My Fave is Problematic: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

By: Rebecca Fleeman August 11, 20230 Comments
Lisa Lisa fighting Kars

Content Warning: discussion of Nazi apologism, queerphobia

Spoilers for all of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

Even though Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure has been around for a long time, I only got into it in 2021. Its popularity exploded in the US when the tv anime, beginning from Phantom Blood, came out in 2012, and I heard a lot of hype about it from its fans. I always meant to check it out, but the final push that got me to watch it was finding out one of the Jojos was a woman. I’ve always loved stories with great female heroes, and while I’ve enjoyed many shounen series over the years, I’ve found it disappointing that most female characters weren’t given the respect they deserved. So, to hear that a shounen series featured a female protagonist got me very interested. The over-the-top action, unique and stylish art, music references (I’m a music nerd so I recognize a lot of those right away), and absurd comedy made it “Stand” out.

As I took in each new part and new Jojo, I became increasingly invested in the story and characters, and when Stone Ocean was finally adapted, Jolyne was everything I’d hoped for and then some; however, because the source manga has been around since the late 1980’s, some parts, particularly early on, haven’t exactly aged well. It’s too big a franchise to cover in every detail here, but its biggest issues feel worth discussing alongside its strengths.

Sympathetic Nazis

The second part, Battle Tendency, takes place in 1938, and stars Joseph Joestar, the grandson of the original protagonist. Joseph is a delightfully entertaining, charismatic, and hilarious protagonist who pretty much immediately won me over when he punched a racist cop in the face. I also enjoy his combative-yet-ultimately-caring dynamic with his friend, Caesar Zeppeli. Lisa Lisa is a rare example of a female mentor figure, and a strong one at that.

Caesar cradling the bisected body of Mark

However, Battle Tendency also features Nazis, particularly Joseph’s eventual ally, Rudol von Stroheim. While Joseph initially distrusts the German soldiers and particularly dislikes Stroheim, many of them (including Stroheim himself) are framed as sympathetic, or at least as having some admirable qualities. When a young Nazi soldier, Mark, is mutilated by the Pillar Men and needs to be put out of his misery, Caesar describes him as “Just a boy who loved his family, his girl, his country, and gave his work everything he had.” Never mind that the work involved genocide! 

I don’t think that fictional villains need to always be portrayed as one-dimensional and cartoonishly evil, but I also don’t like when Nazis—a very real and very heinous part of history—are fictionalized in ways that make them sympathetic or admirable. While Italy, where most of Battle Tendency takes place, and Japan, where Araki is from, were both allies to the Nazis in WWII, it still feels uncomfortable—it isn’t as if there aren’t also manga of the era portraying Nazis as unambiguous villains. As a Jewish person, I take issue with a Nazi being portrayed as just a regular, friendly guy when the Nazis were actively committing mass genocide. Anyone who allied themselves with the Nazis, even if they weren’t committing racially motivated murders themselves, was still condoning such actions by supporting them.

Stroheim holding a razor to a young woman's tongue. Subtitles: Watch out! Watch out!

That said, in Stroheim’s introductory scenes, we do see right away that he is a horrible person. When a woman accidentally cuts his face while shaving him, he asks her to lick the wound clean, only to hold the razor to her tongue afterwards. Later, he asks for volunteers from a group of kidnapped villagers for a blood sacrifice to the Pillar Men, and when one boy volunteers himself, Stroheim orders the rest of them to be killed instead. 

However, once Stroheim risks life and limb to help Joseph, the latter begins to admire his courage despite their differences. Later, Stroheim becomes an ally to Joseph and his crew. Considering Stroheim’s initial behavior, it’s baffling for the story to suddenly decide he’s unquestioningly one of the good guys. One would hope if Joseph had been witness to those incidents mentioned earlier, he wouldn’t allow one act of courage to cancel out the abuse and senseless murder.

Joseph's fist connecting with a cop's face

During the final battle with Kars, Stroheim and other Nazis arrive to help… along with Speedwagon, the Speedwagon Foundation, and Smokey Brown, a Black kid who Joseph rescued from racist NYPD cops at the start of the series. Given that one of the defining features of Nazis is racism, it’s, well, bizarre to see Smokey working together with Nazis. While it may be that they were coming together to deal with a greater threat, considering “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” it still comes across like the story is glossing over the fact that the Nazis were genocidal white supremacists for the sake of a cool climactic battle where all the characters team up.

Treatment of Female Characters

Another aspect of the series that I enjoy overall is the women of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. However, while I think Araki is better than most shounen writers when it comes to handling female characters, there have still been some missteps along the way. I think some of it can be attributed to the time period when the manga was originally written, and possibly editors discouraging him from allowing women to play an active role in the story, but I still feel that characters like Lisa Lisa and Holly were unfairly sidelined. 

Lisa Lisa removing her mask in Venice

As mentioned before, Lisa Lisa is Joseph’s mentor and trains him in the use of Hamon, but when it comes time to see her in a real battle, Kars uses dirty tricks to knock her out of commission before she even gets the chance to fight. It’s truly unfortunate that we never get the opportunity to see Lisa Lisa’s Hamon abilities in action.

In Stardust Crusaders, Joseph’s daughter, Holly Kujo, gains a Stand, but her body cannot handle it. The only way to save her is for her son Jotaro, Joseph, and their allies to go to Egypt to fight and kill DIO, who caused her Stand to manifest. The reason she is unable to handle her Stand is explained by Avdol, one of the aforementioned allies, as “Stands are controlled by a person’s mental strength, and move with their fighting instincts. Ms. Holly is gentle and peaceful. She therefore lacks the strength to withstand DIO’s curse.” This feels like a flimsy excuse though, given that both Jotaro and Joseph can handle their own Stands just fine, and we later meet other Stand users that include both an orangutan and a baby.

Holly in bed with Joseph over her. Subtitle: Don't worry.

While there are other female Stand users who are capable of effectively wielding their powers, including Mariah, Trish in Golden Wind, and many characters in Stone Ocean, Holly’s lack of agency is still disappointing. We do get some glimpses of who she is as a person at the beginning of the story, but we are meant to care about her primarily because of her importance to the men in her life. It doesn’t help that despite her situation being the inciting incident of Stardust Crusaders, she is apparently all but forgotten about in future parts of the story.

Given this, and shounen’s general history of women being sidelined or otherwise treated as unimportant, it’s refreshing when they are finally allowed to play an active role in the story, starting with Diamond is Unbreakable. Although initially she can’t do much as a ghost haunting an alley, Reimi’s character arc is extremely satisfying, as she goes from being a tragic victim forced to watch as her killer victimizes others, to being the one to personally drag him to hell. Trish Una joins the mafia organization Passione after their mission to reunite her with her father goes horribly wrong, and she is the first female hero in the series to be a Stand user. And, of course, there’s Jolyne in Stone Ocean, along with her friend Ermes and many other secondary characters.

Jolyne in a fighting stance, her body turned into a Moebius strip. Subtitles: Come at me with everything you got!

Jolyne is everything I want in a female protagonist. A lot of people mistake the term “strong female character” to mean being only physically strong without putting a lot of thought into their characterization beyond that. While Jolyne is definitely physically strong and has several extremely badass moments—such as stopping a meteor from hitting her with only a brick-filled boot—she has many other facets, too. She is allowed to be both tough and vulnerable, funny and serious, kind but learning to fight for herself and her loved ones. She is comfortable with her sexuality and the story never shames her for it. She is someone who wants to be loved above all else and, by the end of the story, finds many people who care for her, including the one that she was convinced didn’t. I also enjoy the reversal of circumstances in her story where before, Jotaro was the one to save Holly, but this time he is the one who needs to be rescued by Jolyne. Men are rarely put into the “damsel” role in these situations, especially with a woman being the one to rescue them.

Queerness: Text and Subtext

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure is a rare example of a shounen series from its time that features canon queer characters. Unfortunately, all of them are villains, namely DIO (who is bisexual; while the story itself doesn’t say this outright, Araki has confirmed it), Squalo and Tiziano (which could arguably fall under subtext, but given how touchy-feely they are with each other, I’m inclined to believe they’re intended as a couple), and Gelato and Sorbet. The latter two are unceremoniously killed off in a gory scene that exists to establish how cruel their boss, Diavolo, is, but otherwise feels mostly like gratuitous shock value in line with the long tradition of Bury Your Gays. 

Gelato and Sorbet sitting cheek to cheek

Queer villains have a messy history because they are often used specifically to portray queer people in a negative light. While I think there has been some effort to reclaim queer villains, or not have their queerness be the part that makes them villainous, these characters in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure were made in a time where they were still intended in that way. DIO in particular plays into tropes based on negative stereotypes of queer people being predatory. When stories have queer villains but no queer heroes, it can come across as the author seeing queer people as inherently bad.

Despite this, the series is very popular with the queer community, myself included. Many characters are in relationships that are heavily coded with queer subtext. For example, there are many close relationships between men and a notable lack of female love interests for most of the protagonists in parts 3-5. While a few characters express interest in women, and some do end up in relationships with them, there are several who remain single, even those who are shown to be quite popular with women.

Abbacchio and Bruno. Subtitle: is when I'm with you, Bucciarati.

Golden Wind in particular features a “found family” dynamic, a trope many queer people enjoy and can relate to, and one of my personal favorite tropes. The leader of the Passione gang, Bruno Bucciarati, brought his gang together by finding people who were outcast from society and accepting them unconditionally. Bruno has a close relationship with Leone Abbacchio in particular. In one scene, Abbacchio admits “The only time I feel at ease is when I am with you, Bucciarati”. As a queer and neurodivergent person who also has trouble fitting in with societal standards, I would also love to find this kind of support in my life, which is probably why the found family trope, and Passione, resonates with me so much.

Despite the flaws discussed here, I still greatly enjoy this series. I especially love parts 4-6, namely Diamond is Unbreakable, Golden Wind, and Stone Ocean, which are not just my favorite Jojo parts but some of my favorite stories, period. The characters of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a whole are excellently written, and I’m attached to many of them. Oh, and the soundtrack is full of bangers, but I digress.

Holly from behind standing in the sunlight. Subtitle: They're coming home!

Basically, none of this is to say that you shouldn’t watch Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. The series is still a classic for a reason, one that has gone on to influence and shape the vast majority of shounen series out there, along with anime/manga as a whole really, and even some western media. I can understand if any of the things I discussed are deal-breakers for people, but it’s still a series that rightfully Stands Proud as one of my, and many others’, favorites.

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