The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
I squinted at the image on the screen, planted my feet, and got ready. Around me, the other students shuffled nervously, making preparations of their own. Next to the projector, our instructor wished us well on our final project, and then counted down. When she reached zero, I pivoted at the hip, brought my right hand up in front of my forehead, and flattened my left hand just underneath my chin. Bam!
Or should I say, ドーン!I'd just graduated from Jojo's Posing School, you see, by striking a pose that made me look exactly like Josuke up there.
…okay, maybe not so much. You can see the video of the class here. Let's talk about JoJo's Bizarre Adventure!
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, a cross-generational epic about a tough clan of psychic fighters squaring off against a nigh-omnipotent vampire, is a beloved classic in Japan. Its manga spans more than 100 volumes and is still ongoing, serving as the anchor title to Shueisha's Ultra Jump. It's gotten OVAs, a movie, video games, toys, museum exhibitions, and a currently-running TV series. But for years and years, it was one of those titles like Kinnikuman or Kochikame or City Hunter, a classic series with some small awareness here, but one that never really managed to take hold of anime fandom's imagination in North America. What's pretty exciting is that this sad situation is changing, in real time, and pretty hilariously quickly at that.
It's not like Shueisha and their media partners haven't tried to get JoJo's Bizarre Adventure going on these shores. CAPCOM created a fine 2D fighter based on their CPS-3 arcade board in 1998, and it did make its way here—under the title Jojo's Venture. That's a pretty amusing tweak, turning a wordy but evocative title into something that sounds like a circus monkey starting a business. One of my local arcades had the game for a short period of time, and I regularly made trips over there to play it, along with the cool Banpresto Mazinger Z arcade game. But it was soon gone, only to be replaced by a more accurately-titled home version.
This was from an era when anime nerds like me would pretty much by any video game that even looked like it might be based on anime or manga—after all, I played stinkers like Ranma ½ Hard Battle and that weird Vampire Hunter D Playstation game. So this excellent port of the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure arcade game seemed like a no-brainer. And for what it's worth, it is pretty fun—I didn't know the story or characters when I got it, but that didn't stop me and my pals from constantly picking the title character and his nemesis Dio as our fighters, just to hear them yell their battle cries (“Ora! Ora! Ora!” and “Muda! Muda! Muda” respectively) at each other. But like the Dreamcast, the game never really got the leverage to dig in and start generating sequels, or better yet, get the associated media released over here. But there was JoJo's Bizarre Adventure anime, and we'd soon get it from a publisher that would turn out to be the harbinger of a really mixed trend—the publisher as direct subsidiary.
There were two sets of Jojo's Bizarre Adventures OVAs—a six-pack in 1993, right after the wickedly popular Stardust Crusaders manga arc wound up, and a seven-pack in 2000. Both OVAs were produced by Studio A.P.P.P., the Robot Carnival people, but what's interesting as that, aside from the director (the great and underrated Hiroyuki Kitakubo handled the first set, while the second had a crew of several), they feature the same creative staff. That kind of continuity is a bit rare. For me, these OVAs are really defined by their character designer, Junichi Hayama. He was grunt animator and later did key animation for Fist of the North Star, and he does a superb job of giving the Stardust Crusaders heroes the same outrageously buff physiques as the master of Hokuto Shinken. For years, this aesthetic carry-over led me to incorrectly assume that Fist director Toyoo Ashida was somehow involved in these OVAs. Shows you what I know.
The OVAs are interesting to take in, particularly in the way that they contrast with both creator Hirohiko Araki's manga and the current TV series. The show sports a muted color palette—the bright reds and gold details of Jojo's outfit are replaced with dark purple, for example-- and for the most part, the focus stays on action, rather than the frequent moments of high weirdness that both the comics and TV series delight in. The OVAs handle their storytelling efficiently and are pretty enjoyable to watch—the 1993 series, which features significant contributions from Satoshi Kon, is particularly good-- but in comparison to the TV series, they're almost strangely low key. The 13 episodes get through most of the Stardust Crusaders arc, occasionally condensing bits of the story in novel ways.
When these OVAs finally reached our shores, the circumstances were a bit weird. They were released by upstart label Super Techno Arts, which was actually A.P.P.P's American subsidiary, managed by APPP employee and ace animator Cindy Yamauchi. There wasn't much recognition of the brand or characters, so Araki's nutty, swooping logo was toned down. The discs were split up a bit unappealingly—13 episodes on six discs, which made collecting the whole thing a bit expensive, even if each disc did come with a custom-made tarot card from the series. The dub features a whole bunch of actors that were pretty much never heard from again, and most interestingly, the episodes were presented out of order. See, that 1993 set of Jojo's actually contains the final battles from Stardust Crusaders, and the 2000 discs fill in the backstory from earlier in the manga. By presenting the show in strict chronological order, Super Techno Arts hoped to avoid any nagging questions about continuity. The series never really led to anything else for the A.P.P.P. satellite—which grinds my gears, because I really want a Robot Carnival bluray-- but they made it to market before other Japan-owned subsidiaries like Toei USA, Bandai Visual USA, and of course, Aniplex USA.
Nowadays, with JoJo's Bizarre Adventure on the rise, you can still get the decent first three DVDs, the 2000-era arc that chronicles the beginning of Stardust Crusaders, for around ten bucks each, but forget about getting the original series on discs 4-6. Those DVDs are out there, but they're not cheap. It's frustrating, because they're the better half of the series. What's more, Shueisha has kept the series out of print in most regions after Arabic fans complained about a scene involving the villainous Dio using a Qu'ran as a prop, but the show just got a cheap DVD re-release in France, so there might be hope for it down the road.
A.P.P.P. didn't stop there with Jojo's animation, either. The designer Hayama stepped into the director's chair for 2007's JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood, a telling of the original 19th-century tale of English aristocrat Jonathan Joestar's struggle against the vicious, manipulative, and ultimately vampiric Dio. You can't get it on home video, though. The movie doesn't have a home video release in any region. It came out in February 2007, complete with trailer and souvenir book attached, and after a handful of roadshow screenings, it promptly vanished. How is it that a feature film adaptation of such a popular manga would sink without a trace? Well, apparently, it's a giant piece of crap. Phantom Blood is trapped in what I think of as The Five Star Stories Zone, after the film was poor enough to run afoul of no less than Hirohiko Araki himself. Five Star Stories creator Mamoru Nagano had once had similarly harsh feelings towards the 1989 FSS OVA version of his work, particularly after director Kazuo Yamazaki made the disastrous mistake of publically admitting he didn't understand Nagano's manga. Nagano also didn't like the orchestral score, commenting at release that he was hoping for a more rock/pop-oriented musical backing, kind of like the weird music he occasionally releases himself. Anyway, Nagano's disdain for the Five Star Stories OVA kept the video out of print save for a limited laserdisc release for years (though the creator eventually got either gracious enough or hungry enough for a royalty payout that he authorized a DVD release), and similar forces are ostensibly at work keeping Phantom Blood from the public. I don't care if it's bad, though-- since I can't have it, dammit, I want it!
You'd think that a moderately popular OVA series and a doomed theatrical film would be all we'd get, but fortunately, a very young studio with only a few shows to its name called David Production stepped up to the plate in fall 2012 with their new series: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure! This time, they nailed the formula straight from the beginning—under director Kenichi Suzuki and scribe Yasuko Kobayashi, David Production went back to the beginning, the same Phantom Blood storyline, and set up the TV series as action-packed high camp. Going back and looking at the very beginnings of Araki's manga, which kicked off in 1986, you can see where Kobayashi tightened up the writing and made it snap a bit more—Araki's comic art has a rare sense of style right from the start, but those early volumes have a slavish Shonen Jump style to them that doesn't really stand out, and original “Jojo” Jonathan Joestar is kind of a boring hero. If you can fault the TV series, it's that it has frequent bouts of low-budget-itis, with its good writing, art direction, and pacing sometimes obscured by grade-Z animation.
But the marvelous thing is, it doesn't matter, because the series, just like the manga, steadily improves until the limited animation becomes an afterthought. Jojo himself may be a bit dull, but he's surrounded by colorful characters like his martial arts teacher Will A. Zeppeli and reformed hoodlum Robert E.O. Speedwagon, the ultimate impromptu Greek chorus (there are parts present in both the manga and anime where Speedwagon breathlessly, deafeningly repeats an exclamation that the narrator had just said moments earlier). On the other side, villainous Dio Brando starts as a schemer out to steal the Joestar legacy, but is granted vampiric powers by a mysterious stone mask. Soon enough, Phantom Blood is up, and it's time to skip ahead a couple of generations for the 1930s-era Battle Tendency.
This is the point in the Jojo's franchise when its booming, seemingly unstoppable popularity as a manga really starts to make sense. Our hero is Jonathan's grandson Joseph Joestar, one part barnstorming Republic serial hero and one part incorrigible, foppish dandy. Whereas Jonathan was well-mannered and focused, Jonathan is boastful, crafty (he has a particular knack for predicting his opponents’ plans), and prone to fits of cowardice. He talks a mile a minute as he uses the same solar-powered “hamon” martial art his grandpa did to face off against overwhelmingly powerful but kinda boring bad guys with names like Kars, Wham, and Santana. Fortunately, he's aided by his grandfather's faithful and shouty friend Speedwagon, along with the powerful hamon master LiSA LiSA and her students Loggins and Messina. This might raise an eyebrow, but hey, the first series involved a pair of monks named Dire and Straits, okay? Just go with it. David Production finished the first JoJo's Bizarre Adventure TV series, which fits the Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency arcs into a single 26-episode series. The show is capped beautifully each episode by a different 90-second selection of the 1970s progressive rock hit “Roundabout” by Yes, a song that Araki listened to obsessively while working on the first several volumes of manga in the 80s.
For months, there wasn't so much as a legal streaming option outside of Japan for JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. Many of my peers shrugged and fired up their idled BitTorrent clients, made largely obsolete by ever-increasing streaming packages at services like Crunchyroll and Hulu, to stay current, but I waited patiently, figuring there had to be some sort of music rights issue holding things up. (The Jojo's TV series is distributed by Warner Bros Japan, which also distributes Yes's catalog in Japan, but that doesn't necessarily mean a deal can be struck for overseas use.) A sequel TV series, based on the above-mentioned Stardust Crusaders, easily the most popular segment of the manga, was greenlit, and soon the magical day came when both seasons were set up for streaming overseas. Crunchyroll actually had the nerve to make the announcement on April Fool's Day, waiting the entire day before confirming that this was a real announcement and not an unforgivably cruel joke. Much like the first season, Stardust Crusaders features an ending involving a western pop song from decades back. You can google up what it is, or check the ANNcyclopedia for it, or just watch the show—it's a really pleasant and appropriate surprise, even if it isn't “Holy Diver” by Dio.
The series itself has been a highlight of my Fridays. Boasting radically upgraded visuals (animation is still sometimes limited, but the art as a whole has a richer, more textured look, and the fight scenes are terrifically exciting) and a jet-setting late 80s backdrop, Stardust Crusaders also has arguably the best Jojo, Joseph's half-Japanese grandson Jotaro. While Joseph is brash and noisy (he makes a return as a main character, only as a cranky grandpa), Jotaro is taciturn and smoldering. He heatedly dismisses his mother Holly's mooning over him, but you can tell he's a mama's boy when a curse unleashed by Dio, the Joestars’ ancient enemy, sickens her. But that same curse has given the Joestar men an incredible new power—astral spirits called stands, the better to get in crazy, outlandish fights with! Now the 80s Jojo, along with four powerful stand-using travel companions, must face villains like Captain Tenille, J. Geils, and Vanilla Ice in their quest to defeat Dio and break Holly's curse! I've been a big fan of anime for 20 years so I feel jaded at times, but JoJo's Bizarre Adventure has me planning my Friday lunch breaks around it. It's simply that entertaining.
Our own Jason Thompson has done a good job going over the plot points and appeal of the Jojo's manga in a column from a few years back, so I'll focus on what's been fascinating me about this series: its emerging reach and appeal online.
The above images are wryly comic moments from series 1, but as image memes, they've taken on a life of their own. The whole “You thought that [insert joke here], but it was actually me, Dio!” in particular has taken off, spawning hundreds of joke images, plus stuff like fan-made comics and merchandise; if folks aren't careful, it could turn into the next “over 9000” gag. I'd be tempted to dismiss stuff like the image macros as transient, but we've also just gotten a stateside release of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: All-Star Battle, an all-new 3D fighting game, on Playstation 3. Just crack open the case and give the manual a quick read, and you'll be ready to
…see what I mean?! Viz, following in the footsteps of Super Techno Arts, went ahead and published the popular sixteen-volume Stardust Crusaders arc some years back. The series was dropped after Stardust Crusaders wrapped, disappointing fans hoping to replace dodgy digital scanlations with handsome licensed books. As the years passed, a handful of Viz's volumes went out of print, making the entire run effectively impossible to collect. But just this past week, Viz announced that they're going back to press for the entire run of Stardust Crusaders. This can't be a coincidence—the series profile is surging among fans here, and it's a joy to watch factors like the fortuitous timing of the new series and the sheer enthusiasm of the show's fans online lead to things like the Viz reprints. I don't think there's any way that JoJo's Bizarre Adventure could be a big hit like it is in Japan, or like Attack on Titan is everywhere, but it certainly deserves to be a cult hit. The rest of the manga could also find an audience here—while JoJo's Bizarre Adventure has heroes that appear in multiple story arcs, it's less like a continuing storyline and more like a series of tales in a larger shared universe—tales that always involve someone who goes by the nickname Jojo.
I'll wrap this jaunt to Jojo-ville up by pointing you to Jojo's Posing School, which is exactly what it sounds like. Araki has a flair for a few things in his manga: fanciful costumes, creative use of sound effects (which David Production reproduces amusingly in the TV show), and absolutely ludicrous poses for his characters, the most iconic of them being the above images of Joseph and Josuke squaring off. But poses like this are actually commonplace enough that an entire segment of fans in Japan started studying and then reproducing them. The pose I struck in my account at the beginning of this column is a Level 1 pose, but there are Level 2 poses (which involve difficult twisting and gesturing) and even Level 3 poses (which are tricky, often involve multiple people, and must sometimes be done mid-leap). As you can see by the above link, Jojo's Posing School is quite a phenomenon in Japan, but it's a global thing—I have buddies who run panels about it at Anime Next and Otakon, and I've seen other Posing Schools listed at other conventions. It's a bit awkward at first, crowding into a hotel ballroom or function space with a bunch of other dorks to vogue away to Araki's fanciful art, but it's a way to connect with the artist and his creation that is really unique and fun. Big or little, fat or skinny, anyone can join Jojo's Posing School!
I think JoJo's Bizarre Adventure is going to get bigger yet among fans in North America. Sure, it'll level off eventually, but right now it's still ramping up. I myself arrived late to the bandwagon, but found plenty of room and lots of people who have been very friendly to me, once I demonstrated my willingness to lean back, splay my arms out, arch my back painfully, and croak “Wryyyyy!”
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