JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part Three: Stardust Crusaders Retrospective

There was a longer gap between these retrospectives than I intended, mostly because I’ve been trying to keep a part or two ahead of schedule. Having to rewatch and reread every part in between the demanding schedule of anime and manga I already have has proven quite difficult. On top of that, MangaDex shut down for a couple months while the Shonen Jump app has been releasing chapters of Part Four at a drip feed. On the bright side, though, Netflix just picked up Diamond is Unbreakable, so that made the rewatch a bit easier.

Now with Morioh firmly behind me, I feel like I have a comfortable enough lead to start talking about Part Three: Stardust Crusaders. It’s something of a mixed bag, mostly because it was a serious game changer for JoJo: it introduced Stands, gave the series a massive uptick in popularity, to say the least. Still, it’s not without flaw, and I think if I’ve established anything on this blog, it’s that being a classic doesn’t make you immune to criticism.

I have complicated feelings towards Stardust Crusaders, even more than Phantom Blood; it manages to do so many things right, and just as many wrong. Hopefully this will be the last negative retrospective in this series, as rereading Diamond is Unbreakable and Golden Wind has been a treat. With no further ado, I’m beginning my own journey, just as perilous as trekking from Japan to Egypt; I’m dissecting JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part Three: Stardust Crusaders.

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A lineup of the crusaders from the first opening.

Stardust Crusaders, like Battle Tendency before it, is an independent story that is relates back to Phantom Blood. Jonathan’s vampire brother Dio has escaped his imprisonment under the sea by attaching his severed head to Jonathan’s body. He uncovered the power of the Stand Arrow, which grants the user a psychic manifestation of their spirit, each with its own unique abilities and powers.

When Dio acquires his Stand, the Arrow also grants one to each of Jonathan’s living descendants. Jonathan’s grandson, Joseph, now an old man, travels to Japan to meet his grandson Jotaro. Jotaro is the certified “cool JoJo” because he’s rebellious, plays a guitar while in prison, and doesn’t follow school uniform regulations. But Jotaro has been plagued by the appearance of an evil spirit, unaware that his Stand, Star Platinum, has awakened.

As Dio’s power grows, harnessing his Stand, The World, Joseph assembles a team of Stand users to travel to Egypt and defeat Dio once and for all. The mission is especially personal for the Joestars, as they learn Jotaro’s mother Holly has developed a Stand without the physical or mental fortitude to control it. She’ll die in fifty days unless the source of her ailment, Dio, is eradicated.

They’re joined by the fortune teller Muhammad Avdol, who first learned of Dio’s survival and encountered him in Egypt. They soon meet Kakyoin and Polnareff, two Stand users who were mind-controlled and deceived into following Dio, respectively. The crusaders travel to many exotic locations, stopping in Hong Kong, sailing to India, traversing the subcontinent and much of the Middle East before making it to Egypt. When they do, they’re met with Iggy, a dog who has manifested his own Stand, rounding out the group.

Each step of the journey is accompanied by a challenge from one of Dio’s many Stand users, each named after either a Tarot card or one of the Egyptian gods. These fights establish the formula that would largely define the series going forward: the Stand user attacks, usually a sneak attack with an unbeatable ability, splitting up the main cast and cornering one or two of them. At this point, they have to determine what the Stand’s weakness is, or find the others to overpower the enemy. Ora ora, rinse, repeat.

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This is how 90 percent of the fights in Stardust Crusaders end.

Stardust Crusader’s strengths are immediately apparent. The formula is excellently structured, limited only by Araki’s imagination, and Stands are just such an ingenious idea, but more on that later. They provide so much more room for potential than the power of hamon could, and the fights reflect that diversity.

Each crusader has their own specialty that makes them useful to the team in a different area. Jotaro’s Star Platinum is an all-around powerhouse, Kakyoin’s Hierophant Green has long range and technical attacks, Polnareff’s Silver Chariot is extremely quick, and Avdol doesn’t get enough screentime. Unfortunately, it does feel as though Avdol and Joseph got the short end of things, since Avdol doesn’t get a chance to shine, and Joseph’s Stand has limited uses.

But we do get more variety when the crusaders have the chance to work with a different member of the team. Each Stand has dozens of applications on their own, and those possibilities only mulitply when they work together. Every fight is like a puzzle; you can start with the corners and the edges, and slowly build inwards until you find the center, their weakness.

And here is where I’ll talk about how cool Stands are on a fundamental level. Psychic superpower ghosts is one of the most fun shonen power systems ever devised, and each Stand has nigh limitless potential for storytelling. Araki does an excellent job building up each new enemy as invincible, but they’re still defeated in believable ways, usually.

There’s the occasional deus ex machina, like Star Platinum revealing he can stretch his finger very long, or that it’s possible to shrink your Stand just in time to fight the guy whose tiny Stand attacks your brain. It’s kind of dumb when they’re shown off, and they’re never mentioned again, but they are pretty niche abilities that wouldn’t be useful in any future fights, so I can ignore it.

I will say that this is where Araki really hit his stride as an artist. It wouldn’t be fully refined for years later, I’d argue until Stone Ocean and maybe not even until Steel Ball Run, but this is where JoJo became a recognizable aesthetic. It’s a shame that this is the last part where every character is built like a brickhouse, because small head Jonathan is one of the funniest pictures I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, that’s all there is to say in the positive, that the fights and powers are creative and fun. That’s mostly because Stardust Crusaders is almost all about the fights, and everything outside of that gets ignored.

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When I say Araki really starts to get it right here, this is what I mean.

The story is bare bones, sorry to say. Jotaro and the other crusaders spend all their time either traveling or fighting, and character development outside of that is scant. Polnareff’s motivations, first for following Dio and then abandoning him, are compelling. Kakyoin’s monologue in the last moments of his fight with Dio is beautifully written. He recounts his life living with a Stand, a part of himself that no one could see, and how he felt that no one would ever truly know him until he met the crusaders.

The problem is that these good parts I mentioned are done almost in a vacuum. Polnareff seeking vengeance, first for his sister then against Dio, really doesn’t build into a cohesive arc. Kakyoin’s barely been in the story since Egypt started, and his relationship with the other crusaders outside of Jotaro is non-existent. These powerful moments just fall flat because they’re not supported by the story.

The crusaders kind of seem like work friends who are really acquaintances who really are people you wouldn’t hang out with outside of work. Jotaro barely spends any time bonding with the grandfather he’s never met, and he never really warms up to any of the others. Avdol’s “death” is shocking, but it’s undone and the emotional punch gets ripped away when it is revealed the other crusaders knew and just hid it from Polnareff because he’s a loudmouth.

And then we have the biggest problem, Stardust Crusaders is just too long. 150 chapters, 48 episodes, and since Part Three is almost all fights, it feels so unevenly paced. The fights are well paced, but the fights aren’t the story, they’re parts of it, and that means that the entire work feels lopsided. After this, JoJo stopped adhering to traditional 24 episode anime seasons, and that was smart. It takes 25 episodes just to reach Egypt, and if they had condensed the whole story to 35 or 40 episodes, it would feel so much smoother.

And this is a complaint with the manga, too. If there had been more character development or story beyond “Crusaders need to get to Egypt, then to Dio, and fight people along the way”, I could justify 150 chapters to get these characters from point A to point B. You could afford to have cut some of the fights, too, considering there’s just so many of them.

And the character deaths do not pack the punch that they need to, certainly not as much as Caesar in Battle Tendency. Like I said, we barely know anything about Avdol and Kakyoin before their deaths, and Avdol already got killed once, so the emotional investment we have in him is long gone. Iggy at least gets some development and a small arc, growing to care about the crusaders and their mission before sacrificing himself, but that’s not enough. They just don’t have enough personality, which is anything but an issue in later JoJo parts.

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Thanks, I feel nothing.

We have a lot to thank Stardust Crusaders for, and I’m not forgetting that, even if I did go pretty hard on it. The concept of Stands was and still is revolutionary, the fight between Jotaro and Dio is legendary, but after Phantom Blood, it’s probably the weakest part. It doesn’t have Battle Tendency’s tighter pacing, or the large cast of likable characters of Diamond is Unbreakable.

However, JoJo is best appreciated not as a generational story of beefy boys whose name starts with Jo- (and occasionally women and occasionally Gio-), but as the evolution of an artist. Araki came an incredible distance in just the first three, but it has nothing on what comes later. It feels as though his talent refines at an exponential rate as the years go on.

Ultimately, it just has never sat right with me that in order to get the full story on JoJo, you have to get through the first 74 episodes, most of which are not worth the amount of time they take up. I think the anime adaptation did Phantom Blood a lot of favors, cutting it down to a manageable length, but if anything, they made it harder to get through Stardust Crusaders. Ultimately, I have a hard time forgiving that Stardust Crusaders is the single biggest barrier to entry for JoJo, so if my tone here has seemed overtly negative, you can lay the blame for it there.

But if you think I was being a touch harsh on the part that quite literally changed anime and manga forever, I can accept that, and you can tell it to me right down in the comments. If that’s not your flavor, talking to me over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku would be your next best bet. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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