Anime review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (season one)

Adapted from the long-running manga of the same name, the 2012 anime version of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is effectively the first season of something much larger. Two protagonists are covered in-depth, as are their respective allies and enemies. Clocking in at twenty-six episodes, these first two chapters do well to tie into one another and set the stage for everything that is to come, while simultaneously bringing their individual stories full circle and providing a satisfying conclusion.

The first chapter is set in the late 1800s, and focuses on Jonathan Joestar, son of a rich father who has raised the boy on his own since the passing of his wife. The relatively mellow and predictable life Jonathan leads is upset with the arrival of Dio Brando, son of a man who Jonathan’s father mistakenly believes saved his life – in truth, Dio’s father Dario Brando was attempting to rob Jonathan’s parents on the night Jonathan’s mother died. Dio soon becomes the golden child in the eyes of Jonathan’s father, but Dio’s ultimate goal is to take over every role Jonathan ever had within the Joestar family and household, and eventually claim the family’s inheritance.

Though it takes Jojo many years to find a way to expose Dio to his father, and lost connections with some of his friends along the way, eventually Dio’s plot to kill Jonathan’s father by slowly poisoning him is revealed and he is kicked out of the household. Prompted to find a cure for his father, Jonathan heads into the city, where he is met by a street gang member named Robert Edward O. Speedwagon. After a brief exchange, Speedwagon and Jonathan make their way back to the Joestar mansion to save Jonathan’s father and finally remove Dio from their company. But things quickly go awry when Dio dons a stone mask that had long been housed within the Joestar mansion. Painting the mask with blood, Dio is transformed into a vampire, his only weaknesses the light of the sun and the mysterious technique known as the ripple. And while all this may seem like a lot of content to explain for a review, I assure you that all of the aforementioned events occur within the first few episodes, and serve to set the stage for the primary conflict of this first chapter: Jonathan Joestar’s fighting spirit and ripple technique vs. Dio Brando’s desire to grow beyond humanity and unleash an army of the undead upon the world.

While the names of the primary protagonist and antagonist of chapter one might not have been as strikingly obvious, Speedwagon and the vast majority of the characters that follow bear names that are direct references to classic rock groups and songs. These include somewhat subtle nods to Led Zeppelin via Will A. Zeppeli, to the more blatant (and arguably more silly) as seen in the duo of monks named Dire and Straits who studied the mystic arts of ripple fighting under their master Tompeti (pronounced ‘Tom Petty’). And that’s the main gimmick of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. The series does deal quite a bit with variants of the ripple fighting technique, and to that end it falls somewhere between Dragon Ball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho in the fighting action genre – certainly not the most subtle of series, and definitely more than a little ridiculous, but every character has his or her limitations, and the fights are never drawn out to an excessive degree.

The art style is one of the series’ best points of its overall presentation. Psychedelic color patterns force Jojo and company’s outfits to stand out prominently against darker and highly detailed backgrounds, while dynamic angles give the action a more desperate and intense feel. Occasionally, a still-frame close-up or the inclusion of animated sound effect kanji text will pay homage to the manga source material – a curious touch that further sets this series’ style apart from its contemporaries. The original soundtrack composed for the series does well to perpetuate a sense of adventure, with themes that accompany the major battles striking powerful chords at just the right moments. A few tunes also incorporate samplings from classic rock tunes, such as ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ by Yes, further lending the series’ presentation factor to stand out from the crowd.

Chapter two of the series has a much higher episode count that the first, though a number of the characters return as supporting cast members. Set in 1938, this story follows Joseph Joestar, grandson of Jonathan Joestar, and explores the origins of the Stone Masks like the one Dio used to transform himself into a vampire. As it turns out, there are many more of these masks attached to stone pillars with humanoid beings frozen within, as if they are in a sort of stasis. The first of these Pillar Men is discovered by Speedwagon, who is now in charge of a research foundation, but the findings and Speedwagon himself are ultimately seized by a small group of Nazi scientists who are seeking occult and powerful objects around the world to fuel Germany’s pre-WWII dreams of grandeur. Realizing that Speedwagon’s disappearance must mean something has gone wrong with his expedition, young Joseph Joestar heads to Mexico to find him, arriving by motorcycle just in time to witness the Pillar Man awaken from his two-thousand year slumber. While this Pillar Man is initially slow to react, he is shown to be highly adaptable to his surroundings, and capable of learning at an incredible rate. He is able to absorb individuals into his body to repair it, but the ripple technique handed down through the Joestar line is capable of dealing him damage. After this Pillar Man, dubbed Santana, effectively destroys the entirety of the Nazi facility, Joseph manages to defeat him with the light of the sun, but not before learning that there are more Pillar Men like him that the Nazis have uncovered in Europe.

From there, Joeseph travels to Italy to meet with Caesar Zeppeli, grandson of Will A. Zeppeli, and Caesar’s mentor Lisa Lisa. After the three more powerful Pillar Men awaken, Caesar and Joseph attempt to stop them from escaping the excavation site where they were uncovered, but only manage to deal slight damage to the weakest of the three, known as Wham. Intrigued by the strength of these ripple users, as well as the fact that there are any surviving descendants of the ripple users he and his masters/comrades ACDC and Cars attempted to wipe out during the pinnacle of their existence two-thousand years prior, Wham spares the two and encourages them to challenge him again in one month’s time, when their ripple techniques have been better honed and amplified. To ensure Joseph does not fail to show up, Wham and ACDC place rings around his neck vein and heart, informing him that he will have to take the antidote from jewelry on their bodies once he has successfully defeated them.

Similar to the first chapter, the fight against Santana and the awakening of his three superiors is tackled within the first few episodes of this second act. The ultimate goal of these Pillar Men is the Red Stone of Aja, an artifact which will supposedly allow them to master their weakness to sunlight. Still, despite their ties to the stone masks that turned Dio into a vampire, ACDC, Cars, and Wham are all shown to be significantly more powerful than Jonathan Joestar’s adversary ever was. Each of the Pillar Men has his own distinct technique – Wham can spin his arms rapidly and create a violent sandstorm, ACDC can spout a lava-like liquid from tiny tubes that extend from within his body, and Cars has retractable blades inside either arm. Of the three, however, Wham is easily the most well-rounded and respectable antagonist, as his warrior’s pride is what keeps him grounded and offers Joseph a real fighting chance against Cars and ACDC’s greedy desires to obtain the Red Stone of Aja. ACDC and Cars are a bit more one-dimensional as villains, and ultimately come across as being about as well-developed as supporting cast member Stroheim, a Nazi officer who Jojo meets in Mexico and who only appears in a handful of episodes of this second act. It’s a rather strange move, all things considered – it makes sense that Stroheim’s limited inclusion would lead him to come across as more caricature than fully-developed character, but for Cars and ACDC to be so lackluster in the presence of Wham is more than just a little bit disappointing. Even Dio, whose story arc is shorter than that of the Pillar Men, is a more complex and interesting villain.

The Joestars and their allies, however, are, for the most part, quite the likeable and interesting bunch. Jonathan Joestar plays the part of a more chivalrous hero, in stark contrast to Dio’s greed and delusions of grandeur. Speedwagon, while not the bravest soul, sometimes provides tactical advice to his friends, and his foundation is key during the second chapter. Above all else, though, Speedwagon and ripple master Will A. Zeppeli are unwaveringly loyal to Jonathan and his cause of stopping Dio’s conquest. Joseph, on the other hand, is more of an everyman – he is cocky, he ogles pretty women, and he has no qualms about starting an alley fight with a pair of crooked cops. His imperfect human habits are what lend this Joestar to being a more relatable and (ironically) more likeable protagonist. His habit of pulling strategies out of thin air never cease to impress, in large part because of how quick-witted and wacky they tend to be, and his bravery in putting himself in danger’s way to protect his friends is equal parts admirable and crazy.

While both plotlines are handled well, it certainly feels as if chapter one was more or less a means of setting the stage for Joseph Joestar’s story. And that’s probably the best way to go about delivering this story, considering how many characters and plot points carry on to chapter two. Nothing in this first season of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure feels the slightest bit rushed, which is impressive, considering it follows the story of one family over multiple generations. Some of the characters are a bit less spectacular in presentation than others, however, and that is arguably the greatest misstep of the first season of this series, which is such a character-driven story. Still, this adaptation is a heck of a lot of fun, and the finale does well to tease what is to come in season two with a couple post-credits easter eggs.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

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