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House of 1000 Manga
Learn English with Jojo's Bizarre Adventure!

by Jason Thompson,

House of 1000 Manga Special:
Learn English with JoJo's Bizarre Adventure!

Beyond the level of "Where is the hotel?", you can tell a lot about cultural perceptions by how people study a language. In the early 1990s, when Japan was synonymous with big business, Mangajin magazine used salarymen manga as translation examples. Today, when Japan is mostly associated with anime and manga, Manga University's Japanese-teaching books have a cute shojo/shonen manga style. In the West today, Japan summons images of the kitschy, the delicate, the cutesy, the cool. But what about the other way around? Well, of course, English is a required course in Japanese schools, so almost everyone in Japan speaks a little—but if you're really hardcore, you might pick up Magical Marine Pixel Maritan, in which the titular moe magical-girl marine (and her Navy and Infantry friends) teaches you how to swear a red-blooded American soldier.

Or you might pick up Learn English with JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, a recently released book that's every bit as macho as the classic manga series! English-learning books using manga as examples aren't a new thing, but there's something particularly appropriate about learning English through Jojo, a series which reads like an purposeful reinvention of Western hero tropes, from Pluck and Luck to muscley '80s action movies to superheroes using their powers in weird ways to bend reality and kick ass. And most critically, Hirohiko Araki's dialogue is actually worth translating; unlike plenty of shonen manga where the dialogue works on a purely functional "Y-y-you bastard! I'll kill you!" level (admittedly convenient if you can't read Japanese and are trying to follow an untranslated manga from the pictures), the Jojo characters actually say some crazy, memorable sh*t. It's not a manga, so it's sort of cheating for me to cover it here, but like Joseph Joestar, I'm not too proud to cheat if I have to.

First things first: just like you won't actually learn much about Jojo from this review because the series is too complicated (sorry—but here's my other Jojo article if you're interested), you won't learn much English from this book without already having a basic knowledge of the language. Fascinating as it would be to imagine a from-the-ground-up English immersion course focusing entirely on how to fight vampires and threaten people, this book, like Pixel Maritan, is more about teaching Japanese speakers how to say a few lines from the series in English and sound like a real badass. There are vocabulary sections, though, and in some places it branches off helpfully into more general knowledge: Jojo angrily asking Dio "What do you think you're doing?!" leads into a mini-explanation; Koichi telling Josuke "You look a bit strange…" leads to a sidebar about the difference between the English look, seem and sound. And of course, there's tons of manga artwork—all of it, and all the examples, being taken from the first four "Parts" of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (the Jonathan, Joseph, Jotaro and Josuke arcs)leaving open the tantalizing possibility that a second book could be made based on the later parts of the series.

The book begins with brief introductions by the translator, Naohiko Kitaura, and the English rewriter, Marty Friedman, the former lead guitarist for Megadeth. This isn't as out-of-nowhere as it seems; Friedman moved to Japan in 2003 and has built an image as an exotic foreign entertainer, working on TV shows like Heavy Metal-san and Rock Fujiyama and writing English lyrics for Japanese music groups. He apparently oversaw the final English rewrite of the book, in addition to voicing the dialogue for the book's official Shueisha promotional video. Since JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is known for its characters named after Western rock groups (Ronnie James) Dio, Kars (The Cars), etc.), it's a perfect match, and I suspect no one but me and a few Viz employees will regret that Shueisha and Friedman didn't coordinate with Viz to use the same translations used in Viz's English editions of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure.…But wait!! There's two bonus pages talking about the Viz editions, with a particular focus on the English translations of sound effects and onomatopoeia! Dio's famous battle cry of "MUDA MUDA MUDA MUDA!!!", for which neither I nor later series editor Urian Brown could think of a decent-sounding English translation, is immortalized here in the language-learning book, with a little footnote saying "*Muda=Japanese for "useless" or "It's no use." Ahhh, but Dio's not Japanese, he's a 19th-century British man…aww, screw it. He also speaks Japanese and taunts people in Japanese for some reason.

The book is divided into four sections, covering (1) Memorable Scenes, (2) Emotions, (3) Heroes and (4) Villains. This is the meat of the book, reading drama-packed translations of major moments in the Jojo series. Emotions covers appropriate Jojo-esque emotional states such as Fear, Determination, Friendship and Rage. ("My heart is pounding! This burning heart!") This being Jojo, the villains have some of the best lines, from power-obsessed Victorian vampire Dio ("Have you ever thought about why people live this life? People live because they want peace of mind and they want to overcome anxiety and fear. Be my faithful servant…serve me, and you'll get all the peace of mind you can imagine.") to fussy businessman/serial killer Yoshikage Kira, shonen manga's version of American Psycho.

Unfortunately, whether because of Friedman or Shueisha and Araki, some of the translations aren't that great. I've always thought translations should try to make the dialogue sound natural in English, and while some English lines retain the Japanese version's natural coolness and flow, others aren't so successful. There's the back cover's weak literal translation of kono Jojo ("That's right! Everything this Jojo does is carefully thought out in advance!"). There's inappropriately dorky slang that just sounds out of character ("I never feared death since I was a kid when I got my 'Stand' power. No conscience, man. Cops meant squat to me.") Other lines are simply confusing and need clarification to make sense in English ("The most horrifying is this deep attachment that he's got!") And then there's the overuse of quotation marks to express words or phrases that are bracketed in the Japanese, the kind of thing that would be better eliminated in the English edition, or expressed with bold or italic text. (Yoshikage Kira: "I will 'survive'…'survive' peacefully. Although I have the 'nature' that would not allow me to stop killing people, 'I will live happily'").

However, at its best there's some really wonderful bits of dialogue here. In the cases of parts of the series that haven't been translated officially (chiefly Part 4, the yankiis-vs-suburban-serial-killers part) it's cool to see a pseudo-official translation and imagine what might have been. (Or might still be…?) Hirohiko Araki has an ear for dramatic turns of phrase that would be at home in the best American superhero comics. And then there's the just plain bizarre lines, the funny bits, intentionally funny or otherwise. Nowhere except Jojo can you get lines like this, lines that need to be on inspirational calendars:

* "I surrender myself to his insane imagination!"
* "No way…the gap between our abilities is too big…This is like tea ceremony club members holding baseball bats for the first time, trying to challenge the Koshien baseball champion team. It's miserable…"
* "Mmm…I love that voice. It's a beautiful tone. I've been waiting to hear you scream like that, Jojo!"
* "I'm back from Hell, Dio!"
* "I will purge your dirty soul!"
* "Because I loved 'Columbo' so much when I was a kid, I can't even sleep at night when I start freaking out about small things."
* "Oh, oh man…I can't just watch and let die a kid who loves dogs!"
* "I feel like fresh underwear on a New Year's Day morning!"
* "There's something to be said for that ghost's way of life."
* "Hey Jojo, you look pretty happening, man."
* "Well, now that the meat bud is gone, he's become a neat bud!"
* "You're gentle, warm and also huge. You're exactly the man I knew you were." (no comment)
* "I consider that gambling is just like a relationship, a relationship where people cheat each other. Whoever cries becomes a loser."

Basically, some of the translations are clunky and literal and could have used a more thorough rewrite and polish; I have to wonder what Marty Friedman was doing when I got to "Compared to the 'Justice heart' we have here now, 'fate' that would take sides with you, and the 'chance' that you can win can only become small powers!" However, as much as I love nitpicking and being a backseat editor, I also have to admit that the smoothness of the translation probably doesn't matter to readers, except possibly to a hypothetical Japanese speaker who reads it and try to use the English term 'Justice heart.' As much as I'd love the classist validation of seeing The New York Times Book Review (or at least The Comics Journal, come on guys) write a big review of Jojo, and dread that they'd complain about the awkward translation, I have to realistically admit that it's not going to happen and that even if it did, Jojo's American-audience appeal rests in large part on just this sort of awkwardness. A funky translation just adds to the appeal of this retro '80s manga, another level on top of the funky names, the over-the-top gore and the over-the-top everything. You have to scrape off the bad rewrite to understand some of the lines, but it's still all there: the earnestness, the violence and dread, the cleverness, the cheesy humor that's all so Hirohiko Araki.

In short, this book is Jojo gold, and will make you wish Viz was faster with their Jojo's Bizarre Adventure Part 1 digital releases. You can pick it up at Kinokuniya bookstores or online importers. Get it for as a holiday gift for a Jojo-loving hipster near you! (I know I did…I mean, that hipster is me, but…) If you're an English native speaker, you can flip it and learn to speak Japanese like they do in Jojo. After all, like any true otaku, it's manga, not American pop culture, that taught me all I know about badassery.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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