The Cathode Ray Mission: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Vento Aureo

(Spoilers follow for parts 1–5, as should be obvious)

The Gang

I’m going to spend a moment setting up Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure for the uninitiated, because I think it’ll be important down the line. Feel free to skip these paragraphs if you already know the gist. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is a long-running manga series by Hirohiko Araki about a bloodline of bizarre adventurers, all colloquially known as Jojo. Starting publication in 1987 with the first part, Phantom Blood, it began as a relatively traditional shonen battle series: Jonathan Joestar must fight against his evil adopted brother Dio Brando and stop him from taking over the world. There’s vampires, and big square muscle dudes, and a magical energy force called Hamon that is not particularly compelling but you don’t have to worry about it for long. Phantom Blood is fine. It clocks in at about 40 chapters (9 episodes in the anime), but it still drags a little, the fights are not particularly great, and it’s most interesting decision is to have Jonathan unambiguously die at the end, but it’s fun for what it is and it shows some flashes of Araki’s style that will continue to get fleshed out going forward. The memories of Robert E.O. Speedwagon, Baron Zeppeli, and Dio live on even in the face of everything that’s come later, which is not nothing. Part 2, Battle Tendency, is a step up in nearly every single way, to an almost staggering degree. Joseph Joestar’s rambunctiousness and fifth-dimensional chess plays throw into stark relief just how cardboard his grandfather was as a protagonist, and after the Pillar Men show up the series really finds its footing in the action scenes, delivering three fights in the second half that I would put among the very best in the series (Caesar v. Wamuu, Joseph v. Wamuu, Joseph v. Kars, for the record). While a clear descendant of the previous part in its aesthetics and overall story arc, Battle Tendency displays just how much compelling characters can elevate what could otherwise be seen as another fairly typical shonen franchise; its biggest failing is Araki’s rather half-formed decision to include real world historical elements in the story, culminating in the misguided choice to place a group of Nazis alongside our heroes in the fight against vampires.

One reason I find this series interesting and why I find Araki admirable as a storyteller is his willingness to change what would otherwise be a well-established formula in accordance with his artistic impulses. JJBA could ostensibly have continued with more Joestars, more Hamon, more vampires, but it swiftly abandoned the latter two completely, and even the former to a lesser extent. Battle Tendency was the peak of that approach, in both a narrative sense (it’s difficult to continue escalating after Kars becomes a god trying to destroy humanity) and a creative sense. Hamon was really going nowhere after this point, and neither were the vampires, so instead of bending over backwards to give these concepts more longevity, part 3, Stardust Crusaders, switches wholesale to an entirely different approach. Hamon is out, and stands, these manifestations of a person’s spiritual power imbued with some special ability, are in, and they’re so much better. Dio is back, and he’s better than ever. The Jojo is no longer the center of attention, either: Jotaro Kujo, while an iconic character and the obvious focal point of the story, is frequently shunted to the side while someone else in the main ensemble (usually Polnareff, who is the REAL protagonist) has to deal with some problem along the way. Battles are less about physical combat, and more like puzzles, as stand users attempt to use their unique spiritual powers to figure out an opponent’s weakness to exploit; some of the best parts of part 3 are not even really battles, they’re mind games being played between two characters trying outmaneuver each other. The new stand mechanic is essentially a bottomless well of creative possibilities, and the emphasis on an ensemble cast creates so many opportunities for fun storytelling and unique situations. Part 4, Diamond is Unbreakable, takes all these good elements, refines them, and cuts away the chaff, with some of the best characters in the whole series and some of my favorite stand encounters, while also making the choice to scale incredibly far down. After three stories of humanity in danger, Diamond’s stakes lie in the connection that we have to Josuke and the other residents of the town of Morioh and the evil presence that threatens those residents. Yoshikage Kira is the man next door, not a supervillain; he repeatedly identifies himself as a normal man, unconcerned with the larger world, as he just wants a normal life where he can be undisturbed and kill people as his urges arise. The re-scaling of Diamond works wonders for the narrative, as does Araki’s evolving style for the series's aesthetic: gone are the square musclemen of parts past, now characters are curvy and slender and lean, and suddenly Araki’s artistic abilities seem to explode. (For more on this point, I would recommend this great piece by Ruben Ferdinand) Jojo’s has always had strong art, but now the art is on a level of its own.

(If you skipped ahead, here’s where the real thing starts)

So, that brings us to part 5, Vento Aureo (or Golden Wind). I should say that I’ve been reading through the manga up to this point, and that is what these most recent thoughts have been based on; I’ve only seen the anime up to the end of part 2. I might find the need to write in detail about the other parts as I watch the show, but I’ll cross that bridge in the future. Vento Aureo is the most recent part I’ve finished, and I think it serves as an interesting point of reflection on the series as a whole. From my limited understanding of future parts, Vento Aureo exists as a more-or-less independent story, with little bearing on what came before and what comes later. The ‘Jojo’ of the part, Giorno Giovanna, is a member of the Joestar bloodline on a technicality; character crossover is far more minimal than in previous parts, with Koichi making a very brief appearance at the start and Polnareff making a very unexpected but also brief appearance at the climax. The villain of the story, Diavolo, has higher ambitions than Kira did, but his plots seem to be mostly localized in Italy and focused on consolidating the power he has at the top of his own gang. Structurally, Vento Aureo shares the most resemblance with Stardust Crusaders, but Araki’s continual growth as a writer adds some interesting distinctions that separate it from merely being a re-skinning of his previous work.

Giorno showing some titty (courtesy David Production)

For starters, the cast of characters. The series has been pulling more and more towards ensemble stories from the start of part 3, and part 5 represents its most decentralized cast to date. Giorno is something of an enigma in the Jojo lineage: he carries forward the stoicism of Jotaro, the unflinching brutality of Dio, and the kindness and empathy of Jonathan, which creates an uneasy blend, and it’s not a blend I think is pulled off as well as it could have been. Giorno is often backgrounded throughout Vento Aureo, playing a supporting role most of the time when he is not outright absent. Despite very plainly and repeatedly stating his goals, he remains a mystery, to the point that I was almost waiting for another shoe to drop for the majority of the story only to find that, no, this is just who he is, and there will not be some eleventh hour revelation to explain more to him (Araki can be described in many ways, but someone that keeps his cards close to his chest is not one of them).

The part of me that is used to consuming traditional narrative media finds Giorno’s passive role and enigmatic nature to be frustrating, but I think he represents an attempt at doing something very interesting, which is to de-center the assumed hero from his role. The series is called Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure; every previous entry has in some way centered their respective Jojo, whether in Jonathan and Joseph’s comparative solitude to Jotaro and Josuke’s wider troupes, there was never any ambiguity over who was the one to drive the story forward. The Jojo of part 5 (or more accurately, ‘GioGio’) is far more unclear in the roles that its principal characters can be cast in to; Giorno is the one that gets the story started and the one to finish it, but if we are to understand the term “protagonist” to refer to the character that drives the plot more than any other, that designation would feel far more fitting for Buccellati, the leader of the squad Giorno enters into. Buccellati is the one issuing orders, getting into fights, and makes the most meaningful decision of the story, which is to protect Trish and betray Diavolo. Buccellati is even more open to the reader than Giorno, or at least that’s how his internal monologues come off. The question of traditional narrative roles can be extended across to the antagonists as well. Diavolo is obviously the ultimate big bad of the story, but what can we make of Doppio, his splintered and presumably subordinated personality? Intuition would tell us to consider them two separate characters occupying different positions within the story, but where exactly that line lies between them is unclear, to us as much as it is to them.

This more decentralized approach carries on to the battles as well. It was previously a rarity for more than one heroic stand user to work together against a common opponent, which is obviously a contrivance made to keep some form of balance in the combat situations, even in the important, late-game situations. The fight against Vanilla Ice in SC and the final fight against Kira in DiU are the exceptions that prove the rule; however, a majority of fights in VA not only involve multiple heroes, but multiple villains as well. After two stories full of individual stand battles, it makes sense that the next step in that approach is to introduce stand battles where characters’ abilities are able to play off of each other in interesting and unexpected ways, on both sides of the conflicts. Giorno imbuing Mista’s bullets with life to ultimately defeat Cioccolata is a brilliant example of this interplay, as is Tiziano and Squalo using their stands in conjunction to try and isolate and pick off Narancia and Giorno.

What this new focus on the collective identity of the characters and their fights lends the story is a strong sense of continuity that the most similar previous part, Stardust Crusaders, lacked. SC’s structure was governed by an overarching macro goal, to reach Dio in Egypt, but at a micro level it was highly individualized and unequal in its development as a result. I can joke about Polnareff being the secret protagonist of part 3 because he probably gets the most screen-time of the core characters, even Jotaro, and the growth he undergoes is the most obvious; on the other hand, Avdol remains relatively static, with little by way of highlight moments or an evolving character arc to point to. Each fight in SC is like a checkpoint on the story’s progress, with little bearing to what came before or came after (Hol Horse’s recurring appearances are again the exception that proves the rule). Vento Aureo in contrast feels much more like a cohesive story: the macro goal is ultimately a similar mission to beat the big bad, but it morphs and changes as the story progresses, and ends up being more abbreviated than expected as things converge very suddenly; the fights are all situated within the context of this larger mission, in the relationships of both the heroes and the villains — Steely Dan and the D’Arby brothers don’t have any clear connection to each other besides being in Dio’s thrall, but Risotto’s gang of assassins have ties to one another, as do Diavolo’s elite guards, and they all have much more defined roles they play within the story rather than being the equivalent of progress checks. There’s a greater display of long-term storytelling ability in VA that was mostly absent in SC and only showed up in the second half of DiU. While the efforts to give background on each of the main characters come off as extremely clunky digressions, they provide set up for the growth that each of them undergo in the story, with some exceptions like Fugo and Abbacchio, although I find the incompleteness of the latter’s arc to be an interesting decision, and preferable to a more forced and complete arc (I know that there’s a side story about Fugo, but I haven’t read it yet, and I don’t think it should factor in to explaining his development in this part). The situation involving King Crimson, and Buccellati’s whole deal in the second half, are these nagging questions that are compelling on their own, and their recurrences only continue to complicate things. The satisfaction of the answers to these mysteries is in the eye of the beholder, but I think focusing only on the conclusions is missing the point. Araki might not hold many things close to his chest as a writer, but VA is his most proficient exercise yet in controlling the distribution of information.

Diavolo and King Crimson (courtesy David Production)

Something else this greater sense of narrative cohesion delivers to Vento Aureo a thematic quality that has been relatively spare in prior parts of Jojo. The most interesting thematic content in parts 1–3 involves the seemingly inescapable fate that the Joestar bloodline has become entangled in as a result of Dio’s actions, but that has its limits. I find bloodline stories and their variants to be incredibly boring to think about, because the questions they raise almost always have predetermined answers. Why is Luke Skywalker the one to save the day? He has a number of heroic traits that allow him to take the right actions to save the day, but those traits are explained in part by being a Skywalker, and whatever arbitrary strength and significance that pertains. It’s a variation of the ‘Great Man’ theory, that history is moved and changed as the results of individuals of significant stature making decisions, rather than often broad groups of people that have been pushing for a long time. It’s an inaccurate representation of history, but it’s easy to digest, and has become a shorthand way to think as a result. Biographies of presidents sell, books about the labor movement less so.

This is all to say that JJBA is, more than any other anime/manga I’ve seen, fundamentally rooted in an idea about bloodlines that is arbitrarily constructed. The descendants of Jonathan Joestar are people of importance, more than their colleagues and their opponents (with the possible exception of Dio, who transcends time), and so it becomes little question who the heroes are and who will end up saving the day. Araki complicates this by killing Jonathan and showing his ultimate failure to stop Dio, puncturing the impression of invincibility that the Jojos would otherwise have, but that disruption is short-lived — Joseph and Jotaro are basically untouchable, and they’re the ones that end up beating the bad guys. Diamond is Unbreakable represents a small move away from this adherence to hereditary privilege, and by extension has the most to say. DiU is about Josuke, but it’s also about a community of people combating the evil they discover among them. Events of importance still circle around Josuke (and Jotaro to a lesser extent), but there are smaller detours that take place, like Rohan and Koichi’s trip to the afterlife that gets the Kira story arc rolling. In the end, the Joestars do the heavy lifting, but their actions are representative of more than the Joestar family, they represent the actions of a community.

Vento Aureo’s relationship to this notion of bloodlines and fate is far more ambivalent than any of the previous parts. I mentioned above how Giorno is an unusual main character, and this strangeness extends to his background as well. The son of Dio, he is a Joestar by virtue of being born of Jonathan’s body after Dio cut his head off and attached his own head to it (it’s a lot), so his placement within the family tree is already much more complicated than anyone prior. But VA moves its attention beyond just the Jojo bloodline, and towards a wider examination of the workings of fate itself; even King Crimson’s ability, to see 10 seconds into the future and erase any amount of time within that 10 seconds, is predicated on the premise that certain actions are fated to happen, and Diavolo’s strength stems from his ability to maneuver his way around fate and manipulate reality to his will. His defeat comes at the hands of Gold Experience Requiem, a stand that can essentially rewrite fate, reset actions to zero. Only by taking hold of fate, and by reshaping reality itself, can Giorno defeat Diavolo. Fate is shown in this moment to not be something immutable, but something that can be changed, albeit at the cost of a great amount of power — Gold Experience Requiem, because of this ability to “reset to zero”, is probably the most powerful stand ever seen in series.

Giorno and Gold Experience Requiem (courtesy David Production)

What complicates this moment though is the strange epilogue arc of Vento Aureo. Set right before Giorno and Buccellati first meet, it follows Mista in tracking down a man suspected of murder. What follows is an odd encounter with a stand user, whose stand, Rolling Stones, is a rock that, when sculpted, shows a figure that is fated to die. The figure Mista sees in Rolling Stones is Buccellati, and in the residue created by the stand, the images of Abbacchio and Narancia also appear; by this point in the story, of course, we know that those three are unable to escape their fates. The user explains that Michelangelo spoke of a sculptor’s job as not creating images out of the stone, but revealing the images that were already embedded within, implying a sense of divine predestination at play in shaping the ultimate form of the rock. The images in Rolling Stones cannot be changed, and the fates cannot be altered. But the totality of the prediction is unclear — did the stone predict Giorno’s intervention in delaying Buccellati’s final death, or was that outside of its view? If the latter is the case, then Giorno is reinforced as a character that controls reality in a way unlike anyone we’ve seen, but if not, then the Rolling Stones episode forces the question of how much Giorno actually changed fate against Diavolo. Of course in the moment he was able to save himself and banish Diavolo to experience an unending series of deaths, but was that moment already foreseen? These questions go unanswered, and the placement of this arc leaves Vento Aureo on a note of uncertainty that hangs over the entire conclusion. It’s a strange decision, and one that seems to serve no purpose for the plot, but exists solely for thematic reasons. It creates alternative ways to interact with fate, but it also seems to step outside of the text and acknowledge, in some implicit way, that fate is more or less a prison. Time will continue to move, and it will move in certain invisible, predetermined ways, with the only options to break the cycle are via a quiet, painless suicide; otherwise, time will continue to march on, and everyone is victim to it. Just look at the final image of the story: Giorno, seated on the throne, as mafioso kiss the ring, while Mista stands guard. The boss, Diavolo, has been dispatched, but he has been replaced, and the system remains intact. This is an image of success for Giorno and co., but it is not an image of a reality rewritten, merely a reality re-situated. This sense of captivity could be extended to the Joestar flock as well — they will always be the ones to shoulder the burden of extraordinary evil, through no choice of their own. For as privileged as they are by fate, they are victims as well.

I could write more about Vento Aureo, and I may when I get around to the watching the anime, but I think this is enough words on the subject. One point I wish I had touched on was the art style and some of the things I find fascinating about it, like the greater unification between character designs and stand designs, but here again I link to the piece from earlier about the presentation of ‘alternative’ masculinities in Jojo, of which Vento Aureo is the prime example so far, where men wear lacy undergarments, skirts, revealing clothing, and physical intimacy between men is a recurring element. I’ve started reading Stone Ocean, and I have MANY thoughts on it; the growth of this series continues to be endlessly interesting to me, and I would highly recommend others to read/watch it. Vento Aureo is not my favorite part I’ve read, and maybe not even my second favorite (although I imagine the novelty of Stardust Crusaders will be less charitable towards it on repeat engagements), but I think I will continue to think of this as a subtly transformative part of the series, where the previous formula was refined to its highest level, and when the aims of the storytelling rose higher than the plot towards a more interesting end.

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