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JoJo's Bizarre Adventure and the Generosity of Storytelling
A very long discussion about art, culture, the human soul, and my favorite cartoon marine biologist.
There now sits a dog-eared, highlighted copy of Manga in Theory and Practice by Hirohiko Araki on my bookshelf. Though fairly new, I have dragged it around, dropped it, bent pages, and held it open so long that it now flops to those sections when picked up again. New to me but well-loved already. It's on the shelves of most artists I know and something that comes up a fair bit in the circles I run in. I always threatened to read it over the years, every time it came up in conversation with a pleasant sigh of "Aw, man, I love that book."
At the risk of being dramatic, I really wish I had read it sooner. I also get that it was probably for the best that I waited to read it until I did.
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Araki's book did not teach me anything. Not in the strictest sense, anyway. I'm not a comic artist, illustrator, or cartoonist, nor am I in any danger of publishing in those fields. There's little for me as a prose writer within its pages in terms of application. But as a book on artistic process and philosophy, Manga in Theory and Practice is a generous text. It takes you by the hand, sits you down with a cup of tea at a cafe, and calmly and plainly explains one man's artistic vision as if it were talking to a friend. There's a coziness to it. I appreciated that as someone outside his artistic and professional domain. Araki truly does write as if talking to his peers, as if all of us can take up a pen and join him if we choose to follow the path he laid out for us.
Generous is the word I think I would most use to describe Hirohiko Araki's body of work. Infused with elements of the absurd, the Gothic, the earnest, the macabre, the fantastical, the sensual, and the highly questionable, there is a boundless compassion and generosity within the pages of Araki's worlds that breathes in every mark. They are wonderfully curious worlds, concerned with aesthetics, philosophy, art, culture, love, justice, and the plight of the human soul in the face of the inhuman and inhumane.
It is a sumptuously flawed and eccentric space that you have been invited into, asked to take a seat, and simply experience on its own terms.
I think it's made me a better writer for having done so.
I know it's made me a happier person.
Yes, I'm aware that sounds dramatic.
So, here in the waning hours of the year, while everyone else is putting together their 2022 round-ups, best-ofs, and listacles, I want to talk for a bit about my year with JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.
By passing on the knowledge I've learned of manga's royal road, it is my hope that I will in some part enable the creation of manga that is greater than what has come so far. If this book can somehow play a part in the future prosperity of manga, nothing would make me happier.
Hirohiko Araki, Manga in Theory and Practice, Page 15
On December 1st, 2022, the final episodes of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean were released on Netflix. This batch of episodes concluded David Production's decade-spanning adaptation of Araki's still running manga series. As the sixth part of the original series timeline, tumbling through the generations of the Joestar family from progenitor Jonathan Joestar to wildcard Jolyne Cujoh, Stone Ocean draws the strife, struggles, and journey together in a poignantly messy conclusion.
It's my favorite part of the manga I've read so far. It's also my least favorite part of the manga I've read so far. The anime adaptation, as a separate entity with its own creative and commercial goals, sits in a strange limbo of both admiration and ambivalence.
I have….a lot of thoughts and feelings about Stone Ocean. In fact, it's the one part I have the most misgivings about, and yet feel the most strongly for in ways that don't quite make sense. While I have attempted to write about Jojo's Bizarre Adventure off and on over the last eleven months as I've made my way through the series, this part — this singular arc and all its great heights and frustrating lows — has held me back.
And it's taken me until its finale to figure that out.
Completely by accident and with a kind of dry amusement, I started watching JoJo's Bizarre Adventure in January of this year. My girlfriend Melissa started reading the manga on a whim. She would often show me particularly amusing or absurd panels while sitting around the apartment. I became intimately acquainted with the character Robert E. O. Speedwagon before I knew what any of it was really about.
Of course, I'm on the internet. I know about JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. The memes, the poses, the cosplay. The steamroller. The vampire. The guy with the Tom of Finland hat. The musical references. The beautiful men and their bountifully homoerotic tendencies. I was aware of Joseph and Caesar before I ever knew who Joseph and Caesar were, such was their illustrious posing. What I saw of the artwork (which I now understand to be the highly memeable characters of Parts 1 and 2) I found to be very off-putting at the time. The American fans I encountered tended to give a poor impression of the material as well, portraying it as a goofy meme show where nothing matters and there are no stakes.
Telling me something doesn't matter isn't the best way to get me to engage with it, unfortunately. I did give it a fair shake some five years ago and watched the first few episodes of the show, the opening chapters of Phantom Blood. It never stuck with me, or I with it. But because Melissa seemed to enjoy her reading of the manga, I said I would give the show another chance. It actually seemed funny, rather than the grating meme factory that the internet assured me it was.
Gathering on the couch together in the evenings after our respective work days, we sat down to watch a few episodes of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood. A Gothic tale set in Victorian England, it follows adopted brothers turned enemies in the noble Jonathan "JoJo" Joestar and the power-hungry Dio Brando. Their bitter rivalry encompasses everything around them as Dio's quest for power leads him to forsaking his humanity and becoming a vampire.
I think I hated it.
As I recall, I said it was horrible, but in such a charming and earnest way that I had to see what happened next. And so we watched another episode. And then another. I think I may have blacked out. I remember the stuff with Pluck, though.
Next thing I know, we're on the final episode of Phantom Blood. Jonathan, holding what remains of his brother and mortal enemy Dio, sacrifices himself to spare his wife Erina and the children she will now raise alone. A loving final embrace for the brother who turned on him, compassionate until the very end as the ship sinks to the bottom of the sea. It annoyed me how effective Jonathan's sacrificial death was in retrospect, making me feel so much softer about the clear-eyed, clean-nosed gentleman than I had until now.
Then we immediately start the next part, Battle Tendency. Here we meet Jonathan's grandson Joseph in 1930s New York City. It's a brisk, vibrant globe-trotting adventure that's just as much a 1980s sports movie as it is a battle anime. Battle Tendency is basically Top Gun, if I'm being honest, which works in its favor. We meet Caesar and the Pillar Men, Lisa Lisa and Suzie Q. It's fun. It's heartfelt. It's dumb as hell.
And then it's over with the defeat of Kars, the most perfect organism, and we see Joseph off.
Next, we start JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders. This part is set in Japan in the late 1980s, where Joseph's grandson Jotaro Kujo steps into the spotlight. Unlike the gentlemanly Jonathan and the bombastic Joseph, Jotaro is a deeply reserved, intelligent, and cunning 17-year-old whose current rebellious phase disguises his gentler nature. Distant and intensely internal, we only get glimpses of his interior world through the subtle moments of growth from a fiery, foul-mouthed delinquent to a thoughtful, expressive friend and finally to a battle-hardened tactician. And —
Well, let's put a pin in that for now.
There's a few other things I want to talk about first.
In hindsight, I can see what led me to that theme [of JoJo's as a paean of humanity]. When JoJo was just starting to be serialized, my grandfather passed away, and it made me think about how people die, but that some part of us is left behind to be passed on to the following generations. East of Eden, a work I deeply admired, also dealt with the theme of connections across generations, and at the time, everyone was talking about Roots, the American drama series. On the surface, the series appeared to be about slavery and racial discrimination, but as I watched it, I thought it was at heart a story about a family. When I started JoJo, I wanted to write about a battle between good and evil, but these influences led me to make my series about passing the torch.
Hirohiko Araki, Manga in Theory and Practice, Page 171
A great deal of ink has been spilt over JoJo's Bizarre Adventure over the thirty-five years since Phantom Blood. You're most likely to hear about the very obvious and oft-discussed references to musical artists, songs, or albums. You'll definitely hear about Araki's love of fashion and how he incorporates fashion and modeling into the iconic poses his characters strike. Someone will eventually tell you about the influence of Italian art, sculpture, and architecture on Araki's work, and how he claims to have found his style while traveling in Italy. It's impossible to talk about Giorno Giovanna or Gyro Zeppeli without it.
Somewhat less likely as an outsider to the franchise, you might hear about JoJo's themes. It is a battle manga, wherein highly skilled, supernaturally endowed fighters engage in increasingly elaborate, frequently reality-bending fights. From the use of the magical martial arts skills of Hamon in Parts 1 and 2 to the soul-powered avatars known as Stands in Part 3 and beyond, JoJo's is about fighting in every connotation a fight can take. Each act hinges on the latest JoJo cultivating a ragtag group of companions with whom he or she battles the physical, psychological, and existential threat posed to that generation.
The villains in JoJo's may begin with Dio's generic evil-doing escapades but evolve into uniquely terrifying forces as the series progresses. Although rarely strictly evil or without some shade of nuance to their philosophies, each new threat generally represents a rejection of our essential humanity. Kars of Part 2's Pillar Men assumed genetic ascension as the most perfect lifeform, endowed with incomprehensible power used to destroy those he saw as lesser. Part 3 saw the awakening of the immortal Dio after a hundred-year nightmare at the bottom of the sea, amassing an army of Stand users to enact his revenge on an unsuspecting world.
Part 4's Yoshikage Kira was a calculating serial killer who brutalized women as part of his systematic rejection of the human community and his connection to it. Armed with his bomber Stand, Killer Queen, Kira wanted to fade away into the background. Seen but never noticed, because anyone looking too closely would see the annihilating force behind his placid smile. Part 5's Diavolo took that idea to the logical extreme as a man determined to cut himself off from humanity. He isolated himself and erased his own identity and every remaining tether to the outside world, attempting to take his family, his daughter, with him. Love can hurt you, so Diavolo rejected love. His Stand, King Crimson, was like a tyrannical god who bends time to his will and the only Stand to ever legitimately scare the crap out of me.
Part 6's Father Enrico Pucci, acolyte and lover of Dio, took up the late vampire lord and self-proclaimed philosopher king's gospel. While Pucci's motivations were mired in regret and loss, he followed Dio in a bid to reshape humanity to fit their shared vision of its ultimate potential. The priest emerged as the most sympathetic and engaging of the antagonists I spent my time with. He was certainly the most powerful though not the most terrifying. Pucci didn't need to be scary — he just needed to be a man willing to do terrible things to beloved characters to achieve his goals.
Yet, in each part, humanity prevailed. The bonds between those who stand against evil and strive to do right even as they are slapped down by the forces of fate itself are far stronger than the power of those who seek to destroy. Love, conviction, and resolve triumph in the end, no matter how greatly the heroes suffer on their path or how much they lose. At its core, and as stated by Araki himself, JoJo's is a text that sets out to reaffirm the essential goodness of the human soul and the boundless potential of its spirit.
And that's very…nice, I think. Very sweet. Very easy to glean. It's a weekly battle manga, after all. In the six original parts, it certainly built up to that. Each step of the journey, each branch of the family tree, expanded on these ideas with a new generation at the forefront. From Jonathan through Jolyne, skipping through the centuries to provide a new set of characters and ideas for Araki to explore, culminating in the world-shattering finale of Stone Ocean.
But that's not what attracts me to JoJo's.
For me, JoJo's is about the generosity of storytelling. Araki invites you into his world like he invites you into his book on manga. You are there to watch him work. Expectations must be left at the door. Araki's goal as a writer and artist is to follow his creative vision to its peculiar, idiosyncratic ends, wherever that may take him. Through research, travel, and an innate curiosity about the wider world, he is going to tell the story that he is inspired to tell. You are given the gift of watching him create.
Each part is an open door. A snapshot of a moment in time. Music, film, manga, fashion, culture, all mixing and remixing unique aesthetics and allusions. It's a faded Polaroid picture. A friend's warm embrace. A lazy summer day. A slow goodbye. A rainbow shimmering in the rearview mirror before it vanishes. The tenuous connections between a family that sprawled out across the globe, their contours left largely unexplored due to the manga's anthologized structure, and left to the reader to make of them what they will.
There's an improvisational verve to the series as a whole. Because each part follows its own individual conceptual and thematic goals, the timeline and characterizations are plastic. Araki's willingness to reinterpret his characters and explore different facets of their world without the burden of deeply entrenched lore is playful, if sometimes frustrating. What he decided to do with Josuke in Part 4 by making him Joseph's illegitimate son retroactively recontextualizes how I view Joseph and his relationship to his family in Part 3. The later thematic depth granted to Dio in Parts 6 and 7, and especially in the supplemental light novel Over Heaven by Nisio Isin, allows me to get more out of Giorno's thematic arc in Part 5.
And Jotaro is —
We'll get to that in a bit.
JoJo's a living, evolving creature, building forward into the future with each part while simultaneously reaching back into its past. Characters age. Change. Become something you can't predict because Araki adheres to his own creative mandate rather than reader expectation. They disappear if you're lucky. They can disappoint you if you're not. Many of them die and those left behind mourn their losses. The dead leave holes behind in JoJo's world in a way we don't see but always, always feel. You aren't allowed to hold these characters too tightly. You were given this one precious adventure, and now you have to live with it inside you like the characters do as they slip away between the endpapers at the end of the book.
Unless…you can't. And that's the irony of JoJo's, isn't it? You go in with this understanding that each part is radically different. That's the point, you're told. Any part of JoJo's can be your personally understood version of JoJo's. Your platonic ideal. Your perfect JoJo's part may be Part 2: Battle Tendency for the fun and adventure, or Part 5: Golden Wind for the tightly-wound narrative and weighty themes. Mine just happens to be Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable because I fell in love with the crazy little town of Morioh.
It's a series of insular stories with different protagonists due to the expanse of land, culture, and time between them. But these characters do meet, of course. Their tenuous connections remain beyond the finite chapters of their lives. They are a family and this is a story about family, friendship, and the strength of our connective bonds, both through blood and battle. Erina and Speedwagon are carried from Part 1 into Part 2, Joseph from 2 into 3 and 4, Jotaro from 3 through the rest of the series. Those connections extend into the world and create new pathways for other characters, but they also facilitate cycles.
Araki loves these characters. He wants you to know that.
Whether he wants you to know that some of them will hurt you, they will.
The character that best embodies that also just happens to be my favorite character, of course. He just isn't my favorite character for the reasons you probably think.
If you're always able to maintain interest in something, and you can keep your antennae poised to pick up on — and react with openness to — the occurrences around you, you won't run out of ideas. The key word there, and what I hope you'll make efforts toward, is "openness." You mustn't restrict your attention to only things that interest you; that sort of conceit must be avoided.
Hirohiko Araki, Manga in Theory and Practice, Page 180
The other thing about JoJo's is that it isn't over. After Stone Ocean, there is Steel Ball Run. After that, JoJolion. The anime has ended its decade-long adaptation of the first six, main timeline parts with the conclusion of Stone Ocean and the Joestar family story. Generally speaking, there's a split between those who know JoJo's carries on because they read the manga and those who have only seen the anime. The real reason for that split runs deeper than mere preference and has more to do with the fact that huge portions of the manga series have yet to receive official translations and paperback releases. I can't really fault people for not reading in that case.
I haven't gotten to JoJolion yet. It's waiting for me in January when I get my thoughts together. I recently wrapped up my read of Steel Ball Run, which is why my thoughts still aren't together. The thing you most likely heard about Steel Ball Run is that it's Araki's masterpiece. While I can't say for sure at this point in my reading, the argument has credence. The brisk, brutal, and truly eccentric Steel Ball Run is a visual feast. It is a cannonball of joyously unfettered creativity fired directly at your brain stem. A colorful cacophony of imagery and ideology, held together by the glue of its wonderfully weird and flawed protagonists, Johnny Joestar and Gyro Zeppeli.
It's also set in an alternate timeline where all the characters we know and love are gone. Or other people. Or fused together to make even more people. Or just use other people's catch phrases. This universe is…different. Beautiful and bizarre, but it's a different kind of JoJo's for an author at a different stage in his life.
I think Steel Ball Run is the best thing I've read in the series up until this point.
But it doesn't…feel the same.
That's okay. I have come along until now, taking the invitation to simply sit with the work on its own terms. To take it as it comes. I will continue to follow Araki because he has yet to go anywhere that I cannot follow.
After Stone Ocean, the road just feels a little empty. I struggled with that feeling during my time with Steel Ball Run. It is a fantastic read and a hell of a ride that should absolutely be experienced. There's just something holding me back compared to the rest of my time with the main timeline parts.
Now I think I know why. And it has less to do with Steel Ball Run and more to do with the nature of ideals.
The advancement of culture and art is a living process.
Hirohiko Araki, Manga in Theory and Practice, Page 224
I think I would be remiss to dedicate however many thousands of words this ends up being to fawning praise of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure without mentioning any criticisms. If you are in any way familiar with the series, you probably have heard some of the common fan critiques. Let's just say the phrase "Araki Forgot" is likely to trigger some eye rolling and rude comments in the circles I run in. But given that the manga has been running for nearly 40 years, told from a singular authorial viewpoint, we've had a lot of time to sit with the author's biases and blindspots.
As hard as Araki works to render fully real and empathetic characters, he relies on a lot of cultural stereotypes and caricature. Referring to the process of creating Part 3's Mohammad Avdol, who is an absolute gem and a fan favorite (this fan included), as drawing him in an "ethnic" way in his own manga philosophy book speaks to that. What results is this careless mishmash of cultures and aesthetics from across Middle Eastern and North African regions, despite Avdol being a fun, ridiculously cool character with some of the best moments in the storyline.
Truly fascinating characters, such Part 7's Indigenous supporting character Soundman or Part 6's Black Italian-American antagonist Enrico Pucci, are given textured stories and motivations. Yet, they are approached as racist caricatures in the case of Soundman, or in completely baffling ways where race and American white supremacy are concerned in the case of Pucci. You can tell that Araki cares about his characters and wants to explore concepts of racism, colonialism, and injustice with a humanistic lens, but his biases and assumptions about these concepts remain uninterrogated throughout the text.
To directly quote my friend Adam Windstorm (@neo_humanoid on Twitter) on the subject of Soundman and Indigenous representation when I asked about other readers' thoughts on race in JoJo's:
Soundman is an absolutely incredible attempt at Native representation because he is simultaneously one of the most racist goddamn characters in the whole franchise and also earnestly cool, empathetically rendered, and clearly coming from a place of genuine understanding.
The biggest criticism I can level against JoJo's is that mere compassion for one's subject has its limitations.
I have similar feelings about Araki's approach to women and young girls, especially on the subject of sexual violence. Part 7's Lucy Steel is most emblematic of that for me, but what I say about her can be easily applied to other instances throughout the series. (Perhaps Part 3's Strength arc with Anne/Runaway Girl is more egregious, but that was a single instance and A Bad Idea All Around and I have nothing more to add to that.) It's that benevolent sort of sexism, the kind that just hums along in the background. The sort of thing that allows for dynamic women characters, but lets you have your cake and eat it too when it comes to sexual politics.
Lucy is a pure and innocent 14-year-old who's married off by her father to the middle-aged oil tycoon, Steven Steel. She is also drawn as an adult in the same playfully sexy way that 20-something characters Johnny and Gyro are, and virtually all JoJo's characters are heretofore. Thrust into a series of deadly and impossible situations to save Steven (who cherishes her as a companion and is definitely not grooming her, the text assures us), Lucy must evade superpowered assassins and varying degrees of sexual predation by the President of the United States and the First Lady in the process. Only the attempted rape by the President is treated as a legitimate threat, while the latter (admittedly bizarre and out-of-left-field) encounter with his wife is played off as a silly gag.
It's…not great, but in a way that feels more undercooked than anything else. I won't say lazy because Araki is not lazy. It's just predictable.
Lucy is a compelling character who goes to some weird and interesting places throughout her arc in Steel Ball Run. I don't think sexual violence should be shied away from or decried in storytelling. And I understand that it's hard to dock points for Araki drawing the teenage Lucy with the same kind of exaggerated adult fashion model poses he gave the other teen characters, such as Giorno and Josuke. It's a fantasy. Everyone is impossibly powerful, capable, and cool. This means they move with the otherworldly sensuality and poise of fashion models, from which Araki reverently draws great inspiration. Age doesn't really matter to their stories beyond whether the characters have to go to school or live with their parents.
But there's only so many times you can draw a topless teen bride hiding her adult breasts or riding a horse in a very tiny bikini in your cover illustrations and promotional material before I can assume that some things just aren't being teased out here. Josuke and Giorno never strip down to their tiny underwear or tight pants and playfully cover themselves for an intrigued audience, but Lucy does. Her age matters in a way that it doesn't for other characters because it's remarked upon frequently. It's made a part of her story, from the general apprehension surrounding her marriage to Steven to the threat of physical and sexual violation that she repeatedly faces.
Moreover, while admittedly giving Araki a lot of grace here, her presentation of sexuality (yes, teen girls do have sexualities) doesn't feel natural or embodied the way it does for other characters. Johnny and Gyro get to play up the inherent sensuality and queerness of their androgynous designs and intense physical and personal intimacy. Their exaggerated poses celebrate the love between men, the way Joseph and Caesar's poses did before them. Lucy, who has a seeming lesbian awakening right before her encounter with the First Lady, gets her queerness played as a confusing gag and swept aside so she can go back to Steven.
Yes, Araki gave us lesbian icon Lisa Lisa back in Battle Tendency, but I still have my gripes.
In keeping with the tradition of 60-something Japanese artists and craftsmen I admire who are old enough to be my fathers, I get why these things are on the page. It just doesn't serve me to pretend that they aren’t there. It also doesn't afford Araki his due agency as a person and an artist to refuse his inherent complexity by committing some good old-fashioned American paternalism because "It's Japan." My man Araki is a widely celebrated, beloved, and commercially successful artist in his own lifetime. He can take a few on the chin from a fan with a newsletter.
What was I talking about again?
I want this book to be a kind of map in which are recorded the many different roads to manga.
It's a map for climbing undiscovered mountains. It's a map for exploring underdeveloped and undiscovered lands.
It's a map to bring you home alive when it's time for you to advance, but on the way you got lost, or became unsure, or lost sight of the path, or ran into walls or cliffs. Come back to this golden path, rest yourself, calm your thoughts and find clarity, then keep going onward.
This book was written to be that map. (Even if it might only be written for one person, somewhere out there.)
It's my deepest wish that this book will as a good map for all who read it.
Hirohiko Araki, Manga in Theory and Practice, Page 225
About that ending.
Stone Ocean is…a lot. It was the hardest storyline to read and the hardest to watch. And by that, I mean I think I mostly hated the anime adaptation. But then I loved it. But then it put a rock in my gut. But then I was looking forward to seeing the final batch of episodes drop.
Even though I knew it was going to hurt.
The same way I knew reading the manga was going to hurt.
And it did.
The Stone Ocean manga suffers from pacing issues which the anime adaptation inherits, although it tries to smooth them out. I feel like some of the characters in the supporting cast aren't particularly well-defined. Some of the relationships between characters aren't particularly developed, either. I get a better read on Jolyne's dynamics with Weather Report, F.F., and Emporio than I do for her with Ermes or Anasui. That's rough, given that Ermes is the supporting character we spend the most time with and Anasui ends up as Jolyne's canonical love interest. The brisk, battle-heavy nature of JoJo's makes this a recurring problem for the series as a whole, but it just doesn't feel like the quirky, tight-knit group of previous JoJo's parts.
(Also, somehow Weather Report and Anasui have better chemistry together than Jolyne and Anasui do. I mean, I personally think Jolyne should have ended up with Weather Report if she had to end up with anyone, so if the answer is “Everyone just dates Weather Report,” I won't fight you.)
Stone Ocean was also the JoJo's part that I was most looking forward to once we were in the swing of things, looking up who was who and which parts they appeared in. Of all the JoJos, Jolyne intrigued me the most because she was the most direct descendant in terms of family lineage. Joseph was Jonathan's grandson, Jotaro Joseph's grandson, with Josuke and Giorno each sidewinding in and out of the family, the furthest removed from it. Jolyne was Jotaro's daughter and the only woman protagonist so far. It made me excited to dig into Part 3: Stardust Crusaders and see who her father was.
It made me all the more excited to find out that Jotaro was the character who appeared most frequently throughout the series. He first appeared as a 17-year-old in the late '80s and then carried through to Josuke's story at 28, then again at around 30 or 31 during Giorno's story. By the time we see him again, he was 40 in his daughter's storyline. I thought that was so fascinating, to get to see this character grow and change over 20 years through the different legs of the family's journey. To see him and his daughter, who looked like this perfect distillation of popular early 2000s girlhood and teendom. The rainbows, the butterflies, the extremely millennial fashion, the wild neon string powers and the Stand who was so impossibly cool she had sunglasses permanently attached to her face.
The covers of the manga presented Jolyne in lock-up, a call-back to her father's introduction as a teen delinquent in Part 3. They also presented her with Jotaro, sitting on her father's shoulders or clinging to his back for a piggyback ride. It was playful. It was dynamic. A rare father/daughter team up between equally tenacious and powerful Stand users, with Jolyne inheriting her father's Rule of Cool attitude without sacrificing the femininity or individuality of her design.
And wow, did Stone Ocean kick me in the gut and leave me on the side of the road. Because this is JoJo's, and the rule of JoJo's is you can't have expectations. Expectations will only hamper your ability to engage with the work on its terms.
The thing is — my deal with JoJo's is — that I failed that test. I got my feelings hurt. And I'm glad that I did. The other thing is, just as you have been reading an essay on Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, you have also been secretly reading an essay about Jotaro this entire time. Because, to me, Jojo's Bizarre Adventure is Jotaro Kujo. There is no other way to describe what it means to me. He is the story and my connection to it.
Jotaro is complicated for all the reasons that he isn't. As the titular JoJo of Part 3: Stardust Crusaders, he is Joseph's grandson and Jonathan's great, great grandson. Everything about him speaks to that legacy, inheriting the Joestar resolve and righteousness in his Stand, Star Platinum. From the manga and anime to various video games and the ill-fated early 1990s OVA, Jotaro is the face of JoJo's. The de facto mascot character. He's powerful. He's cool. He's a badass. He's sexy. He drops a "Yare yare daze" on the bad guys like they're dirt on his shoe before effortlessly pummeling their faces in.
But he mostly just breaks my goddamn heart.
Jotaro is…special. I don't know how else to explain it. He is a sweet-natured mama's boy who grew up with an absent father, but then hauled off and decided he wanted to be a badass when he hit 16 or 17. There's no clear indication of why Jotaro ended up a delinquent, but as delinquents go, he isn't very convincing. He's foul-mouthed and rude, but the adults don't take it particularly seriously. He's hit on by girls at school and it annoys him because they're loud. He gets upset when the powerful exploit or terrorize the weak. He cusses at his mother, but still hopes for her kiss on his cheek every morning before school. He gets into fights, but during the scuffle that awakes his Stand, the resulting violence scares him so much he refuses to leave his jail cell at the police station even when he's released. While in lock up, he becomes convinced that Star Platinum is an evil possessing spirit, and uses his Stand to retrieve books on demonic possession to find a way to banish it.
He even steals a gun from one of the police at the station and shoots himself in the head to prove that Star Platinum is real before the Stand catches the bullet. Yes, it's just a badass thing to do, but I think there's a little more to it than just looking cool. Stands are a reflection of their Users as an extension of their souls. Not only does Star Platinum protect Jotaro in physical altercations, he does everything that Jotaro asks, filling his cell with books, trinkets, and entertainment. Moreover, Star Platinum protects Jotaro from his own violence. Jotaro would rather be locked up than risk hurting anyone, and will risk hurting himself to prove the danger of his own Stand — his own potential for violence. And even in the face of that violent nature, Star Platinum always reads to me as a protective, reactive force rather than an outwardly destructive or violent one. It's such a small, random detail to include in the opening chapters of the storyline, but it says so much to me about the character.
When Jotaro's mother Holly falls ill as a response to Dio's presence awakening the family's Stand powers (just go with it), he teams up with Joseph to kill Dio before the sickness takes Holly. The false bravado begins to wane. Once Jotaro has his ass handed to him by an adult in a fight with a Stand called Dark Blue Moon, something changes in him. The edgy persona cobbled together from action movies and imitation is abandoned as his true nature begins to shine through. Most of it comes down to Araki getting a handle on Jotaro's character and figuring out how to fully distinguish him from Joseph, but I still find it so compelling to watch the changes in his personality subtly unfold.
Jotaro is stand-offish and quiet, but he makes awkward jokes with his friend Kakyoin. He hangs in the background and closely observes situations before he speaks. He befriends a 12-year-old runaway girl and slowly warms up to Joseph. He silently consoles a heartbroken Polnareff. He says bad one-liners to bad guys yet is willing to degrade or humiliate himself if it saves someone else. He talks about sumo wrestling and solves problems with math and science whenever the opportunity arises. He isn't good at video games but he likes baseball. He apparently smokes five cigarettes at once to impress his friends at some point. His favorite color is transparent.
I'm saying he's a dork. A little cheeky, a little rude, but a dork.
His anger and bad attitude melts into this stubborn resolve and unflinching loyalty to his friends and family. He appears to have some trouble talking to people and would generally rather be by himself, but he cares so much that he risks life, limb, and dignity for others at every turn. It's stated in his character profile that he doesn't emote because he thinks he already is and that surely people can tell what he's feeling. It shows. His silence is a given. Jotaro assumes his somewhat convoluted logic and thought processes are clear to everyone else. While it's never stated or alluded to, it's a common sort of shared reading to interpret Jotaro as autistic. This interpretation carries a lot of weight in online circles that I'm around, especially since some of his early anger or outbursts can be read as responses to people being too loud, touching him too much, or otherwise just overwhelming him.
As I'm not autistic, I can't personally speak to that reading. Several people have discussed it with me and I find their interpretations really interesting. But I also just find his character so fascinating for all the ways his social quirks and abstractions in logical thinking are taken totally at face value. He's seen as stand-offish, but once characters get to know him, they accept his turns of silence and awkwardness. Jotaro isn't a typical dumb jock with a heart of gold or a stock delinquent with a secret soft spot. He's a deeply internal person who's given his space and treated with respect.
Then the Crusaders get to Cairo.
Most of Jotaro's friends are brutally slaughtered by Dio and his henchmen. The final fight breaks Jotaro. Dio kills Joseph, whose loss Jotaro does not accept and quite literally brute forces his way through in order to get his grandfather back. There's….just a way that Araki draws Jotaro in the final fight with Dio. A fissure in this boy pretending to be a man, and pretending to be a hard one, at that. All he can do is go home to his mother. All he can do is bury his friends.
But he doesn't like that answer.
When we next see Jotaro again, he's 28. In the intervening years, Jotaro finished high school and pursued a career in science. He appears in Morioh to meet Josuke Higashikata when he's already an accomplished oceanographer. Now Jotaro is quiet, calm, and collected, serving as an older brother and mentor to Josuke and his goofy little friends. They look up to him.
Adult Jotaro would much rather sit down with a non-fiction book and enjoy some tea than get into hijinks. He still seems to have trouble with eye contact and social situations, but he makes the effort no matter how awkwardly. While Jotaro's there for the summer getting to know Josuke and becoming embroiled in the hunt for Kira, we come to find that he also wrote and published a research paper on a local starfish population. He earned his teaching certification in the process. Jotaro is now a professor of marine biology.
He beats the piss out of a supernaturally empowered serial killer, and also becomes a professor at the same time. That's just delightful. What a fun thing to work into your story.
We don't know this yet in Part 4, because Araki hasn't planned this part until later, but Jotaro got married and had a daughter while still in college. He has a family we don't see until Part 6, and only in bits and pieces of memory. Knowing that now colors what we saw and knew of him then.
While juggling a family and career, he spent every waking moment that he could hunting down anyone with powers to rival Dio's. It consumed him and his family. It cost him that family. Just mentioning the name Dio triggers a deep traumatic response in him. He doesn't train the time-stopping powers he gained in the fight with Dio because even that, his own instincts as a Stand user, are tied to that trauma. That break in him, put there by Dio, continues to splinter like cracks in a mirror.
When we next see Jotaro, he's sending his protege Koichi to Italy to spy on Giorno, the bizarre amalgamation of Jonathan and Dio who the vampire lord sired through the attachment of his severed head to Jonathan's reanimated body. (I know, I know, just roll with it.) Concerned that Giorno could be a threat, the still traumatized Jotaro seems unable to confront Giorno himself, even as he wrestles with the reality of what he might have to do about that threat. He lets Giorno go, but the question weighs on him, as do the losses that still shape the person he has become.
And then there's Stone Ocean, where we find out that Jotaro divorced his wife and left his daughter behind without an explanation when Jolyne was at least 14. To stay meant to tempt fate as Dio's acolytes and other powerful Stand users remained in the wind, waiting to take down the Crusader who defeated the vampire lord. His grown daughter hates him. He appears totally absent from and disinterested in her life from her perspective. And all of it, all of his sacrifice and his family's suffering, was for nothing. Fate comes for Jolyne the way it came for him when she's imprisoned on trumped up charges to draw him out of hiding. In trying to save her, he plays right into Pucci's hands.
But then we see him again, the dim shadow of the boy from Part 3, this tired impression of the astute academic and mentor from Part 4 and 5. He has been alone for so long and struggles so hard to articulate his feelings to Jolyne, because he doesn't seem to understand why she's so angry. He seems so alien and strange, so inside his own head. He isn't cruel or preoccupied, he just seems…lost.
Jolyne wanted a father. She still wants a father. She wants him to save her now, at 19, when he couldn't save her at 14 when she got into trouble for stealing a car. Jotaro can't do that for her. He thinks she doesn't need him because she's a Joestar and she's strong enough on her own. That his role is unnecessary because he has nothing to give her that she doesn't already possess. And then she has to save him, when his powers and memories are stolen by Pucci to clear the way for Dio's future. By coming to understand her father when he isn't there to speak for himself, because he never understood that she couldn't understand him, she steels herself against the threats he failed to shield her from.
When Jotaro comes back for Jolyne in the end, they seem to finally understand each other with a few looks, a few meaningful touches. He tells her that she's grown, by which he means in her Stand abilities, and runs every decision and observation past her because he trusts her and respects her judgment. She is his equal. It makes the breakdown of communication between them, the failure of spoken language itself, seem so much less important. She steps into her power and her legacy as a Joestar, and he expresses his love for and admiration of her in the only way that he knows how to. It isn't perfect, yet it is a form of understanding they were never able to achieve.
But this is JoJo's. Jotaro dies protecting Jolyne from Pucci, overcome by a vile and traumatic reenactment of his own fight with Dio. He stops time just long enough to save her from an onslaught of blades, yet he is two steps too slow. That's the way it's always been for him — just two steps behind Dio. Otherwise, he could have saved everyone. Otherwise, this never would have happened.
Everyone dies in the end, but they come back. This time, this one time, everyone comes back. The universe that Pucci and Dio stove to create is too flawed, too ill-conceived to live. It resets and everyone is born again, but fate is ever so slightly forgiving of the Joestars this time. Everything is the same but the ripples through time and space have made it so that Jolyne doesn't have to be a JoJo. She's Irene now. Her parents still seem to be divorced but she has a good relationship with her father. She's on her way to see Jotaro when the story ends, in fact. This time, with the odds ever so slightly more in his favor, he found a way to be her father.
That is Stone Ocean to me.
That is JoJo's Bizarre Adventure to me.
A father and a daughter at the end of the world, trying to understand one another. To have the relationship that fate ripped from them. JoJo's isn't that in its totality, but in all its small intricate parts, how could it not be? How could it not all build to this, from Jonathan's sacrifice to now? Jonathan couldn't be there for his children because Dio took that opportunity from him, setting up cycles of absent fathers throughout the ensuing generations. But Jotaro gets a second chance. Everything can be washed away and made new, just this once.
Jolyne is a flawed yet fitting mirror of Jonathan's plight as the centuries barrel down on her and she carries her family's weight on her back. Just like Jotaro had to, shouldering the burdens he fought to shield her from, unable to even explain why. Jotaro, who is the glue that holds so much of the story together. Whose triumph over Dio wasn't enough. He functions as the torch bearer, passing the role of JoJo to Josuke, to Giorno, and finally to Jolyne. Then Jotaro's story…ends. Because the Joestar family story ends, buried in the warm Florida earth at the end of Stone Ocean. In the span of January to December, I see everything in this character's life, from the page to the screen, and then he's gone.
Jotaro Kujo stole my heart, broke it, and then kicked my ass for crying about it.
And he made me want to write.
I mean, write. Drop what I was doing, throw myself into a project and tear through a story right now, right now kind of write. Out of nowhere, all I wanted to do was tell stories about complicated fathers and daughters, their families and their legacies. I wanted to process the emotional rollercoaster of Jotaro's life and Jolyne's struggle to understand him in my own way, through my own lens. My own ideas. My own experiences. Just like Manga in Theory and Practice was designed to help artists craft better comics, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure felt like it was designed to teach me how to get excited about writing again.
In May, I outlined a loose idea for a serial called A Coffin For Sparrows. It's a globe-trotting story about a family of assassins and spies. It's also a story about fathers and daughters. Generations of parents and children, attempting to understand each other and grapple with horrific decisions made out of love.
By August, I wrote 100k words of it.
At time of writing, I'm working on some major rewrites and revisions for the first part.
Because of course it's in parts. Six parts. Maybe more.
I wouldn't be here without JoJo's.
I wouldn't be writing this without JoJo's.
I wish I had read it sooner, but I'm glad that I waited for the right time.
The ninth part of the manga and the finale of the current alternate timeline trilogy, titled JoJolands, begins serialization in February of 2023.
I have no idea what to expect.
I'm going to keep my mind and heart open, as I try to finish my sprint through JoJo's with JoJolion.
I will see you on the other side.
For anyone who wants more in-depth discussions on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and its themes, Oceaniz made a really good video essay on the topic. He goes much further into each part and discusses their respective themes with more clarity than I do here. There’s a lot of overlap in my assessment and his, so please refer to him as he has created a lot of really engaging and thoughtful content on JoJo’s over the years.
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