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DIRECTED BY: Toshiyuki Kato
FEATURING: Voices of Takahiro Sakurai; Landon McDonald (English dub)
PLOT: Manga artist Kishibe Rohan recounts macabre tales he has encountered while researching material.
COMMENTS: Although this macabre miniseries stands alone, a small of amount orientation may be helpful for those (like me) unfamiliar with “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure,” the manga/anime from which “Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan” is a spinoff. “JoJo” is a series about… well, I’m not quite sure, but it has been running for about 30 years through various incarnations. My research suggest that, other than Rohan and perhaps a few other character cameos, there are no real links in this one to the main series. There is at least one thing it’s helpful to know: like many characters in the series, Rohan has a superpower (or “Stand”): “Heaven’s Door,” which allows him to pause time and turn people into books, whom he can then read to discover personal secrets (and, occasionally, to jot his own notes inside them, altering their history or behavior). Bizarre, huh?
Originally released as standalone manga, the stories here were made for the Japanese OVA (Original Video Animation) market, then picked up by Netflix. The order of the tales is arbitrary, and the episode sequencing Netflix uses is different than the order of the OVA release (but the same as the order they appeared in the original manga, although, confusingly, the episode numbers in the manga titles are assigned randomly). You can watch them however you’d like, but if you want a suggestion, I would start with either “At a Confessional” (Netflix’s first episode, the third OVA release, and my personal favorite) or “The Run” (the wildest and final story which, based on IMDb ratings, is the fans’ favorite). The entire series is short enough to watch through without feeling like you’re wasting your time, but sampling one of those two first may help you decide whether you want to continue.
The Italy-set “At a Confessional” is a Poe-like story of callous indifference, guilt, and revenge from beyond the grave, with a demonic tongue, a popcorn-eating trial, and a twist ending. “The Run” has a more straightforward narrative; it’s a satire of male narcissism, as an actor/model takes his workout regime to unhealthy, supernatural extremes. It also features the series’ most ambitious animation, with abstract, wavering backgrounds in crazy color schemes; split screens; almost obscene, anatomically incorrect musculature; and surrealish scenes like the one where the protagonist climbs down an apartment building, Spider-man style. The other two stories are equally fantastic: “Mutsu-kabe Hill” features an eternally bleeding corpse, and “Millionaire Village” begins with an interesting premise about an ultra-exclusive suburb, then incorporates local Japanese demigods and an extremely intricate test of etiquette. Some of the stories have ironic subtexts, but the psychology never gets too deep; the stories are dark in subject matter, but light in delivery.
I have to confess that, after watching all four episodes, I’m not sure why Rohan is such a popular, breakout character. He frankly seems a bit superhero-dull to me. With his “Heaven’s Door” power, he’s too omnipotent; there is seldom much sense of him being in jeopardy. His major character trait seems to be mild arrogance and haughtiness, which comes through in his fey, aristocratic voicing (in both the original Japanese and the English dub). This makes him seem a bit unpleasant to be around, although other characters fawn over him regularly. Perhaps Rohan doesn’t get a chance to shine here, since he is only a narrator for two of these stories, and not really the focus in any of them. Still, because he’s mostly a framing device, Rohan’s lack of charisma didn’t effect my enjoyment of the series, which is not bad, and at less than two hours to take in the whole thing, worth a shot for the curious. It didn’t make me want to explore the wider JoJo universe, though—and if you want some freaky Japanese animated horror, I’d suggest checking out “Jungo Ito Maniac” (also on Netflix) instead.
(As an odd aside, the major characters in this series always have crazy hairstyles: once has four giant bent spikes of red hair, one has random bow-like protrusions growing out of his scalp, and Rohan himself wears a strange circlet that looks like an inverted crown and is mostly covered by greenish locks that jut several inches off the side of our hero’s head.)
We may not be done with Kishibe Rohan: there are plans for a live-action adaptation of the same material.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…retains the straight-faced absurdity of its parent show… 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.”–Kambole Campbell, Thrillist (contemporaneous)