The ground tread by Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is well-worn. Its original form, a serialized comic, began in 1986 at the height of Fist of the North Star’s popularity, a few years before Dragon Ball Z would codify the tropes and structure of the teenage-boy action story. Jojo falls into many of these tropes, especially in its first arc. In its structure and in much of its characters, it gives the appearance of yet another standard shonen action show. But Jojo pushes these tropes to amazing heights, through its unique style, clever writing, and balls-to-the-wall daring. Jojo, like Fist of the North Star, has few restraints, but it works with intelligence and care. It is brute force applied by the hands of a master artisan. David Production’s Jojo anime reflects this as well as it can, and it’s by far the truest adaptation yet.
This twenty-six episode series covers the first two arcs of Jojo: “Phantom Blood” and “Battle Tendency.” The first is concerned with the war between Jonathan Joestar and Dio Brando in the 1890’s, one a true gentleman seeking to protect his family and friends, the other a greedy monster who sacrifices his humanity for vampiric powers. “Battle Tendency” focuses on Joseph Joestar, Jonathan’s grandson, and his quest to stop the ancient beings who were the source of Dio’s strength. In each arc, the heroes are assisted by the Ripple, a mystic power allowing them to convert their breath into immense strength.
Jojo isn’t done justice by a summary; without firsthand experience, its plot may seem woefully pedestrian, but it’s the details that truly define it. Its cast is archetypal, but the vast majority of them are likeable because of this. They have purity, and charm comes out of this, whether it’s for the cartoonishly noble Jonathan Joestar, the scenery-chewing Dio Brando, or the comically devoted Speedwagon. Each archetype is pushed to its logical extent, taken to the maximum degree at each moment. Speedwagon is always in the supporting role, motivating his friends as best he can, even when all he can do is scream. Jonathan will always do the most noble thing, no matter what.
This sense of purity pervades “Phantom Blood” the most, which holds it back in some ways. It makes the characters and their actions predictable, and the plot isn’t gripping; it is carried on the back of its kitschy charm. It is only with its final twist that we see the narrative come into its own, and “Battle Tendency” carries this forward wonderfully. Where Jonathan wins fights through force of will, Joseph relies on his wits; each battle is a series of tricks and gambles. Joseph is a court jester with a sense of justice, the perfect lead for this story. The second arc is where Jojo comes into its own, and it’s packed with twists and turns at each episode. Despite its shonen structure, it knows how to pace itself, and as the conflicts are wars of wits, there isn’t any filler dedicated to watching the heroes charge up their powers. The only issues Jojo runs into with pacing are related to its supporting cast and their tendency to scream exposition at the top of their lungs. Still, it’s more often charming than it is obnoxious.As it’s reliant on ancient archetypes and common story threads, it’s clearly a product of its time. Jojo embraces the age of its material rather than shying away from it, and it’s reflected throughout. Characters are named after the most dated of bands; it’s not often that one hears references to Wham! or REO Speedwagon in 2013. David Productions are well aware of this, and they animate this series around that. Sound effects are drawn onto the action, and frames are held to match the original artist’s panels; the color scheme is bright and garish, especially during moments of introspection. There are some rough off-model shots here and there, but these have largely been fixed in the Blu-Ray releases. The soundtrack reflects the tone extremely well, especially in the openings. Each calls back to anime from around the time of Jojo’s original serialization, with intense 80’s rock in the first and funky jazz in the second. This is what openings are supposed to do: encapsulate the one of a show in a minute-and-a-half of music and visuals. The Jojo openings are fantastic at this.
Jojo does what few tales are able to do: unite archetypes and cliches together in a narrative that’s enjoyable without being off-putting in its simulacratic nature. It clings to its roots and has no pretensions of being anything more than a popcorn movie, and in this day and age that’s a true feat. Nowadays, it’s much more common for an author to put themselves above genre conventions, as though they’re better than every one of their predecessors, and it serves to distract from what that genre did well. Jojo is honest and pure, and there’s little else quite as enjoyable on the airwaves.