JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (first TV season)

(Neo Magazine, Uncooked Media)

We start with two feuding brothers in 1880s England. Then there are cursed masks, mystical fighting styles, vampires, zombies, undead knights, shipwrecks, Nazis, ancient superbeings, chariot races, family secrets… and this is still just the beginning of the Jojo story…

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a jaw-droppingly campy joy. It must be shared, memed, exclaimed over amazedly (“What the hell are we watching?”), laughed at and cheered with, thrown popcorn over. Recommended accompaniments are beer and curry. It’s like watching vintage Arnie flicks like Commando or Conan, or the 1980s Flash Gordon, or Rocky Horror. More broadly, JoJo feels like the creation of a Takashi Miike-level maniac, out to make the Shonen Jump saga to end all Shonen Jump sagas.

It begins – and this is one of the things that makes JoJo deliciously funny – in merry old England in the 1880s, with a feud between two strappingly oversized adoptive brothers. One, the titular JoJo, is our hero. The other, called Dio, is demonically baaad, punching out JoJo’s pet dog on their first meeting. Soon the boys are lunging at each other like finely-dressed human battleships. The first couple of episodes are delirious, like Ripping Yarns on super-steroids. It doesn’t stay that hilarious, but it’s an incredible launchpad.

By the end of this volume’s ten hours, you’ll have forgotten about the brothers’ feud, long buried under a mountain of stuff. There’s an ancient cursed mask, like an Alien facehugger, that creates a monster superbeing. It’s only the first of many terrible chojin that JoJo will battle over the season, while his story hops over Europe and America and into a different decade entirely.

During the series, JoJo himself is effectively rebooted – we won’t spoil how, but it’s clever – into another character, a trickster with the same face and physique but now blessed with a wacky sense of humour. He uses banter for deadly distractions, plus cartoon-logic fight strategies. He survives a cliff fall (endlessly time-stretched, like all JoJo’s action) by climbing a rope of falling icicles. Whereas JoJo’s early episodes feel like the oldest, crudest superhero comics, by the middle there are touches of Spider-Man humour, with one great running gag, as JoJo repeatedly predicts what his latest adversary will say next.

Otherwise, it’s all big fights, then brief training interludes as JoJo levels up, then more big fights that break into the training without a wasted beat. Characters go through many episodes shouting lines with multiple exclamation points, and those characters seldom have more depth than their screaming punctuation. It’s way more violent than Naruto. The show can behead a baby, or have a character gutted by a killer squirrel auditioning for Monty Python.

JoJo never calms down, never takes time off, never has a smidgen of nuance or development except what’s needed to reach the next level, the next face-off, the next crazy fight. Obviously, it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and you may find a little JoJo goes a very long way. There was once a great American animator Tex Avery, whose cartoons were relentless strings of escalating gags. These cartoons were brilliant, but so singleminded that one critic said Avery’s work was “as cold and impersonal as an asteroid hurtling through space.” JoJo isn’t as great as Avery, but it has that hermetic, obsessive quality, like the showboating drumroll in Whiplash that goes on and on until you switch off or surrender.

If you do go with it, you’ll spot points of great thematic interest amid the explosions. Let’s acknowledge the most outrageous. The series brings on a Nazi commander (we’re well way past the 1880s now) who slaughters a room of terrified civilians in contempt at their weakness, and yet JoJo can work with this monster and admire him. It ties into a wider motif of “honour among warriors”, though some viewers may see it as more proof of Japan’s queasy perspective on its wartime allies. You may have heard about the recent outrage over neo-Nazi Twitter comments by Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, who directed Recovery of an MMO Junkie. If not, it’s all over Google.

Yet the series also shows JoJo smacking a man who racially abuses his African-American friend. It’s white saviour stuff, and the friend is disappointingly sidelined, but it still complicates JoJo’s ethics (yes, we can talk about JoJo’s ethics!). And for all the overgrown male bods on display, JoJo can take the mick out of masculinity; there’s a remarkable scene where a warrior uses crying as a fight strategy. That’s quite apart from the wild he-man homoeroticism in the dialogue and imagery that could launch a thousand online memes, and no doubt has.

The TV presentation is rather crude and rather great. There are blocks of comic-book colours; fights that use exploding colours and slashing split-screens; and of course VERY LOUD SHOUTING to distract from the crudity of the actual movement. The genre-crossing music is often superb, including songs by multiple artists. One tremendous opera requiem underpins an epic heroic death scene which should be laughable, just because it’s a death scene in JoJo, but it happens far too deep into the series for you not to be moved. The season’s end is entirely satisfying if you want to get off; otherwise, there’s loads more still to come.