Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan

Rohan’s Spooky Sexy Mysteries is a short, gross delight

Spoilers to follow…

Horror and absurdism, and the fine, often mangled—disgustingly and hilariously—line between the two, has existed close to the heart of Hirohiko Araki’s manga work since its early days in the 1980s. Even before the multigenerational/dimensional Joestar saga began in 1986, which has gone on to worldwide recognition, he was using Baoh: The Visitor to depict dogs exploding and all other manner of tasteless, gruesome events so over the top, so knowingly pulpy, that comedy begins to emerge in the recoil, all through an ever-evolving lens of glam camp. And this style, long-since honed to a razor’s edge, is alive and well in David Production’s anthology adaptation of one-shot stories Araki has been penning sporadically for over 20 years.

It’s hard to say if the pompous and stubborn-to-a-fault mangaka emerged from Diamond is Unbreakable as a fan favorite break-out character or if Araki pressed the scales and willed Rohan through sheer persistence into one of the major faces of the broader JoJo brand. When I see the protagonist of the current JoJo’s arc of the moment on artbooks, promotional material, etc., I see a representation of the needs inherent of the in-the-moment machinery of a franchise. But when I see Rohan, I see the more direct hand of Araki at work through a character who transcends the specifics of any story at hand. So while these four stories are slight, offering disconnected episodes in which Rohan encounters supernatural forces, either as an observer or active player, in his never-ending curious search for material for his manga work, I see the abstract soul of JoJo and Araki at play, unburdened by the demands of weekly or monthly serialized storytelling. Where he can embrace the short story format and lean into stewing in more ambiguous horrors lurking in the shadows of the world or in hearts of mankind, where narrowly outwitting or fleeing from forces only glimpsed through cracked doors or in whispered rumors are closest things to victory.

One of my favorite things about following Araki’s work, and really any artist’s career over a long period, is watching it grow and change. To see them experiment, focus, go through phases of expression. It’s one of the great rewards of being a long-time fan. And while David Pro smooths over some of the natural distance in art and storytelling between episodes published over such a long period with more harmonious character designs and a few additional framing scenes of Rohan recounting his experiences to fellow Morioh residents, they wisely leave touches of Araki’s flourishes of the time, particularly in his never fixed approach to capturing the human form. The first episode of the OVA, “At a Confessional” (though the manga’s intentionally out of order numbering is kept intact, so it is still titled as the 16th) most closely resembles a classic JoJo’s Stand game of death, particularly of its original publishing time in 1997, where Rohan hears the story of a cursed Italian man forced into a challenge of having to continually catch popcorn in his mouth or else lose his head to the vengeful spirit of a homeless man he callously mistreated in the past. The photo-filtered texture of the backgrounds, Italian setting, and hilariously mounting overwrought tension—in true JoJo’s fashion, sometimes the only way to overcome an obstacle is light yourself on fire—feels right at home with the sensibilities of both the original Golden Wind manga that stretched across most of the late 1990s and David Pro’s 2018-2019 adaptation.

The other episodes drift further from the usual Stand showdown setup and relax into more moody stories that reflect Steel Ball Run‘s settled pace after Araki moved to Ultra Jump and a monthly schedule. Both “Mutsu-kabe Hill” and “Millionaire Village” send Rohan to remote locations investigating a story about a corpse that just won’t stop bleeding in the former and in the latter, to a manner-strict wealthy community with a curiously affordable mansion up for sale. Finally, the “The Run,” which finds Rohan in a petty gym rivalry with a guy who takes his gains a little too seriously, spends a lot of its energy showing distinctly JoJolion-era toned and compact bodies in action. I don’t know how obvious this taste of JoJo stylistic evolution across 20 years might be to the uninitiated, but I found it to be a real treat and I’m glad long time JoJo anime staffer and director Toshiyuki Kato and David Pro, whose ability to capture the unique intensity and cadence of Araki’s work only improves with each new crack at the material, saw it as important to retain.

Tying all of these tales together is of course Rohan himself, with his trademark odd crown headband and serious scowl, who has long been the source of casual speculation as to his relationship with Araki. Is he an outlandish parody or some combination of self-deprecation and celebration? We’ll probably never know for sure, but it doesn’t take artwork of the pair sharing a powerful hug or Rohan appearing in Gucci cross-promotions to know he’s close to Araki’s heart. That stuff is just extra. Originally introduced slicing open a spider and licking what oozed out in the name of valuable research, who never misses an opportunity to physically or spiritually strike a small child in the face (maybe along with Italians and dogs, Araki has some ax to grind), Rohan is always grumpy whenever someone doesn’t agree that he’s the most important person in the room. I’m so glad that at no point, either in the original writing or adaptational process, did the thought “should he be a little less of a self-centered jerk?” cross anyone’s mind. His stone-faced refusal to play by the rules of malevolent creatures far out of his depth makes for some endearing encounters.

These four episodes don’t offer anything particularly substantial, Rohan himself seems resistant to the idea of using his experiences as food for the soul or curiosities to dive too deeply into, remarking that “I’m no scholar or journalist. I’m just a manga artist.” Being one-off warped morality or cautionary tales that swerve just as you think you might know where they’re headed, they dwell entirely in their equally outrageous and blood-spattered moments, not needing to feed into any larger narrative or develop a running cast of characters. But Araki’s uniquely adrenaline-soaked, high octane colors and body horror by way of high-end fashion magazine spreads are in full swing here and I relished every minute of it. How can I say no to not one but two corn-eating challenges to the death played so seriously, so upfront ridiculous in nature, they run multiple laps with their tonal range?

Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix

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