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“Your next line is ‘What a great review by Kevin’”– Joseph Joestar, probably.
One of the strongest and bravest traits of JoJo’s creator, Hirohiko Araki, is his capacity to start fresh with each part of the series. This is a tendency (pun intended) that started with the manga’s first arc or part, Phantom Blood, with the protagonist, Jonathan Joestar, dying in that boat against Dio Brando, and being replaced by his grandson, Joseph Joestar, with the part that we are going to talk about today, Battle Tendency.
While Phantom Blood already showed hints and samples of the bizarre that the series’ title suggested, it’s in Battle Tendency where we see the full craziness that was promised: Aztec gods of fitness, insane Nazi allies (yes, you heard that right), flamboyant main characters that strike extremely weird poses and a protagonist who is both an idiot and a genius strategist at the same time. And I’m only scratching the surface.
At its core, Battle Tendency is the moment where Araki found himself as a creator and as a storyteller and while there are still elements to iron out, the reality is that this is where we really get to see the story fulfilling its potential. It’s a story that reeks of charisma, confidence, and pushing the boundaries of what shonen manga could be–let’s remember that the original manga was published in the late 80s when the landscape of the medium was quite different.
But before we get into the most important details, let’s get started with what really matters here:
Yes, folks. Speedwagon is back! GOATwagon! Anime and manga’s ultimate hype man is now a rich oil tycoon and we couldn’t be happier to see him narrating and explaining everything that happens while he loses his mind. JoJo is not the same without him. Anyway, now that the most important part of the entire franchise is covered, let’s focus on the plot…
What is Battle Tendency?
Fifty years after the events of Phantom Blood, it’s now 1938, right before the events of World War II, and we meet the grandson of Jonathan Joestar, Joseph Joestar, in New York City. His parents are nowhere to be seen and he has been taken care of by his grandmother, Erina, and Speedwagon. But everything changes when the latter is attacked in Mexico by a former ally of Jonathan’s, Straits, and uses the mask to turn into a vampire, just like Dio did many years ago.
Things take an even greater turn for the worse when the Nazis capture Speedwagon, who was presumed dead, to use his knowledge to capture a rock wall that had been holding legendary beings known as the Pillar Men and who are believed to be the creators of the masks and vampires as a whole. They eventually come back to life and it’s up to Joseph and his allies to stop this ancient evil from taking over the world.
If you didn’t skip Phantom Blood (and if you did, shame on you), you are going to notice the changes in the story’s format, traits, and approach to things from the get-go. While Phantom Blood, in both the manga and anime, feels like a mixture of Fist of the North Star with Gothic horror, gore, and classic shonen manga influences (plus Araki’s natural knack for storytelling and the insane), Battle Tendency shows its creator’s artistic identity for the first time.
This is the part where JoJo really became JoJo and a lot of the elements that have made the franchise what it is today (strategic battles, breaking conventional shonen tropes, and always opting for the insane and exaggerated) are at full display here. And I think one of the key factors that helped with that is the main character, Joseph Joestar.
Look, I love Jonathan Joestar. His heroic nature, his resolve, and how he embodies the best of humanity are something that I enjoy quite a lot. It would be manga’s equivalent of the likes of Superman and Captain America if I had to draw a comparison with American comics. But if Araki was going to have a different protagonist for each arc, then different approaches with each main character was going to be necessary to push the envelope and keep things fresh, which is something that Joseph Joestar does in spades.
Joseph is a great change of pace from Jonathan. While the original JoJo is a classic hero, Joseph is a genius strategist with a flamboyant and borderline moronic attitude, willing to use any kind of tactic to get the victory and having no problem in humiliating himself in order to get the results he wants. An example of this is shown in his first battle with the Pillar Men, where he has no problem pretending to be dead and then crawl when the enemy is not watching–it looks as dumb as it reads and somehow Joseph makes it work.
This change in protagonists not only allows for changes in personality but also in battle styles. Jonathan was a straight shooter: while I think he was more intelligent than given credit for, it’s true that he was more in line with the traditional shonen manga and anime protagonists that relied a lot more on their instincts, bravery, and righteous nature to overcome the odds. On the other hand, Joseph is a master strategist whose thinking outside the box allowed him to outsmart literal gods and make the playing field lot even when he was outmatched.
Add to this equation charisma and a fun-loving character and you have one of the most beloved JoJos of the entire franchise. And while I think Araki often gives Joseph way too much protagonist (more on that later), it’s hard to argue with the results–it’s one of his protagonists that have been more well-received by fans and the man is highly entertaining throughout the story. I also think that his relationship with one of the main characters, Caesar, is one of the best and, arguably, worst parts of Battle Tendency.
We are introduced to Caesar Zeppeli, the grandson of William Zeppeli that taught Hamon to Jonathan and gave his life for him, and he and JoJo start clashing. It’s great, it’s interesting, and is a nice change of pace from Phantom Blood where the side characters didn’t seem to have agency of their own. Their initial dynamics are some of the funniest and most real of the story, with both characters having to go through their war with the Pillar Men and their Hamon training with Lisa to gain respect for each other.
Often in anime, characters simply get along because of plot convenience and there is no evolution in their relationship. Here, we see Caesar and Joseph developing a bond while maintaining that edge that eventually results in the former storming out to face the Pillar Men on his own, resulting in his untimely and moving death.
Caesar’s death is powerful due to how close he was to beating Wammu, his relationship with his father being the main motivator after years of hating him, and his last moments of life when he gave his last remaining bits of life to Joseph. It’s a very compelling moment and Araki would go on to become a master of killing off supporting characters in a memorable manner… but my problem is that the side characters here rarely amount to much.
Look, I like Caesar. I like his flamboyant nature, how he is prone to outbursts of anger and his motivation to stop the Pillar Men, but the man barely gets to do anything until he fights with Wammu and dies there. He doesn’t get any wins of his own, barely has any major contributions to the plot and his major impact is to motivate Joseph with his death, much like his grandfather before him and I would argue that William influenced the series a lot more.
The same can be said about the two other major supporting characters, but I’m going to focus first on everybody’s favorite German Panzer, Rudol von Stroheim.
By the way, the soundtrack has a massive improvement in Battle Tendency. While I love the opening of Phantom Blood, Battle Tendency has a stronger set of tracks, especially when it comes to the opening, Stroheim or the Pillar Men, thus offering a lot of mood swings in each scene that feels compelling and engaging. I’m not one to focus too much on the soundtrack of anime, but this one really works for me.
Anyway, Stroheim could have only been a thought in Araki’s imagination: an uber-Nazi fanatic and soldier that eventually becomes one of the most heroic and compelling side characters in Battle Tendency due to how things unfold. It’s something so insane and out of the left field that works so well, which is a running theme in this part of JoJo’s. It also serves to emphasize how this is a battle between humanity and something else, which pretty much is.
Stroheim dominates most scenes he is in and his help against Santana, starting off as a showoff without much bravery and turning into a man willing to take his life for the cause, is something that really stays with you. Unlike Caesar, while he doesn’t get any wins, you feel that he contributed greatly and assisted Joseph until the very end of the arc as a powerful and committed ally.
The same can’t be said about Lisa Lisa, though.
I’m a peaceful man when it comes to giving artists criticism. We all make mistakes here and there and, as a professional writer, I can understand that you are not going to please everybody. But I have rarely been as pissed off as I was when Araki decided to basically sideline Lisa Lisa in the third act of Battle Tendency.
Right from the get-go, Lisa Lisa is introduced as this Hamon master that is going to push Caesar and Joseph to their limits, and she does. Throughout the arc, we see her intelligence, determination, and resolve, plus her mastery of Hamon, giving us little samples here and there of how powerful she was. But, much like Caesar, she never gets a proper moment in the spotlight and at least the Italian got a memorable death… Lisa Lisa got this.
I could understand the twist and shock value of building up Lisa Lisa only for her to get stabbed like this by Kars, but it feels like such a waste of a character, especially when you consider that Joseph had already beaten Santana and two of the Pillar Men. Lisa Lisa had a lot of reasons to fight here and recently saw Caesar getting killed–it would have been quite appropriate for her to have a moment in the sun even if it ended up with her dying or being defeated.
There have been rumors that Araki was pushed by his editors to not do much with Lisa Lisa due to the sexist nature of Japanese manga in the mid-80s, but until I get a confirmation of this, I can only put this situation on Araki’s door. He will eventually improve by giving individual wins to the side characters while maintaining the protagonists in the spotlight, but Lisa Lisa was such a wasted opportunity and a character that had a lot of potential that wasn’t fulfilled.
This is a fundamental flaw of Battle Tendency: the overreliance on Joseph when it came to ending the Pillar Men. It makes the side characters feel more like a compliment rather than actually contributing to the story and while they have their own agencies and motivations, I would go as far as saying that they contribute less to the story than, say, William Zeppeli and Speedwagon in Phantom Blood. That is a shame because Caesar and Lisa Lisa had the potential to be even better characters.
Having seen most parts of JoJo’s, the Pillar Men are certainly an anomaly of sorts in the franchise. While most major antagonists are or were humans at some point, they are a superior race that views humans as simple ants and they want to achieve their own particular goals of overcoming the sun. They are powerful, they are arrogant and they have every reason to be like that, which makes the conflict feel like David vs. Goliath, JoJo style.
Eisidisi is the least compelling, but his weird mood swings make him entertaining. Wammu is the most tridimensional of the three, feeling more like a warrior in search of a great battle than an outright villain, and his respect for Caesar after their battle was certainly a touching moment. And Kars is both a great villain and a wasted opportunity, at least from my perspective.
Kars has a very interesting backstory: he wanted to find a way to overcome what was troubling his race and eventually that quest for knowledge and power ended up terminating his race and him with only his mission in mind. This is why he doesn’t care that much about Eisidisi and Wammu and is willing to play dirty, as he did with Lisa Lisa, to get the results he wants. In a way, he is a twisted, sadistic version of Joseph in that regard.
My main gripe with Kars is that we only get to see him as an individual near the end of the second act and for parts of the third act. At first, it seems like the Pillar Men are on even terms (although Wammu is certainly the disciple here), but by the end, you can see Kars being in charge, which, at least from my perspective, felt a bit sudden and not developed very well.
Having said all that, the scene of the birth of Ultimate Kars is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and one of those scenes where Speedwagon loses his mind is completely warranted. He achieved his goal of becoming the ultimate being and defeated the sun and the manga and the anime do a phenomenal job of portraying his pleasure and the heroes’ dismay and hopelessness at realizing that they failed. Stroheim’s reaction in particular is very powerful in that regard.
The fact that Joseph beat him through circumstances and not really through actual strategy or outmatching him through his wits is something that fits so well and so poorly with this story. Like the enemy was so powerful and invincible that he could only be sent into space and mentally shut down due to not being able to move. It’s an ending that works and doesn’t, but I find it strangely compelling and poetic–like the vast majority of Battle Tendency.
Battle Tendency is where JoJo’s started to fulfill its potential as a story and is also a key point in the franchise as Joseph’s story connects Jonathan’s legacy to what could be considered as “the modern world”. It’s the part where Araki found his path as a storyteller and a lot of the elements that made him the genius that he is are starting to become prominent here.
While is often viewed as a “skippable” part due to not having iconic villains like Dio or not having the same abilities that made JoJo what it is (more on that in the next part), Battle Tendency is a fun, crazy, and memorable experience that you need to enjoy at least once in your life. There is very little out there like is and its combination of insane approaches to storytelling with a very powerful narrative is something you should allow yourself to enjoy at least once.
It’s that good.