The Cathode Ray Mission: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Steel Ball Run and Rewriting the Rules
(Spoilers obviously for part 7)
I’ve written here before about how fascinating I find Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a continuously evolving media franchise, especially for one with as wide an impact as it has. Hirohiko Araki has hit on not one but two successful shonen formulas, and the hallmark of the series is based in its discontinuity from one part to the next in terms of characters, plot, setting, and time period. Change is fundamental to Jojo, and integral to its appeal.
Steel Ball Run, the seventh part of the series, is certainly the biggest change in the life of Jojo since the introduction of stands in part three, and arguably even bigger than that. SBR is a paradigm shift for the series at a narrative level, but more than that at a metatextual level, as it represents a radical departure from the expectations of the established fiction at a basic level. The possibilities available within the fiction have never been much of a creative prison for Araki to contend with, but with SBR, any sense of canon or rules that need to be respected are out the window, and rather than feeling incoherent, it feels radical and risky and genuinely the most thrilling that Jojo has been in a long time.
Now for some busywork: for context, Steel Ball Run was published monthly from 2004 to 2011 in Ultra Jump. It’s set in 1890 and mostly follows four blond twinks, two of which are Gyro Zeppeli and Johnny Joestar, as they race across America; Jojo things commence. Its setup is something of a remix on the series’ origins: Jonathan is now Johnny, Dio is Diego, the token Zeppeli is Gyro instead of Will, even Danny returns, this time as a white mouse instead of a dog. Jonathan’s upper class English background is replaced by Johnny’s traumatic adolescence in America. Hamon doesn’t return, but taking its nominal place is the Spin that Gyro utilizes and teaches Johnny, which is a mixture of Hamon’s physiological basis and stand’s metaphysical effects. It’s riffing on the series’ history in a multitude of ways, but almost all of them with the unintended consequence of making the original look so much worse by comparison, and this from someone who enjoys the original just fine. I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about Baron Zeppeli’s character from Phantom Blood, but Gyro is someone full of complexities and contradictions from the very beginning, as is every character here. I love Dio because he’s a big campy vampire megalomaniac and that’s always going to sell for me, but Diego is so much more nuanced, and comes out not only being stronger as a villain than Dio was, but a vastly more interesting character to watch at virtually every moment. The same can be said for every main character, especially Johnny, who is easily the most complex Jojo thus far.
The moment to moment plotting also represents a major departure from previous Jojo parts. There is an organization around battles in parts 1–6 that ended up manifesting in the stand battle of the week structure that most of the series employed, and that, for as frequently enjoyable as I personally found it, was very blatantly formulaic and could wear thin especially in situations where the stand encounters were less than compelling. A result of this battle structure is a sense of artificiality to the narrative — these fights against Dio’s sons in the end of Stone Ocean are whatever, and they don’t really present any true necessity for the story other than prolonging it. This is more or less an issue of publishing, as Weekly Shonen Jump has a weekly publishing cycle of new manga chapters, and especially earlier in Araki’s career, its bread and butter was battle manga. Certain logistical factors contributed to cementing this structure for Jojo, but those factors loosened up heavily with the move to Ultra Jump, and SBR is reflective of this transition. While it has its fair share of battles throughout, the fights are almost all integral plot beats instead of padding. Moreover, this reduced reliance on battles to move the plot forward opens up space for much more organic plotting, as well as far more involved moments of character building. One criticism I had of Vento Aureo was in its implementation of character backstories, and how they often feel shoehorned in to certain situations without manifesting in long-term ways. SBR, with its longer length and less episodic pacing, is able to continually deliver these dives into character histories and succeed in paying them off down the line. The result is a more sprawling narrative, but one that feels more cohesive and directed than any stand-era Jojo narrative has. Even within the sprawl, there’s a level of control on display that keeps it from veering into overindulgent territory. Hot Pants, Diego, and Lucy Steel are characters that occasionally become the main perspectives, but these shifts are never superfluous, they always represent significant plot turns that necessitate a shift in perspective.
(As a brief aside, I would feel bad not mentioning my main issue with Steel Ball Run, which pertains to these perspective jumps. There’s a scene a little over halfway through where Lucy Steel, a 14-year old girl, is disguised as President Valentine’s wife, and is sexually assaulted by the president. This scene is deeply unpleasant to read, but I think it serves an appropriate function for the plot and the characters. What I take issue with is some artistic decisions in depicting Lucy during this scene that feels like Araki is indulging in the unpleasantness of the situation that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Especially given the age of Lucy, choosing to represent her semi-nude is tasteless, and I really wish that a different approach were taken.)
I could talk further about how different SBR is from previous parts at a mechanical level, and how different the stand abilities are here as outgrowths of character instead of distinct entities. The pared down core of Gyro and Johnny are a limited duo, but their abilities are largely known quantities, and so watching them puzzle out the wins in fights and take their lumps is engaging in a way that recent stand battles just haven’t been, but this goes into a larger point I want to make. There’s a level of vulnerability to SBR that I found surprising, especially in comparison to what came before. This vulnerability is present in the literal interactions between characters, especially Gyro and Johnny, but also in the sense of danger throughout. The only ‘healer’ character is Hot Pants, and she only appears intermittently. Damage lasts, and it can’t just be wiped away under normal circumstances. Non-stand guns have literally never mattered in this series, but now a person with a gun is threatening with or without a stand. Characters can and do die suddenly, and often in failure. When Diego was ripped apart by the train, I lost my fucking mind. Diego is Dio, he shouldn’t die here, we’re not even close to the end yet. Granted, that intuition ended up proving correct, but in the moment it was an upending of the expectations that this series has built up in my mind over six parts.
This is ultimately where I think the power of SBR lies. Nearly every single narrative component is taken and brought back to square one and rethought, and in doing so, I know longer know what to expect from the story. Jojo has always been unpredictable in a moment-to-moment basis, but it’s always adhered to certain storytelling frameworks and tropes. It can be assumed that the Jojo is going to save the day, that the bad guy gets beaten, that we lose some friends along the way — these are all tropes established from part 1, and though there is some play with them along the way (Stone Ocean in particular), it always ends up coming back to the frames as they have been constructed. This is not a positive or negative quality of the series, it’s more of a reality of long-term serialized storytelling that certain fundamental formulas work better than others. SBR ultimately does not actually break from these frameworks: Johnny emerges victorious, Valentine is defeated, and Gyro tragically dies. But what makes this reassertion of the basic narrative so much more exciting to watch unfold here than in the past is in how dislodged the story actually is from the expectations of it going in. The Joestar privilege is given a reset. Johnny starts out incredibly unheroic, and for a long time is arguably secondary to Gyro in importance. This story could have been told easily from a different perspective and had Valentine as the good guy and Gyro and Johnny as the bad guys, and it’s not even a necessarily difficult leap to argue that that is still the case with the story as it is actually told (although that argument is wrong are you kidding me). Stands don’t start showing up in full force until at least a third of the way through. If only one instructive thing is to be gained from SBR as a piece of fiction, it’s that reinventing the wheel is not a requirement for a story to feel fresh and interesting, what’s necessary is for the fundamentals to be iterated upon in creative ways. I truly have no idea what to expect when I start reading Jojolion, but I imagine that it will continue to iterate on the formulas that have been set up in Jojo and be something truly unexpected as a result.
Also the art is fucking incredible, like, holy shit.