Hirohiko Araki: A Bizarre Author’s Profile

Faulkner once said of Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” It’s a somewhat famous insult, but it speaks to Hemingway’s style of writing. The terse and laconic. If one was pressed to come up with a similar descriptor of Hirohiko Araki, it might read something like “For better and for worse, he is never boring.”


I don’t think it’s unfair to say that when people who are familiar with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure picture Hirohiko Araki, they think of Rohan Kishibe. The only manga-ka present in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Rohan is brusque, egotistical, and severely lacking in empathy. He’s a jerk, but something of a lovable jerk. A mid-90s iteration of the affable misanthrope, with the added twist of Rohan being fascinated by people. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of others, though. It’s more like he tolerates them for the purpose of gaining material for his manga. Still, a lot of readers see him as Araki’s self-insert. An incredibly talented auteur whose work cannot be muddied by assistants and can go misunderstood locally and abroad. That sounds like Araki on paper. It’s not an unreasonable assumption, but it’s one that I don’t feel is correct. From what we know of Rohan and what we see in Araki’s work, I think a much more complex view of Araki is needed to really understand what makes him tick as a creator.

hirohiko araki jojo draws

The earliest work of Araki’s that I’ve had the good fortune to read is Baoh. It’s important in understanding how he operates as a writer outside the confines of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Most people I know who’ve experienced Baoh did it through the OVA. It received an official English release, being among a legion of late 80s and early 90s hyper-violent OVAs that were brought over under a banner of “mature Japanimation” or marketed as part of some other trend du jour. As a fan of JoJo’s in the modern sense, going back to Baoh, you can see some of the building blocks of Araki’s later writing. Extravagantly odd powers, an element of the supernatural blended with a fantasy version of real-world science. It lacks a certain amount of weirdness that you might expect, but it still has his fingerprints on it. It feels like an early work of a creator who had not yet found their footing. You might not reach the conclusion on your own that this too was a work of Hirohiko Araki, but you would be able to see it when told.

If you read the manga, however, you’re confronted with a very different picture. Baoh reads like Phantom Blood in a different setting. Characters make stand-offish declarations while posing oddly in large spreads. A talking ape explains his unique power to spew fire from his mouth due to a tank of gasoline he keeps in his stomach. Fantastical exaggerations of science are given while a character within the universe assures the reader that this is not a construct of fiction, but something real. ESP and other phenomena are given purchase in this setting and rather than ease the observer into the world’s bizarreness, offering them a chance to dip their toes in; Baoh dives in headfirst and expects you to follow. Reading the manga after viewing any of JoJo’s, it becomes a matter of course that such a creation could only spring from the mind of Araki. It doesn’t just have his fingerprints, it exudes a special sort of Bizarre that is almost wholly unique. It’s his style and bears many hallmarks, the Araki-isms of sort that pepper his work. Even as he has grown as both an artist and a writer, it’s not unreasonable to say that someone reading Baoh and someone reading JoJolion could easily come to the conclusion that both were the work of the same man.

This isn’t the only other work of Araki’s that the eccentric sensibilities of JoJo’s find a home in. The Lives of Eccentrics is a series published by Araki and four assistants between 1989 and 2003, ending in a delightfully strange retelling of the feud between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Both are portrayed with a modernized version of the sort of musculature seen in Phantom Blood, both shouting declarative statements to each other or no one in particular, light posing and exaggerated expressions as Tesla speaks of his ability to crack the earth in two like an apple. It’s unmistakably Araki, his sensibilities prominent even in a genre shift towards historical nonfiction. It’s something novel that diverges neatly from the omnipresent oddities of JoJo’s, as Araki refuses to remain in safe waters when it comes to his work.

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It’s hard to nail down the specifics of this point, as Araki is someone who is always evolving. He’s anything but stagnant and continuously strives to do something different, which is a part of JoJo’s appeal. Even when there’s repeated concepts, they’re handled uniquely. For example, The Hanged Man and Man In The Mirror are both power sets that make heavy use of optical reflections, but do so in completely different ways. They’d be incomparable, if not for the fact that The Hanged Man very specifically suggests and then refutes the idea of a “Mirror World.” Man In The Mirror, 7 years and 300+ chapters apart, relies on a Mirror World being the utmost truth. So when I address repetition in Araki’s work, I do so from a stylistic angle. In this example, I’m referring to his method of exposition as it pertains to justification in his work. For it, let me pull a specific example.

In the first pages of Sky High chapter 1  (overall chapter 706), Pucci explains the power of a Stand that has the ability to control “rods” and then explains what those are for the benefit of the characters in the story. Rods, he explains, were first seen in the year 2000 in the Cave of Swallows in Mexico. They were caught on film, mysterious small creatures moving too fast for the human eye, elongated creatures in the shape of a rod with many wings or wing-like appendages. He makes reference to a real event in which skydivers believed to have discovered a new species that could not be seen by the naked eye, but was caught on camera. Pucci even adds the line “Let me say now that I’m just relaying to you the facts” early on to establish credibility. This is in fact a true event that happened, but the rods have long since been proven to not be an undiscovered species. They’re just moths, their wing beats merging with an optical trick to create the illusion of a rod shape on long-exposure cameras. Araki glosses over this fact and treats the rods as real creatures, dedicating three pages to the explanation and giving a two-page spread on the imaginary biology of these fictional cryptids. He is steadfast in his depiction that the part of the story where these creatures are real is not important, only how they are used in the story. How they are used in the chapters. Three pages might seem like a lot, but it’s fairly concise for letting the reader know that this is “real” and that from that reality, the fiction can begin.

Of course, as I’ve stated, it’s not real. There’s no such creature as a rod. However, it’s real in the story and that’s what Araki sets up. Araki is just “relaying the facts” as it is necessary for the creation of his reality. The important details are presented upfront,  some aspects of the “rules” are given and when you accept the slightly strange, you allow him to begin with what’s truly bizarre. This leads in to the character of Rohan Kishibe and his relationship with Araki and “reality.”

eyes of heaven

As I mentioned earlier, Rohan Kishibe is often cited by fans as a self-insert character. On the surface, this makes sense. Any creator-type character appearing in the same medium as their profession tends to come off as such. Rohan is a manga-ka in a manga. A creator in the creation. However, the disparity between Rohan’s stated philosophy and Araki’s observable philosophy is too great to make this and open and shut analysis. As an aside, I’d think Araki wouldn’t have his self-insert lick the guts of a spider within pages of his first appearance. That’s a superficial point, but still one I feel is valid.

Rohan

Rohan is a weirdo in a way that Araki acknowledges and embraces. Moving from there, Rohan Kishibe’s stated philosophy is that of “reality.” He believes that creativity is not what makes the creator, but the capacity for absorbing factual information and experiences for the purposes of conveying realism. The imagination is secondary to this. His works are fantastical (allegedly, as we never actually see them), but that fantasy is grounded in a strong sense of reality. One could interpret this as a facet of Araki’s work. But Araki focuses on being entertaining more than he focuses on any sense of reality. Some of his interviews relay a sense of Araki wanting his readers to be having fun as often as possible. There is a sense of realism to the characters, yes, but that stems from strong character writing rather than any strides towards a sort of manga vérité. Rohan wants to, above all else, convey reality. Araki wants his readers to have a good time. Rohan is likely a representation of other manga-ka that Araki has dealt with, given his somewhat abrasive and unfavorable portrayal at times. Though most of all, I’d think that Rohan is just the sort of interesting character that Araki so often creates and doesn’t necessarily have to be any one thing. Unless you’re a one-arc villain, characters in JoJo’s are rarely so one-note.

Kishibe.Rohan.text3

And here we arrive at the defining characteristic of Araki as a writer. When it comes right down to it, Rohan espouses that reality is something that must envelop the reader. They may not be aware of it, but it’s something that permeates the work. It’s something to be viewed as a whole, so the reader is immersed in the world at every moment. They must believe in the world. Araki, of course, does something similar. As I’ve said, he tries to lend a sense of verisimilitude to his work. Sometimes subtly and sometimes with a character declaring “this is the truth.” This is where Araki can be demonstrably shown to diverge from the popular image of him as “basically Rohan.”

In Volume 13 of the Jojonium (the higher quality collected editions of the manga), Araki has a rather succinct quote. He’s talking about the plot point of Avdol in Stardust Crusaders, a character who is killed conclusively and then returns unharmed, only to be killed again later. The line is simply “When I draw JoJo, I never plan out the small things.” It’s in a larger context of explaining why things went the way they did with Avdol, but it’s an incredibly true statement about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and I’d argue that it’s something of a strength. There is something to be said for meticulous and thorough planning. Some writers could stand to adhere more closely to a plan to create a more coherent work. However, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure seems to live entirely in the moment and I would argue this ends up being to its benefit. Araki does what feels right, corrects what doesn’t if he’s made mistakes and ends up never tying himself down to pre-set ideas. One such thing that comes to mind is a segment from Rohan at the Louvre. There is a flashback to Rohan in his youth, ten years prior to Diamond is Unbreakable. To keep it short, Rohan cradles a crying woman in his arms. He briefly uses his stand, Heaven’s Door, to peek at her heart. He wants to know why she’s crying. Before he looks, he backs off from this.

“No. I don’t want to discover the origin of her tears. No. Not like that.”

It’s good stuff. Rohan is often shown as uninterested in the feelings of others, only caring about how they might benefit him. This shows a softer side to him and the inklings of empathy. Rohan is 27 during Rohan at the Louvre. The problem with this is that, according to the arc in which Rohan debuts, he’d gotten his stand at age 20. Rohan being a natural stand user, having it from age 17 or earlier, could significantly impact his character and if Rohan were the protagonist, this would be a serious conflict. What we know of Rohan from Diamond is Unbreakable and Rohan at the Louvre contradict one another, but it doesn’t actually matter in Araki’s big picture. Changing a detail from years prior to suit the  ideas he’s working with now is absolutely in character for Araki.

The best example of this might be a theorized plot-line abandoned from Diamond is Unbreakable. This isn’t from an interview or anything, just a notion I’ve seen tossed around. Some spoilers for the ending of Part 4 will follow.

In Josuke’s backstory regarding his hair, he comes down with a nearly-lethal fever in the same way that Holly does during Stardust Crusaders. His mother tries to drive him to the hospital, but her car gets stuck in the snow. During this time, a mysterious teenager with a pompadour identical to Josuke’s comes out of seemingly nowhere, bleeding and bruised, and offers to help her push the car to escape the snow. The character’s eyes are not seen, but he is drawn nearly identical to Josuke, even with some similar accoutrements on his school uniform.

Josuke-Past
Yoshikage Kira’s Bites The Dust ability in the final arc of Part 4 has a time travel ability where he can reverse the flow of time. Araki seems to view the ability to control/stop/alter time as an ultimate power of sorts. Pretty much all of the main villains from Stardust Crusaders onward can have their power described with a button on a remote control. Time is something Araki likes to play with, and Kira specifically uses his to go backward in time a set amount. Add to this the abandoned plot-line of Okuyasu’s dad, who cannot be fixed by Crazy Diamond (and perhaps could only be fixed by stopping the change from happening in the first place), and you have the elements of an outline that at one point had Josuke going back in time. Obviously, this is not what we got. We had Josuke’s backstory mentioned once as a way to explain his hair as a berserk button for the character, Yoshikage Kira’s power never goes back more than a few hours at most, and Okuyasu’s dad is forgotten almost immediately after he is introduced, only briefly re-appearing during Kira’s introduction. There is groundwork for another story entirely, but it remains unused. Araki doesn’t plan out the small things, as he said, but the big plot points are at least outlined. However, what he defines as “big” and “small” might not align with other views. Avdol’s death was, as he says in the same interview, “because I’m always trying to keep readers from getting bored with the same pattern” and he never intended to keep him dead. The details of the how and why he came back just happened to work out that he returned just before they reached Egypt. So, especially given how his other story arcs have gone, I can absolutely see a planned story-line being abandoned because he found something more interesting. That’s what I mean when I say that JoJo’s lives in the moment, and why the lack of foresight might be a strength. Araki is dedicated to keeping it interesting in a meaningful way. He wants readers engaged and as a result, some of the madcap antics of the series are amplified.

In any other story this sort of reckless disregard would be a huge detriment. Abandoned story-lines are usually relics left behind when there is a changing of the creative guard on a television series. It’s rarely something to be seen in a single creator work, because even if there is editorial oversight, the creator still remembers what they’ve already wrote and can rework it. It’s something that fans catch on to quickly. People who love something pay close attention and are very sharp when it comes to that sort of thing. An abandoned story beat is usually mourned, with people feeling regret that it could not be explored more fully. But JoJo’s has people living in the moment, just as Araki wants them to. You have a general notion of what came before, but the precise continuity does not matter. It’s not important. It’s always a foundation. If you would liken western superhero comics to a high-rise, always under construction, always reaching higher into the sky with more and more stories being written as the continuity and story becomes older, then JoJo’s is a suburban neighborhood. A foundation is set, a nice two or three story home is built, and then it’s capped off. Another foundation is laid, and another home begins construction. Each stands proud, unique and separate, but with a connected history.

I mentioned this earlier, but there are two arcs of the manga that directly contradict each other. The Hanged Man, with J. Geil as the antagonist, has Polnareff convinced of a stand that can move between mirrors and exists in a world where it cannot be touched. The Hanged Man appears in bathroom mirrors, reflective chrome on cars, in the glint of a coin, in the eye of a child. It’s outside of reach in a profound way that makes the fight interesting and adds an element of uncertainty and excitement that Araki really nails down on his good days. Meanwhile, Kakyoin tries to think about the power of it logically… well, as logically as one can in JoJo’s. Kakyoin, ever rational, states that there is no “world” inside the mirror; it just appears that way. Through this, he deduces that the Hanged Man moves through light, bouncing from reflection to reflection, and they exploit that to create an opening for a victory. The central tenet of his logic is that there is no world within a mirror, so it must be something else.

This is all thrown away in Part 5 with the Man In The Mirror. Fugo, in the only time he is permitted to do anything outside of Purple Haze Feedback, fights a man named Illuso and his stand has the ability to generate a mirror world in which he can pull his victims. Unlike The Hanged Man, this is an actual for-real parallel realm. Call it closed space, Territory, a pocket dimension, a reality marble or what have you, it is a world that exists inside the mirror. No way in or out without the stand. The entire set-up is an excuse to finally show off the incredibly overpowered Purple Haze without collateral damage, because that’s what Araki wanted to do then. It flies in the face of a previous story, but I’d argue that it doesn’t really matter here. Araki works in the moment and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure lives in the moment. It’s a central tenet of how Araki creates and views his stories. He wants the reader to be interested, engaged. For Araki, a story beat from 7 years prior is not relevant to what you’re reading now, so long as it’s engaging. If it doesn’t stand out to you in that moment, it doesn’t matter. Plot holes only truly become a problem when they fundamentally break the underlying story. Do the specific mechanics of the mirror world really damage the underlying fabric of stands or the Joestar descendent du jour? No, of course not. In Araki’s mind, it’s a small thing and not something to be fretted over. Though he clearly has some desire for continuity, it’s not something he gets hung up on. The here-and-now is the most important aspect of JoJo’s and it’s how he dictates the flow of everything.

hirohiko-arakiThis brings us to stand battles and how Araki generally constructs fights. A lot of Shonen series thrives on rivals, tournaments, rematches, and the idea of “getting physically/spiritually stronger” as a necessity to overcome obstacles. Phantom Blood shares this Battle Tendency, giving Jonathan and Joseph significant time to train in the ripple and grow stronger in order to take on Dio/The Pillar Men. From Stardust onward, this is no longer the case.

Very rarely does a villain return to fight again after they’ve been defeated. No one comes back stronger, with new powers. Hol Horse and Boingo both return, not because the heroes couldn’t defeat them, but because they’re funny and played for laughs. Kira isn’t defeated his first time in Diamond because the heroes were strong enough to beat him and he needed to run. There’s a number of instances of something like that happening, where a villain loses outright and then tries to create a scenario in where they are more likely to win (even though it never works). Most villains who run across the Joestar extended family after Joseph wind up dead or “retired” very quickly, never to be seen from again. P. Pucci is a notable exception, but “growing stronger” is not really the thing Jolyne really needs to worry about when it comes to fighting with him. If anything, Pucci is the one on the “grow stronger” Shonen hero journey during Stone Ocean.

The reason I would argue that villains generally don’t return in JoJo’s is because Araki is done with them. He has explored what they are about, shown what they can do and is ready to move on. To linger too long would risk boring his audience and it also would miss the point of what he tries to accomplish in a fight. A lot of battles you see in Shonen Jump are slugfests. Dragonball is especially guilty of this, but it also happens in other series. JoJo’s almost entirely avoids this by having the fighting be the least important part of a fight. Rather than a battle of stamina or power, nearly ever stand encounter is a battle of wits. Jotaro possesses enormous physical power and can incapacitate or kill most of his foes in a single blow. Or rather, a single blow to stun followed by a theoretically infinite number of punches to then actually finish them off. Almost every stand battle with him is an opponent playing territory control or keep away, a game of spacing and distance, so they can avoid that single punch that ends the fight. It’s never about the actual combat, it’s about the psychological maneuvering and strategy to put oneself in an advantageous position. It’s not about who can punch the best or the fastest, but who can position themselves properly to give themselves the maximum advantage. This is the basis on which Araki creates individual stands.

Every stand, at some point, has one of those stat sheets Araki seems to be so fond of. Destructive Power, Speed, Range, Durability, Precision, and Growth Potential. The letter grades aren’t entirely meaningless, but the actual important aspect is that he creates a set of rules by which a stand must abide by. Crazy Diamond functions a lot like Star Platinum, but its “healing” ability can only restore things to a state in which they previously were in (or sometimes make the process messy for some fun) and Josuke cannot heal himself with it. Josuke’s fights then become centered around what he can change/restore to tip the scales in his favor without giving him a Get Out Of Jail Free card, so to speak. The rules and boundaries are what make it interesting. Unlimited power is boring, because there’s no game to be had there. No puzzle to unravel, no mystery to solve. As much as I love Dragonball Z, the solution to most fights is “the other person was stronger” and rarely does guile play a factor. Intelligence and cunning are the only factors, really, when it comes to stand battles. From that, we get how Araki constructs his characters.

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In Stardust Crusaders, from go, we are told that a Stand is a manifestation of one’s self. It is the core of one’s being made “real” and as such, represents the person in some way. There’s a section from Purple Haze Feedback that touches on this directly that I quite enjoy, even though it’s not directly a piece of Araki’s writing:

“According to researchers at the Speedwagon Foundation, when a stand manifests as a group like this, it’s a sign that the owner has a hollow pit inside. Risotto’s Metallica was the same type, as were two stands in a small town in Japan named Morioh-cho called Bad Company and Harvest. Each of their owners had something fundamental missing in their mental makeup. They’d do anything to achieve their goals, betray friends over simple greed — that sort of thing.”

It’s a nice bit of flavor that echoes the original concept for stands, though it focuses on the negative traits, rather than the positive ones we see in our protagonists. Going down the Joestar line, Jonathan was a man of principles who stood for honor and rectitude above all else. Joseph’s strengths were always his plans. When he knew something that his opponent didn’t, or made it seem like it did, it’s when he shone brightest. Hermit Purple gives him remote viewing and extra knowledge. Jotaro is direct to a fault, and while clever, he will do whatever it takes to make his path a straight line. Josuke is where it gets interesting, because in addition to the physical power of Star Platinum, Crazy Diamond can heal and change. Josuke is the kind of person who worries about others before himself and acts in ways that are selfless. He’s careful, knowing that if he’s hurt, he can’t heal himself, but he still barrels forward and puts himself at risk because it’s the right thing to do. That selflessness is something all of the JoJo protagonists display at some point, with Araki giving Joseph another chance to “do something cool” in Part 4 with him bleeding himself into the water to reveal the invisible baby. A hero, for Araki, can be someone who is out for themselves. They can be someone who doesn’t want to get involved. They can be someone with drive, someone who just wants to have fun, the protagonist can be anything so long as they are capable of looking beyond themselves and being selfless where it really counts.

All of this together becomes an intricate portrait of Araki as a creator, one who has a very clear idea of what he wants to accomplish, even if that idea might change from time to time. He lives in the moment and hopes his readers do the same, with some attention to the big picture and little mind paid to the small stuff. It’s this mentality that’s allowed him to create something so wild and unpredictable, giving eccentricity shape and definition that cannot form with mere randomness. It’s guided chaos. A solid framework filled out by whatever he feels most interested in and passionate for at any given time, something that is likely a strong motivational tool as much as it is the material for something truly unique and engaging. He’s irreducible, not a creator to be pigeonholed into the role of a character in his own story. He’s the kind of creator who can invent another creator and make it utterly believable that the character is a mirror of a real person. And for better and for worse, he is never boring.

4 Comments

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  1. What strikes me most about Araki is his desire to constantly grow and how much of that has led to a vast improvement in the overall characterization and drama of his work.

    Phantom Blood has very archetypal, classic and melodramatic characters who don’t exactly have a lot of complexity or interesting contradictions. For the first three parts I have to confess that I found the characters fun but not super interesting. But around part 4 or so it felt like something big changed in his methodology and he started paying a lot more attention to characterization.

    While part 5 isn’t exactly hailed for its writing by most western fans and its cast isn’t used the best, while reading it I couldn’t help but marvel at how much more interesting the character backstories for Buccellati’s squad were, with Abacchio in particular having my favorite one. It made them so much more engaging than, say, the characters from part 3 which I honestly don’t care for all that much.

    This eventually culminated in SBR which is basically a plot and character-driven drama rather than a battle manga. It still was one but the fights weren’t really the emotional core of the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent article, it really encapsulates most of how Araki works, just one note.

    In the part where you start to talk about the plothole revolving Rohan at the Louvre, you said that he got his Stand at age 27, but he is just 20 in Diamond is Unbreakable and he says he got his Stand 3 months ago in his debut arc. It`s still a plothole, but that part made me really sratch my head.

    Anyways, excellent work, i love it!

    Like

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