If you know anything about anime or manga, then you’ve probably heard of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. If not, then perhaps you’ve seen the memes. Either way, it’s a series that carries with it a certain renown. Beginning with Part 1, which began publication in 1987, the manga is now on Part 8, with an anime adaptation currently spanning more than 150 episodes.
After devouring the first three parts of the manga recently, I felt compelled to offer some thoughts. My first wonder, and probably many others’ coming to the manga off the back of its prestige, was that does it live up to its title? Thinking about it, there are a lot of manga that I would probably describe as bizarre, and JoJo’s didn’t look to me on first gaze especially unusual, but it is a whole other breed still.
What makes JoJo so unique is no one thing. I am only up to Part 3 and yet as it progresses, the author Hirohiko Araki manages to deftly craft a world in which the more time you spend, the more you become growingly expectant and yet all the more astonished by all of its offbeat devices. It’s wrapped in this in-between sense of familiarity and an “anything can happen” sort of feeling, which makes it a constant thrill to follow, but it does have its limits.
Each part follows a different generation or iteration of the Joestar family, so even though the characters do trade places, there’s a growing affinity between the cast and the reader. The author writes characters who are fun, likeable, and all very impassioned, building a saga that is filled to the brim with drama and action. Yet I do get the sense that the series is awkwardly bound by quite a rigid formula. Characters will generally stay within their moulds, and there are a lot of exposition dumps, narrated “realisations” and “Gotcha!” moments that make the work seem a bit juvenile at times. Beginning with Part 7, the manga moved from Weekly Shounen Jump over to its monthly seinen counterpart, and I have to wonder — once I get that far — if there’ll be a marked difference in characterisation.
Yet though I can’t help but wonder at how superb the manga may be with a little more finesse in its writing, there’s never a sense that Hirohiko Araki is doing a bad job. It’s as if his attention has gone into simply riffing on cool ideas rather than forging a more well fleshed plot. It seems for Araki, the bizarre is found best in the very lack of foundation, in the inconsistency of all things, where nothing is certain and no plan is too crazy. The result is something that is endlessly fun despite lacking a wider intrigue. The characters will get into near unfathomable situations, and get out of them in near unfathomable ways. Some strategies used by the characters are so bizarrely contrived, the author comes in to narrate the details, even going so far as to provide a diagram or alternate angle. It’s offbeat and silly, and certainly not to everybody’s taste, yet it has an electrifying charm that is difficult to pass up.
I think it’s a manga best binged. Like most shounen battle manga, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is much stronger in its arcs, where the author’s ingenious and often volume-long planning really shines. I can’t recall any individual chapter that sticks out to me, though it is inundated with funny and spectacular set pieces that I recall very fondly. The author’s artwork is striking — filled with bold lines and outlandish spreads in which the characters pose as though they moonlight as gifted contortionists. The smaller panels and close-ups of finer details can be difficult to discern, but the action in general is energetic and articulate, with creative panel arrangement which inspires an exciting flow.
Issues arise only when you attempt to take the manga a bit too seriously. Shounen action series almost always have a ‘super power’ aspect or qi-like element which the character’s utilise to fight (think Saiyan powers in Dragon Ball, Devil Fruit in One Piece, or the Jutsu techniques in Naruto); in JoJo’s Part 1 and 2, it’s the enigmatic ‘hamon,’ a technique hinged on the users breathing and life energy. In Parts 3 and onwards, the characters have ‘stands,’ which manifest in various forms as companions or familiars with numerous powers, ranging from the physical to the spiritual and anything in-between. The stand powers in particular are brilliantly inventive, with author Araki clearly considering just how to push the conflicts to the extreme. Abilities rarely overlap and continue to evolve throughout — for such a long series, the action and ideas at the core never dull. However, somewhere along the way the logistics of it all get a bit muddled. It’s difficult to make sense of some of the devices at work, with explanations that are rooted firmly in the mystical, where you just have to take it as it is and not consider your rational mind too much.
At its most basic, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a lengthy showdown of hero versus villain; those being the Joestar family and the wicked antagonist Dio. This conflict is redone and revisited throughout the manga, but for what the series lacks in depth and subtlety, it makes up for in its sheer, unabashed entertainment. Though the author certainly has a formula, it’s a very malleable one in terms of genre, allowing him to revisit characters and themes in fresh and extraordinary settings. Part 1 is a bit like a Hammer horror movie, Part 2 a fantasy action serial, and Part 3 a monster-of-the-week road trip. Still to come (for me) are Part 7’s western gumball rally, and Part 8’s supernatural murder mystery, as well as whatever madcap scenarios comprise Parts 4 to 6. Even then, the manga is more than the sum of its parts, and defining each part so simply does the series a disservice.
Entertainment is key in Araki’s world, and in that, he seldom falters. He crafts a world that could certainly be considered irrational or even half-baked at times, yet its shortcomings play to its strengths, where the madcap antics are endlessly more gratifying than they are confounded. Even though JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a little rough around the edges, it is this which affords the manga its charm and gives rise to its boundless characteristics which, ultimately, end up being its biggest draw.