30 in 30: Stardust Crusaders

The year is 1983. A seafaring crew deep in the Atlantic pulls up a mysterious cargo along with their usual haul of fish to their boat – a dark, jewel-encrusted coffin. Thinking that they’ve hit it big, the men decide to crack the box open. But what they find inside isn’t wealth and fortune: it’s a century-old vampire, ready to reclaim his place as ruler of humanity.

Dio has returned.

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Yes, Jojo’s Bizarre Part 3: Stardust Crusaders is all but a direct sequel to Phantom Blood. We’ll go into the importance of Battle Tendency shortly, but Crusaders picks up with the same main villain and a tone more akin to the first arc.

This time our protagonist is Jotaro Kujo, grandson of Joseph Joestar. He is a high school delinquent, known for his gruff personality and no-nonsense attitude. We meet him as his mother, Holly, calls in his grandfather to free him from his self-imposed jail cell, as he believes himself to be possessed by an “evil spirit” which helped him beat down four opponents and now prevents him from harming himself. When Jotaro continues his refusal to leave his imprisonment, Joseph lets his latest ally, Muhammad Avdol take the lead, and he unleashes a powerful flaming phoenix after the young man, trying to drag him out. This forces Jotaro’s “possessor” to reveal itself as a looming, muscular purple man, and the two spirits do battle. Joseph explains that these apparitions are manifestations of the user’s strong willpower, called Stands, and they are allies, not beings to be feared.

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This change in the Jojo’s power dynamic heralds perhaps the most important shift in the series’ structure. Araki explained during an interview back around the time of the 25th anniversary that his idea for Stands came when he was discussing the initial concept for Stardust Crusaders with his editor. He was trying to explain a new application of Hamon, where the fighter (I would assume Jotaro, though Araki never explicitly stated the character in question) lashed out with a ripple-energy blast. The editor had issues visualizing how this worked, and Araki made the motions again and again saying, “It’s a punch, like a ghost punch, with Hamon.” But it just wasn’t getting through. Eventually, it dawned on him that these “ghost punches” should just become separate entities – thus Stands (the name derived from the idea of “a figure which stands behind you, sort of like a nightstand) were born. You can even see this idea alive in the Kanji used, which is comprised of characters roughly translated to “ghostly ripple,” or Yuuhamon.

We’ll go more in-depth on this in a later installment of 30 in 30, but it should be pretty clear that super-powered beings are more adaptable than everyone being energy-wielding monks. With this simple, almost accidental change, Araki insured that he could continue to innovate in ways that continue to astound not only his readers, but even himself, even twenty years on. He also made sure that Stands play by a few rules: One person can only have one Stand. The power of the Stand is inversely proportional to its range (i.e. its ability to move independently from its user). Stands can only be seen by other Stand users and can only be harmed by another Stand, and any harm to one will be reflected proportionally onto the user. There are, of course, variations on these rules, but rarely, if ever, exceptions, even throughout the proceeding arcs. Anyways, with that primer out of the way, let’s talk more about characters and plot.

So once Jotaro is released, Joseph catches him and Holly up to speed on the issue with Dio, their family’s age-old rival, and the great lengths the Speedwagon Foundation has gone to help them track him down and end the threat. Unfortunately, his resurgence has given rise to Stand powers in those powerful enough to wield them, and as they can be genetic and Dio now inhabits Jonathan’s body, this means that Joseph and Jotaro are exhibiting signs. Joseph shows off his Hermit Purple – a purple, vine-like stand which wraps around his arm, giving him a Spider-Man-like reach, but also gives him light clairvoyance… but only when he destroys Polaroid cameras.tumblr_neu93gznkb1t1f0t5o2_400

Things only get worse when they return home, and Holly falls ill… Seems she’s now manifesting a similar Stand to that of her father, but as she doesn’t have the mental will to control it, it is destroying her body. So now the stakes are set – The crew must head to Dio’s hideout in Egypt, defeat him, and thereby stop the infecting spirit taking over Jotaro’s mother.

Along the way, the trio add several other Stand users to their party – Noriaki Kakyoin and his Heirophant Green, Jean-Pierre Polnareff and Silver Chariot, and eventually the dog, Iggy, is sent by the Speedwagon Foundation to aid them, and reveals his sand-based power, The Fool. Each of them adds a welcome addition to the team, as Jotaro’s firm-jawed justice pairs well against Polnareff’s more playful personality and chivalric code of conduct, or Kakyoin’s graceful fighting style and calculated attacks juxtaposed to Joseph’s tricky use of his seemingly non-combative abilities and brawny, street fighting. Every character in the crew is fully realized, and each has time to play off of the other. Even Iggy, though a dog and dropped in halfway into the arc, has his own personality and purpose, and we know what matters to him, what he would fight and die for.

Now let’s take a minute to talk villains: and there are a LOT of them this time. Stardust Crusaders, unlike the previous two arcs, is written much more in a villain-of-the-week style. Every few chapters or nearly every episode of the anime is dedicated to a single enemy and how the team overcomes their Stand. As opposed to Dio and his mooks in Part 1 or the three Pillar Men in Part 2, Crusaders has a roster of 25 enemies, including our main man, himself. Oh, and did I mention Kakyoin and Polnareff are introduced as mind-controlled fighters for Dio? So rack up an extra two, plus some scrubs and throw-aways… yeah, we near thirty villains in this arc. Some of them are trash, sure, but there are definitely the standouts (pun not intended), including Rubber Soul and his Yellow Temperance, Steely Dan and the Lovers, J. Geil (whom Polnareff has a personal vendetta for, after murdering his sister) and his ominous Hanged Man, fan-favorite Hol Horse and Emperor… and that’s not even getting into the star-studded second act that is the Egyptian Gods Stand users.

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Oh, yeah, did that throw you off a bit? Let’s back track. Yes, we’ve touched on how weird Jojo’s names can be, and Stardust Crusaders throws us yet another loop. You see, this arc starts off fair enough – our characters are stealing their names from famous acts, with references to ZZ Top, Devo, Vanilla Ice (Oh yeah, it gets really fun, kids), and plenty more. But on this first outing, Araki chose to name the powers after the various cards of the Tarot deck, i.e. the Star, the Fool, the Hermit, etc. Once he ran out of those, he decided to go back to where he drew inspiration for much of the arc – Egypt – and named the remaining Stands after old gods. So we get Osiris, Geb, Horus, Bastet, Set, Khnum, Thoth, Anubis, and Atum. And also Cream. Just because “Vanilla Ice and Cream” is apparently funny or something, I’m not sure. Obviously Araki would have to mix up this formula later, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

And if all of this feels sort of familiar to you, like a video game plot… that’s because it is! Araki, himself, has stated that he intended to write Stardust Crusaders much in the way of big, globe-trotting video game epics like those that he was playing at the time. He loved these big, multi-ethnic team-up stories that saw protagonists venture around the world to take on a monstrous threat while fighting weird and wacky minor villains along the way, and that was the kind of story he wanted to emulate. It makes the adventure a little light on its face, but I think that it gives it a little extra polish, once you have that in the back of your mind. Plus, it makes the design of the Stands even more interesting. I don’t want to go into this too deeply yet (especially as it’s a subject I want to really examine later), but suffice it to say, I think Araki shows a real knack for game design and balance in his work with the way he structures his fights and the rules he puts on his powers and world, in general. He makes the stakes real, and tries his best not to let things run too far out of hand by giving himself good restrictions.

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Stardust Crusaders is likely the version of Jojo’s most readers are aware of, and it’s likely the entry point for the majority of its fans. It got an OVA back in the early 90s that was moderately faithful and saw a limited release in the States. It follows most closely to the basic Shonen style that makes it easily picked up by anyone in those circles, and you don’t have to have any prior knowledge of the series to really dive in. This arc also arrived in the late 80s with that “mega badassitude”-style right before it started to explode around the anime and comic book scene, so that makes it even more appealing to the casual observer.

So where do I sit with it? Honestly… I have to say Crusaders is on the low-end for me. I do enjoy it, and the anime adaptation certainly bumped it up, but not enough to displace any of my higher-ranked arcs. The hyper-machismo just doesn’t cut it for me, and this version of Jotaro is just a little to one-note power fantasy for my book. It’s hard not to love more Joseph, Kakyoin is an undeniable high point, and I even am a big supporter of Jean-Pierre, but I just still can’t rank it in the top half of Araki’s work on the series. I just think he got better with age (for the most part), and Stardust Crusaders was mostly a stepping-stone. It’s got some great fights, some memorable laughs, and some well-conceived characters and villains, but the villain-of-the-week structure and its limp protagonist don’t cut it for this guy.

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Now, what I can say, is that it does stand out as a fantastic historical artifact. I know that Araki also looks back at his early work with some trepidation, but I find getting to know how he came to design these sorts of things part of the joy. And one of those is our main badass, Jotaro, and his iconic pose. Have you ever wondered what that looming, fingers pointed, shoulders back stance is all about? Turns out its an homage to a cinematic classic: Dirty Harry.

Jotaro Eastwood

Yes, that’s right! Araki modeled his teenage fighter off of one of Clint Eastwood’s earliest roles, and swapped the gun for a more Japan-friendly, yet somehow more ominous finger point. What’s even better? Turns out once this was brought to Mr. Eastwood’s attention, he dove into the manga and started reading about his Japanese counterpart, and fell in love with the series. So much so, that he’s actually met Araki, discussed the series with him, and done some photoshoots for official Jojo artbooks!

Jotaro Clint

Now how bizarre is that?

Well folks, that’s our retrospective on perhaps the most famous arc in all of Jojo’sStardust Crusaders! Join me next week as we jump a half-decade into the future and dial things back to a little Japanese town known as Morioh!

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