its native Japan, the appeal had been greatly delayed in the United States – even with a niche fandom (there’s always one!) – before it downright exploded over the past few years as the anime became part of [Adult Swim]’s Toonami programming line-up.
Personally, I’ve become less fond of shōnen series but I don’t completely avoid them (obviously), partly due to a simple change in taste but mostly because of overexposure. It becomes harder to tell one work apart from another, slowly bleeding together and that – while some are exceptional enough to have longevity – go far past the point of diminishing returns. It doesn’t help as media companies become more risk-averse (despite, say, being worth billions and whose recent past involved unexpectedly successful risks) and, like any jack of all trades, tries to please everyone while leaving little to no impact on their hearts and minds. Shōnen is to anime what first-person shooters are to videogames for me; breezy entertainment to not think too heavily about and, once finished, aren’t really worth a subsequent experience when you can indulge in something new and more interesting.
As dismissive as that may come off, I’m always open to one coming out of nowhere and honestly surprising me – an exception to my own rule. Why else would I indulge in Dorohedoro and Beastars then praise them as much as I did? Some people are under this unfortunate assumption that being critical is equitable to joylessness but I wouldn’t spend as much time, energy, or personal finances being critical if I didn’t care for the material as much as I do.
Would I put JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure on the same level of satisfaction I felt with Dorohedoro and Beastars? Oh God, no! However, given Hirohiko Araki’s quirks as a storyteller, it’s rarely ever boring and definitely clear what makes the series so memorable for others. I’ll certainly never forget its better moments…
Of Men & Mannequins
This isn’t a series you watch for deep characterization or storytelling; it’s for the beautiful men – either built like brick shithouses akin to Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star or lanky and lithe as if designed by Peter Chung – in the most haute of coutre as they contort themselves in stylish poses and wage high-concept battles, where reality is regularly warped by unconventional tactics and tests of will as much as idiosyncratic superpowers, sustaining injuries no one could possibly survive yet recovering from them with the alacrity of James “Wolverine” Logan.
As much as I like his videos, John Walsh will never convince me that Jotaru Kujo or Giorno Giovanna are as subtle or layered as he claims (though I love the phrase “magical sunshine karate” – I’ll get back to that soon enough). It’s not that I think Araki is incapable of writing amusing moments of male comradery, there’s plenty of them, but that it’s never consistent throughout most story-arcs save for “Diamond is Unbreakable.” The characters, more often than not, are too broadly-defined or one-dimensional, despite implications that suggest a potentially interesting personality but almost never solidify into traits.
The most mishandled character in the “Golden Wind” story-arc, Pannacotta Fugo, is frequently shown as someone with severe anger management issues. At first, it comes off as entirely comedic…until we’re given his backstory. Not only is his anger pathological in nature, prone to inexplicably violent urges, but he manages to keep it under control until attending a university where he is sexually abused by a professor, unleashing years of suppressed rage upon them. Like, holy fucking shit, that’s really interesting!
However, his peers – Leone Abbachio, Narancia Ghirga, and Guido Mista – have equally interesting backstories but, with the notable exception of Mista’s crippling tetraphobia and Zen-like acceptance of death (though he constantly manages to avoid it), feel disconnected from their current behavior. Abbachio’s alcoholism and Narancia’s abysmal education (he’s incapable of basic multiplication at the age of 17) could’ve been definitive aspects of characterization throughout the plotline, but they’re only brought up once or twice while carrying little meaning otherwise. Even in “Stardust Crusaders”, the only thing we know about both Muhammed Abdul (not “Avdol”) and Jean-Pierre Polnareff is that one was a fortune-teller from Cairo and the other was out to avenge his murdered sister. Polnareff being the designated comic relief and a stereotypical philandering Frenchman isn’t really enough to invest emotionally in him as a character as the story wants me to, not to mention wasting the presence of a prominent black Muslim character – in an anime nonetheless – by giving him the flattest of personalities imaginable (thank Allah for Isaac, the best character in Castlevania).
That is not to say there are no notable or interesting characters because there are – even if far and few inbetween. It’s definitely easy to get why Rohan Kishibe has become everyone’s (myself included!) favorite eccentric, perpetually curious artist to the point of getting his own spin-off.
Another example is Joseph Joestar who, out of the five featured in the anime (so far), is easily the most entertaining protagonist of the series. A factor being the odd juxtaposition (there’s that word again!) of his personality as, much like his grandfather and initial series protagonist Jonathan, he was raised to be the poshest of all posh Brits yet acts more naturally like the Ugliest American (who isn’t Donald Trump) ever. It helps that (very much unlike Trump) he’s introduced by maiming abusive, racist cops who’re beating up a poor black teen – one of whom loses their trigger finger with a projectile Coca-Cola bottlecap. It’s obviously as badass as it sounds. He also appears in “Stardust Crusaders” and “Diamond Is Unbreakable” in his older years – respectively forty-nine and sixty-one years after “Battle Tendency” – that makes him particularly dynamic, compared to the rest of the cast, as his personality and behavior differ a fair bit from one appearance to the next. ‘Cause, like, that’s what tends to happen as people age.
However, his grandson Jotaro acts pretty much as he did in “Stardust Crusaders” when making subsequent appearances in “Diamond is Unbreakable” and “Golden Wind” taking place, respectively, twelve and fourteen years afterward. Again, it’s distracting because – even within “Stardust Crusaders” – there’re plenty of character moments that suggest a more complicated individual yet lead to no significant changes in personality or behavior. He’s always this too-cool-for-you manga/anime badass that’re a dime a dozen these days. When it’s revealed he became an academically acclaimed oceanographer in his 20’s, it’s kind of confusing he never talks about his work in detail or relates the events of the plot to his knowledge of the aquatic. Worsened by the fact his interest in it is never set up back when he was the protagonist, though there were numerous opportunities to do so, to eventually pay off in this way.
What contributes to this problem, I think, is that there’re simply too many characters – including the plethora of disposable secondary antagonists – and, given the lengthy battles, leaves very little breathing room inbetween to know these people more intimately. With the exception of “Phantom Blood” and “Diamond is Unbreakable,” the other story-arcs feel like these massive road trips yet rarely involve situations that’d happen during such travels, where there’s downtime to gain a better idea of who these people are outside of getting into fights. Though, more frequent and lengthier than they should be, these same high-concept battles are also the series’ biggest highlight.
Stand(s) By Me
If Jotaro Kujo is the face of the series, his Stand – dubbed “Star Platinum” – may as well be considered his afterimage.
Stands as a concept isn’t exactly that original to me nor too hard to wrap my head around, as I’ve read superhero comics from DC and Marvel that include characters like Shade the Changing Man or Hisako “Armor” Ichiki. However, to succinctly describe them for the unfamiliar: they’re psionically-induced entities that tend to appear humanoid, though it’s far from unusual for them to be mere objects (one is even a fishing rod) or simply function as innate superhuman abilities, with powers unique to each user (who are also the only people capable of visually sensing them…most of the time). You’d think, being a signature concept of the series, it’d of been there from the beginning but it wasn’t and, instead, there was “Hamon.”
I honestly can’t think of a better descriptor for it than John Walsh’s cheeky “magical sunshine karate” and it makes sense, given their presence in both “Phantom Blood” and “Battle Tendency”, to be used specifically against vampires and their far-less-powerful undead minions. As someone from Southern California and used to hearing spoken Spanish, it was hard to not hear “Hamon” as “jamón” and cracking the fuck up over it – since, rather than magical sunshine karate, they were defeating a bunch of Draculas with the power…of ham! Y’know, as if they’re not only vampires but really observant Jews (of which I am not – ’cause pork is super tasty) or Muslims and, next to sunlight, violating their dietary restrictions is their biggest weakness.
Araki’s decision to eschew Hamon for Stands was a reasonable and ultimately beneficial creative decision. Stands don’t require ridiculously overblown training montages and emphasize mental prowess over the physical, even animals and children can possess them, that allows action sequences more versatility than how one guy punches another guy to win. The transition is evidenced as early on as “Battle Tendency” since Joseph is more reliant on using stage magic-style misdirection and clackers/bolas as a weapon than Hamon by itself while his best frenemy forever, Caesar Zepelli, is able to form weaponized bubbles and their mentor, Lisa Lisa, uses her scarf in tandem with it. When introduced in “Stardust Crusaders”, the whole concept is somewhat unrefined and the main characters’ Stands – except an older Joseph’s Hermit Purple, ’cause of course – are incredibly uncreative compared to that of the antagonists, whose Stands could take the form of a future-predicting comicbook or steal souls via a gambling loss. On the other hand; Jotaro’s Star Platinum unleashes a flurry of rapid punches, Noriaki Kakyoin’s Hierophant Green unleashes a flurry of…flying emeralds, Abdul shoots fire with Magician’s Red, and Polnareff’s Silver Chariot has a rapier to slash or stab at things. Even secondary or tertiary capabilities function more like a deus ex machina – such as Star Platinum’s Three Stoogesesque extend-o-fingers – contradicting the often stated importance of set attack range and makes one wonder why they’re not applied more, given their usefulness.
Though, to be perfectly fair, I never thought I’d enjoy an extended battle between a superpowered Boston terrier (named after Iggy Pop) and a lanner falcon (named after the Pet Shop Boys) as much as I’d imagine! It’s like Flint “Sandman” Marko and Bobby “Iceman” Drake got turned into animals and had an intense fight to the death, exhausting themselves enough that they resort to clawing at each other’s face and neck-biting…
It’s not until “Diamond is Unbreakable” that Stands are fully realized and “Golden Wind” innovates further. The former story-arc integrating them more into non-combat situations, with two of my favorite episodes revolving around Italian miracle cook Antonio Trussardi and lethargic-yet-consummate beautician Aya Tsuji. Both are entirely character-driven with a satirical edge, concerning xenophobia and how cosmetic companies exploit the insecurity of young women, that is delightfully refreshing after the over-emphasis on combat from before. The latter story-arc, contrarily, becomes more action-oriented but its situations involve a more collaborative usage of Stands among both protagonists and secondary antagonists – the primary, of which, is easily my favorite villain next to the previous story-arc’s Kira Yoshikage. An exemplar being how Giorno uses his ability to turn non-living objects into flora and fauna (or vice-versa) on Mista’s magnum bullets, ridden by golden-skinned gremlins (who remind me of the Dum-Dums from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) that can redirect their trajectory like soccer balls, to grow exponentially into a helicopter-entrapping tree after they dig into the upper corner of a building.
Going back to villains momentarily: as much as I love the fact Dio Brando is named after Ronnie James Dio and Marlon Brando – he’s just Evil McBadguy from the get-go, without much in the way of nuance (there could’ve been), and I’ll never understand why he’s such a fan-favorite. At least, with Kira, you can imagine him being in a Thomas Harris novel co-starring Hannibal Lecter (preferably Red Dragon) or in one of the better Dexter episodes (preferably with John Lithgow), and “The Boss” is a…fascinating twist on the whole Jekyll-Hyde/Banner-Hulk dynamic. Saying any more will just spoil it too much, so I won’t divulge further. It’s too bad the Pillar Men weren’t as interesting by themselves as much as their conception of being Mesoamerican-style vampires. They are far more alien in behavior and ability than other portrayals of vampires in popular culture, with their most typical trait being vulnerability to sunlight, that is about as interesting as Penny Dreadful‘s obscenely chimeric human/scarab/snake blood-suckers from Ancient Egypt (but very much unlike Anne Rice’s version, thank Isis and Ra).
One of the most disappointing parts about Stands is that – with very rare exceptions – they are confined to being an extension of a character, than characters in of themselves. You’d think, as the manifestation of a wielder’s psyche, they’d represent the character’s id acting interchangeably as the angel and devil on their shoulder depending on the situation. When Stands do exhibit a personality independent of the person who possesses them, it’s endlessly amusing (or intriguing) and their general absence is all the more noticeable for it. The reason I like Guido Mista as much as I do, along with having the most fleshed-out personality of all the characters in “Golden Wind” next to Bruno Bucciarati, is that his Stand (named after the Sex Pistols) – the aforementioned bullet-riding, golden-skinned gremlins – exhibit a level of autonomy that makes Mista treat them not as an extension of himself, but as if they’re his adopted children or beloved pets.
A recurring gag is that Mista has gotten used to having meals at specific times not out of personal habit but because he needs to keep the Sex Pistols well-fed consistently, lest they get grumpy and increasingly petulant, like any loving parent or pet-owner would. There’s even an interpersonal dynamic between them as Sex Pistol #5 – ’cause, due to Mista’s tetraphobia, there is no #4 – is often the target of bullying by #3 yet, time and time again, proves themselves to be the most reliant and self-aware of Mista’s Stand. They may come off as cowardly but display a greater level of forethought, all while their siblings recklessly throw themselves into danger with little to no consideration, that keeps Mista and his allies alive. The Sex Pistols not only perfectly represent Mista’s tendency to dismiss personal danger but, as if blessed by the Greco-Roman gods themselves, manages to evade mortality by luck ever so slightly. I just wish I could say anything similar, at length, about other Stands…
The other major flaw with Stands is that their abilities, being over-specialized, are so limited and there’s little chance of evolution. Many Stands tend to have a singular function or method of attack, which may explain the numerous secondary antagonists and lengthiness of battles, and some can be contrivedly situational. There’re secondary antagonists whose Stand abilities would be hard to imagine being used in any other scenario than in the episode(s) they appear and are dull enough that their replacement with, say, further character development for the protagonists would be far more beneficial. Speaking of which, I wish that – as opposed to using a deus ex machina when convenient – the protagonists’ Stands would “level up” in some way, to indicate some personal growth of the character than static throughout.
Thankfully, in “Diamond Is Unbreakable”, we at least get that in the form of Koichi Hirose and all three phases (called ACT 1, 2, and 3) of his Stand dubbed “Echoes.” He’s a genuinely good person throughout the story-arc, but initially timid to a fault until gaining Echoes as a Stand – becoming more confident and assertive in situations where he once easily buckled under pressure and prone to manipulation. To parallel this development is Echoes starting out as an egg then soon hatches into a small long-tailed creature that, at first, seems useless. As the story proceeds, Koichi realizes the extent of Echoes’ powers and uses them more effectively – eventually metamorphosing two more times to coincide with paramount encounters. Their abilities start off as long-ranged and weak but, with each phase, loses range and get substantially stronger. It’s even reflected in his tumultuous romantic subplot with Yukako Yamagishi, fellow classmate and Stand-user, that goes from being like Misery to Cinderella by way of Garden State…
In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve only mentioned two female characters: Lisa Lisa, paragraphs back, and Yukako just now. There’re not many of them in the series and Araki’s rather…complicated portrayal of women deserves its own section, along with how the comradery between male characters can occasionally segue into something ostensibly queer-coded.
Well, this turned out longer than expected…again.
I had more to say about the series than originally intended and, in getting ready to move back down to SoCal, have been preoccupied with other activities. It’s been a goal of mine to put up more than one essay a month but there wouldn’t even be one if I showed this piece in its entirety. As such, I’ve decided to split this review in two – though the second half on its way, to be posted at either the end of this month or very beginning of the next.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!