The Christmas Blog Series 2 (II) – Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

As mentioned in the previous article in this series, Kill la Kill draws in some ways on the aesthetic and ethos of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, a long-running manga series that recently received an animé adaptation. What defines Jojo within a crowded martial-arts genre is its combination of incredibly potent superheroes and villains and somewhat restrained fights; there is a theatricality to the action which eschews widespread, apocalyptic carnage in favour of a much more strategic and methodical choreography. From the earliest episodes, in which the first hero to bear the name “Jojo” learns his powers from the mysterious Zeppeli in order to fight childhood bully turned vampire lord Dio, there is a refreshing focus on responsibility in the use of power that remains important throughout.

Many superhero stories make reference to the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility” – the implication is that the superhero must avoid unaccountability and corruption by moderating the way in which they use their power. Personal quests for vengeance and the desire to use powers on unworthy targets invite personal tragedy – most clearly shown in the classic example of Spiderman accidentally bringing about his uncle’s death in some tellings of his origin story, or Superman’s being ostracised for being “better” than others. The power of the Ripple, possessed by Jojo and Zeppeli, is a pure force for good which apparently cannot be abused – in order to actually use the Ripple, one must have good intentions because its sole aim is to defeat evil. Its first demonstration is Jojo being encouraged to punch past a frog to break a stone – using supernatural strength with supernatural control to prevent the innocent being harmed. This fits well with the general theme of the series’ first arc – the ways in which the characters must undo the damage caused by naivete. Villain Dio has become powerful by ingratiating himself into society to further his selfish, fraudulent ambitions – his conflict with Jojo is an entirely personal and petty one based around a childhood rivalry that becomes murderous very quickly. It is only when this rivalry risks becoming something more than a conflict between individuals that Jojo raises the stakes – Dio and his henchmen are immensely powerful supervillains who in their vampirism pose a great threat to the world, and the outrage they invite is as much at their involvement of others in a personal rivalry as anything.

Indeed, the whole ethos of the Ripple as a power is facilitating the total destruction of evil, turning the theatrical one-hit-kill of superhero anime into a thematic, almost religious element. There is a kind of skewed spirituality in the fight against vampires – one of the early minions Dio sends is a Tudor headsman, evoking religious strife, while another scene has Jojo training by fighting enemies without spilling a glass of wine. Jojo is not a serious series, and these references are arguably just passing ones rather than any deep-rooted religious imagery, but it can be seen as elevating the usual ritual of the superhero’s finishing move (something arguably more common to anime heroes than those popular in western pop culture, where rather than the total destruction of the enemy being the ideal the focus is on capture and judgment in court) in humorous fashion. The whole conflict in this first arc comes from the failure of traditional absolution and forgiveness, and the failure of the rule of law in the face of the supernatural – Jojo attempts to apprehend Dio by legal means, with the police called, but fails precisely because Dio has embraced supernatural power. As a result, the only recourse he has is destruction and so he must learn the most responsible and appropriate manner in which to do so.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure uses this to good effect as a narrative framework – its first arc has a group of comparatively low-powered sidekicks following the hero and his mentor, providing exposition and supporting him as they can, while the villain surrounds himself with the most powerful henchmen he can find, whose differing abilities force the protagonist to learn to master his powers. It is a stock superhero story executed well, with the exception of the sidekicks. They do not exist to be regularly beaten up despite having apparently useful powers, as a sidekick hero character like Sayaka in Mazinger Z does, they instead stay out of many fights. A key character, Speedwagon, is introduced as a minor villain and defeated in short order by Jojo before the main superhero plot begins, and remains a sideline figure – he is competent but not a supernatural character and so stays out of fights. Establishing a supposedly powerful character and then undermining them is a quick shorthand to show a villain’s power – however, in Jojo, the focus is on showing how Jojo himself is becoming more powerful and so the constant back-and-forth of new villains forcing him to use his evolving powers in new ways provides all the evidence needed. The sidekicks form an audience for the action rather than punching-bags for the enemies, with the series taking several liberties with the fourth wall – each fight is narrated by the characters and an omnipresent narrator, with unity-breaking flashbacks providing different perspectives on scenes to explain unbelievable events and narrow escapes. Kill la Kill parodies this fight structure quite effectively with the characters of Senketsu and Mako; Mako takes the role of Speedwagon and the un-powered sidekicks, explaining what they can see and restating how strong we are supposed to perceive the hero as (and their disillusionment when supposedly unstoppable moves fail acts as reinforcement to the viewer’s own shock, a kind of stage direction to the audience for how one should react), while Senketsu is the narrator, describing scenes and – with Ryuko’s help much as in Jojo how Jojo himself fills in the gaps in the story – providing explanations of the inexplicable.

Ultimately the theme of responsible use of power – and how Jojo as the most powerful of the group must protect them (in their roles as audience standins) as proxies for the innocents in general he protects – is brought to its epitome with his final stand against Dio. Dio has returned, apparently from death, one final time to stop Jojo getting the life away from combat he deserves and the fight ends in mutual destruction. This introduces the generational aspect of the series – the first Jojo is dead, his successor will fight different battles in the future – but also provides the coda to the way in which the Ripple has been introduced as a power. Jojo’s final fight is to protect his family and the innocents aboard the ship Dio has attacked – the greater conflict is already over. Ordinarily for a superhero personal vendettas are the sign of irresponsible power use – see Spiderman trying to track down the criminals who killed his uncle – but the Ripple is given to Jojo to permit him to seek personal vengeance and defeat Dio, who has violated etiquette and decency by prolonging a childhood vendetta into adulthood and supervillainy.

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3 comments

  1. gunlord500

    Fascinating analysis–I never gave much thought to the differences in the use of martial-arts power between Jojo and more standard shonens. I really gotta do some Jojo reading sometime…

  2. rikuo06

    Interesting reading of the Ripple power in the first Jojo arc. The second arc quickly subverts it though. Immediately, Straits betrays his lifetime of Ripple training for vampiric power and immortality, and in the end, the main villain achieves becoming the Ultimate Lifeform, which includes control of and immunity to the RIpple. Appropriately, Joseph is also a completely different hero type from Jonathan, a trickster type. He is not above abusing his Ripple powers to break a cop’s trigger finger with a bottlecap, or pick petty fights with Caesar.

    • r042

      I’m thinking of writing a second post on that arc actually to talk about those things – it’s the generational aspect that’s another of the series virtues!

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