Netflix's 'JoJo's Bizarre Adventure' Spinoff Is a Bite-Sized Horror Anthology That's Truly Out There
At just four episodes, 'Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan' makes a great litmus test for your taste for the very absurd greater 'JoJo' universe.
It may not be in the form that fans expect, but JoJo is back. For the uninitiated: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a sort of anthology fantasy series, based on a long-running, still ongoing manga by Hirohiko Araki, beginning in 1987. The manga itself starts in 19th century England, with protagonist Jonathan Joestar (abbreviated to “JoJo”) squaring off with adopted brother-turned-malevolent vampire Dio Brando. From there, each subsequent part takes place in a new time and place starring a different descendant of Jonathan’s, all nicknamed ‘JoJo’ in increasingly tenuous fashion (the latest in the anime is named Giorno Giovanna). The protagonists themselves appear as though cut out of marble, the cast of each series looking close to Greek gods in their own right, if the pantheon dressed like contemporary models. The show’s straight-faced absurdism and heightened performances (and distinct poses) gave it a firm footing in internet culture—chances are if you’ve been online anytime since 2012, you will have come across one of the many, many, many memes spawned from it.
Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan is a spinoff from the main series—specifically Part 4: Diamond Is Unbreakable, which differentiated itself from the other main JoJo seasons by way of its small-town setting and focus on murder mystery and fun takes on urban legends. Kishibe Rohan carries this further by dividing itself into four distinct and unconnected tales of horror and suspense, with the eponymous character serving as the only link between them. (Curiously, while Kishibe Rohan is a Netflix exclusive, Diamond is Unbreakable itself is not available on the service.)
Each vignette is adapted from one-shot mangas under the same title, written by Araki between 1997 and 2018, all featuring Kishibe Rohan, a supporting character from Diamond is Unbreakable. He is mostly a bystander and orator, but in one or two instances does get to intrude with the same hilarious stubbornness that made him a standout in the past JoJo season. This time, the show is interested in digging more into the kind of gothic horror stories that influenced the original series, mostly leaving behind its mythology of magic superpowers known as Stands (which I will not attempt to explain here). Its variety of grim tales about people at the whims of fate or undone by their vices feels like a gothic anime spin on George A. Romero and Stephen King’s Creepshow, only with Rohan as our impeccably-dressed guide through each spooky story.
The first of these stories, confusingly titled "Episode 16," takes place shortly after the events of Diamond is Unbreakable, but that’s just the framing device for the rest of the episode. Araki's love of gothic horror is now embodied in the structure rather than just the subject matter, each episode told as a story within a story told by Rohan, creating a fun meta angle to every episode. Those tales essentially play as the main series’ traditional blend of the macabre with the absurd, but instead as experienced by everyday people who aren’t as empowered to cut through supernatural misfortune the way the Jojo's of the main show do. Through demons, ghosts, angry gods of the forest, the characters of these one-shots are mostly powerless to stop what’s happening to them.
Beyond its love of the gothic, Kishibe Rohan isn’t a particularly contemplative show, focused on thrills and the joy of storytelling in itself. There are exceptions: commentaries on anxieties around economic status and male body-image, its final episode “The Run” playing off of fitness obsession, and how acting pushes people toward the unreasonable expectation of a superhuman body. This is admittedly somewhat ironic subject matter for JoJo—with its various protagonists all being 16- and 17-year-olds that average around two meters tall with Herculean muscle definition. Still, it’s fascinating to see the series’ visual and narrative sensibilities cast upon contemporary attitudes. And while JoJo’s animation has steadily moved beyond the stiffness of its earlier seasons, it helps Kishibe Rohan that it mimics the creative and off-kilter color schemes of its parent show, any wonky movements simply offset by fun and vivid layouts.
For all its silliness, it’s easy to forget the JoJo series’ capacity for gruesome imagery, which Kishibe Rohan leans into. The second episode, in particular, conjures up incredibly memorable imagery around a corpse that won’t stop bleeding; the head wound exploding in bloody viscera as the (inadvertent) culprit desperately tries to fix the hole in her ex-boyfriend’s head, going to depraved measures to cover up the accident. Even in such moments, Kishibe Rohan retains the straight-faced absurdity of its parent show. There’s still obsessive specificity in its dialogue, beginning with step-by-step “manga artists’ exercises” and ending with characters explaining their reaction to their horrifying circumstances with overly-complicated metaphors.
Its most tense and tragic stories hold a grim sense of humor—such as the various strange (bizarre, even) rituals throughout, tests of the mind and the body all tinged with otherworldly, life-and-death stakes. One trial has a man forced to take part in a game in which he must throw popcorn in the air and catch it in his mouth three times in a row without fail, or else his life is forfeit. Another is a trial of etiquette: The prize is admission to a secluded village exclusively for millionaires, the price of failure leads to forfeiting things that you hold dear. (It’s also worth mentioning the show features not one, but TWO life-or-death trials featuring a form of corn.) It all walks a fun line between hilarity and gruesomeness, the mix of gore and monstrous foes with overblown reactions and cosmic irony, all remaining distinctly JoJo.
For those unfamiliar with the rest of the JoJo universe, for the most part, Kishibe Rohan might actually make quite a good test as to whether or not they’ll gel with the original. Its small, elliptical vignettes and detachment from the series’ ever-complicating mythology make it easy to pick up, as does its brevity—being only four episodes instead of upwards of 100. Though it may spoil some minor details of Diamond is Unbreakable, it captures the show’s appeal in miniature (and for anyone confused by what a Stand is, Rohan makes sure to remind us the specifics of his powers). It’s effectively the appeal of JoJo in a lower key, its gothic storytime vibe embodied in an opening much quieter than is usual for this franchise.
In terms of what it gives to the fans, other than merely an opportunity to catch (relatively brief) new glimpses of the charming cast of Diamond is Unbreakable, is a different spin on the franchises’ signature flavor. Plus, it really is nice to revisit the series’s goofy small-town energy of Morioh, even if only for a minute. Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan is no replacement for a new JoJo series, but it’s not meant to be as much as it is a fun aperitif before the show (hopefully!) resumes.
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