This article originally published on October 6, 2022.
Founded in 2007 by former Studio Gonzo president K?ji Kajita and producer Taito Okiura, DavidPro was a small fish in a large and very competitive pond, and that’s how they wanted it.
The name “David” was chosen purposefully, as Kajita and Okiura envisioned the studio as a small company that could stand among the goliaths of the anime industry. The company had just started producing its own anime when Warner Bros. Japan producer Hiroyuki Omori approached them with the opportunity for a new adaptation of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Hirokiko Araki’s ongoing (1987-present day), multigenerational battle-shonen series. Omori was impressed with DavidPro’s work on 2009’s The Book of Bantorra, a title that featured strong line work and attentive animation—something essential when trying to depict Araki’s distinct art style.
Everyone understood that the task at hand would be difficult. The early character designs were made at a time where Shonen characters were built like Mr. Universe contestants, so there was no telling whether it would translate with contemporary audiences who were not familiar with the source material. And the story—a mixture of body horror, highly physical and mental one-on-one confrontations, extreme melodrama, and dashes of tongue-in-cheek humor—would be hard to pin down successfully. However, what pushed those concerns aside for both Omori and the staff at DavidPro was the belief that Araki’s story had not withered with age. The main challenge would be how to depict it faithfully, and to succeed where others had failed.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is one of the most popular and influential shonen sagas ever published, but as prominent as the manga had been for over 20 years, by the time DavidPro began working on the series, a proper anime adaptation had proved to be quite elusive. There had been a pair of little-seen OVAs released during the twilight of the medium’s boom period that didn’t really capture the essence of the manga or its unique appeal, and a 2007 film release that made drastic alterations to the series’ first chapter so as to whittle it down to a 90-minute feature was pulled after just a few screenings. It is a testament to the story’s enduring popularity and legacy among both the Japanese manga and anime industries that a third adaptation was even pitched.
With a studio chosen, DavidPro producer Hisataka Kasama joined the project to assist Omori and to put together a staff. Understanding that Araki’s manga would be too much for a single director to handle, Kasama decided that the best course of action would be to hire two directors: Naokatsu Tsuda and Kenichi Suzuki. It was an unusual move, but Kusama believed that by having each director bring on their individual strengths (Tsuda comedy, Suzuki action) while also collaborating on all other aspects of the adaptation, the two would essentially work as a team to crack the code. Both producers and directors were huge admirers of the manga, so they obviously wanted to do justice to the material. Wanting to make certain that they wouldn’t end up repeating the mistakes of the past, Omori provided the staff with a straightforward request during the first production meeting of what exactly DavidPro should do with this series. It was just two simple words: “make JoJo.”
The staff began studying the manga as if it were a religious text, every page and practically every individual panel, eventually coming to the conclusion that in order to properly adapt something like JJBA, conventionality would only hinder their chance at success; Kasama said in the series’ production notes: “If we follow the usual methods of creating animation, we’ll end up with ‘JoJo’s Ordinary Adventure.’ JoJo has to be a ‘bizarre adventure.’ If you think about it, the answer was in the title from the very beginning.”
The series adapts the first two chapters of Araki’s manga, Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency. The former introduces us to the rivalry and eventful duel between Jonathan Joestar, a young, upper class Englishman living in 19th century Liverpool, and his conniving and supremely callous adopted brother/nemesis Dio Brando. Battle Tendency, which takes place almost a half century after the events of Phantom Blood, follows the adventures of Jonathan’s grandson, Joseph Joestar, as he and his companions travel across the world chasing after, training for, and doing battle against the last survivors of a group of ancient humanoids who wish to obtain a mythical gemstone that would transform them into beings of ultimate power.
Sitting through JJBA is like watching wrestlers of the Hulkamania era try to perform a high-end melodrama in the middle of fashion week; walking through the runway while trading punches with vampires, zombies, and other supernatural creatures. It’s ridiculous, hilarious, intense, and amazing just how serious the story takes itself while also not taking itself seriously at all.
In what other series will you find our hero fighting an undead Jack the Ripper, who appears by slithering out of the head of a horse he just decapitated, while holding a full wine glass that his mentor, the eccentric Baron Zeppoli, gave him the strict order to not spill a single drop of in his one-on-one battle with history’s most famous serial killer? That happens in just the second episode.
The main reason why DavidPro’s JJBA adaptation succeeded where others failed is that they followed Omori’s request precisely. Instead of cherry picking certain aspects of the manga to place in, or making changes and alterations to fit into the anime’s runtime, DavidPro took an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach and basically replicated the manga on screen. They achieved this while upping the style and mood of the visuals so that they could really deliver on the strangeness and insanity of the source material—something both the OVA’s and the feature film reportedly lacked.
The dynamic poses, the frequent use of onomatopoeias (a mainstay of the series), and everything fans of the manga could ever want was showcased in this new adaptation. Plus, a pair of new additions debuted with this series. The first was the addition of a visual effect Tusda called “special scene coloring,” done to pay homage to Araki’s own use of color. It appears throughout the series in moments of emotional significance and heightens the bizarre nature of Araki’s world. When Zeppoli first encounters Dio in the fifth episode, the master-manipulator-turned-vampire has a full moon serve as the backdrop for his dramatic entrance; the moon is shown in such a vibrant and powerful pink it wouldn’t look out of place on a 2010s Nicki Minaj album cover.
The other is the use of western music for the ending credit sequences. Araki has gone on record saying that he listens to western music while working on the series, and seeing as he doesn’t understand English, it just comes to him as sound or a “vibe” as the kids would say. Araki handed DavidPro a list of songs he was listening to while working on the first two chapters, with the studio choosing Roundabout by the English progressive band Yes. It would become a theme for future chapters, as fans eagerly anticipated just what song will be used as soon as the newest series premieres. Later series would use popular singles from the likes of The Bangles, Jodeci, the Pat Metheny Group, and Savage Garden.
Initially DavidPro wanted to dedicate one whole season to Phantom Blood and two for Battle Tendency. However, Kasama decided that it would be best to incorporate the first two arcs so that they can quickly establish the story’s early run and get to adapting the series’ incredibly popular third chapter, Stardust Crusaders (which introduce the concept of “Stands”) right away. It was a smart strategy, as the opening chapter does set up the events to come nicely and efficiently. However, compared to Battle Tendency (let alone future installments), Phantom Blood—with its traditional good vs evil storyline—is a little simple. Jonathan, while possessing all the markings of a great old-school shonen protagonist, is not as captivating a character as the delectably hammy Dio, the quirky Zeppoli, and most importantly, his more fun and interesting grandson.
Personality-wise, Joseph is the complete opposite of his grandfather, and that is what makes him one of the series’ first truly great characters. While Jonathan was a distinguished gentleman, Joseph is short-tempered and extremely arrogant; he’s what you get when you combine John Cena during his “Super Cena ‘’ run of the late 2000s to the early 2010s together with Bugs Bunny. Joseph carries the series’ second chapter with his devilish charm, elaborate and ridiculous plans to victory, and pure dumb luck. It’s not every day you find a hero whose special moves are accurately predicting what his opponents will say once he has the upper hand, and a very pronounced tactical retreat (which would become a running gag). The idea of mixing strength with strategy to overcome obstacles is set up in the opening chapter, but Battle Tendency is where the humor the series is known for really begins to shine.
While being the superior of the two arcs in just about every way, Battle Tendency does share a similar flaw with Phantom Blood, just inverted. While Joseph is the more interesting hero than his grandfather, the Pillar Men—grand ambitions, unique abilities and all—are uninteresting when compared to the presumptuous and narcissistic Dio. Araki would improve upon this dilemma in later chapters, as both heroes and villains would have equal amounts of personality and entertainment value.
DavidPro has gone on to deliver a number of strong titles to since successfully adapting the first two chapters of the JJBA series. Cells at Work and Fire Force have become stellar hits these past few years, with perhaps another on the way, as they have been put in charge of reviving another ‘80s classic, Urusei Yatsura, this season. As their reputation has grown, they have continued adapting each chapter of the JJBA, recently releasing the second batch of dozen episodes of the still-ongoing fifth series, Stone Ocean, for Netflix. Set in Florida in the early 2010s, it follows the adventures of the series’ only female protagonist, Jonathan’s great-great-great-granddaughter Joylene Cujoh, who tries to escape prison after taking the fall for a hit-and-run—part of a revenge plot against the Joestar family.
The manga is still ongoing and as long as Araki keeps publishing, DavidPro will keep adapting it. There was a time where the idea of a JJBA seemed as if it were wishful thinking. That time is now long past. The shonen series, once thought to be unadaptable, is now one of the most popular anime franchises in existence—and all it took was a group of fans who did what others before them couldn’t: they let the work speak for itself.
Christopher L. Inoa is a freelance writer living in the Bronx, NYC. His work has appeared on Polygon, Observer, Hyperallergic, and more. He killed all his social media accounts last year, with the exception of Letterboxd so you can follow him there
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