The Road To Stone Ocean: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Directorial Retrospective

The Road To Stone Ocean: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Directorial Retrospective

The upcoming Stone Ocean adaptation marks the return of one of the most brilliant Jojo directors, so there has been no better time for a long retrospective of the show’s production, with a special emphasis on the directorial team that truly makes it a bizarre adventure.

For all the love that David Production’s modern adaptations of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure have received, one major aspect remains relatively underappreciated: their ability to reinvent themselves with each iteration while maintaining a distinct essence, akin to how Hirohiko Araki has kept the manga fresh for decades by evolving a nonetheless recognizable style. You’d be hard pressed to mix up Jojo with any other anime—despite being one of the most parodied titles—and at the same time, each season has been distinguishable from the others even at a glance.

That’s no happy coincidence, but rather the deliberate result of the approach the team has taken since the beginnings—starting with the formation of the team itself. Over the last decade, Jojo has been crafted by a very consistent team undergoing constant reshufflings in some positions, while others remain essentially unchanged. This ability to tell which pieces can be removed and reinserted elsewhere to the show’s benefit, while also adapting to the inevitable scheduling overlaps, has been one of David Production’s greatest triumphs. This duality between adaptability and consistency has manifested all over the series’ creative roster. Aspects such as the writing and art direction, with their main figures in Yasuko Kobayashi and Shunichirou Yoshihara, have remained under nearly identical teams all the way through, maintaining the same pillars in which the team’s vision of Araki’s work is sustained.

On the other hand, you’ve got major positions that have undergone change every single season, such as the character designers; Takako Shimizu, Masahiko Komino, Terumi Nishii, Takahiro Kishida, and now Masanori Shino have added up to a roster featuring multiple illustrious names that a more conventional project would have simply stuck to. Although I’d be lying if I said that they’ve all grasped both Araki’s flavor and the limitations of the production with the same expertise, the fact that each season has had a different animation designer feels like the perfect approach for a series that has visually evolved as much as Jojo. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about professionals in high demand, meaning that it’s not so easy to keep entrusting the job to one new reputable artist each time; again, just look at how Yugo Kanno has been in charge of the music for Part 3 onwards, after starting with one composer per storyline at first. As romantic as it is to attribute all decisions to creative reasoning, sometimes those are all about knowing how to compromise to keep things feasible, and in that regard David Production’s Jojo has also done a more than respectable job.

The most interesting section of the team, for how well it embodies this approach and due to the responsibility they ultimately have, is the directorial roster. All of David Production’s Jojo adaptations have been directed by a very consistent group of people, even when it comes to side materials, and yet the lineup and their responsibilities have never been the exact same. Add to that the fact that the production’s limited animation—especially in season 1—places an even heavier burden on the directors’ delivery, that the degree to which they split the workload is unusual, and that the production roles they’re credited as are anything but intuitive, and you’ve got a very interesting project to dig into.

With varying degrees of success, studio A.P.P.P.’s Jojo’s OVAs had reimagined the magic of Araki’s Stands in animation, easily peaking in the episode written, storyboarded, and directed by Satoshi Kon. A translation of the source material’s qualities into something that plays to the strengths of the new canvas is the platonic ideal approach to adaptations, but things are often not so easy in the real world, and it goes without saying that a TV series by a modest team was never going to be able to measure up against OVAs chockful of industry icons. For David Production’s Jojo to succeed on its own terms, it had to isolate exactly what makes Araki’s work so attractive in the first place, and then figure out economical tricks to make a strictly faithful recreation of the manga work in animation form.

The former was a relatively painless process. Producer Hiroyuki Omori wanted a big fan of the series in charge to ensure its authenticity… and he got two of them in Naokatsu Tsuda and Kenichi Suzuki. They were happy to build around all the iconic imagery of the series, but perhaps most importantly, it was on them to convey the intangibles to the team so that the anime felt like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure rather than a mockery of it. As an amusing example, years later and in a much more mentor-like position, Tsuda would tell newcomer directors to think of Jojo as a wrestling anime, which did wonders for them to grasp the campy atmosphere and how to handle the characters whose role is essentially to scream about each fight’s twist and turns.

Now, it’s worth noting that this directorial duo that lasted for multiple seasons was a bit non-standard in nature. Whenever you see two directors splitting the workload in anime, it’ll usually follow a strict hierarchy where the more hands-on director (usually 監督, kantoku) works under a chief (usually 総監督, soukantoku) with more of an executive position and ultimate vetoing power, whether they use it or not. Although they’ve acknowledged that their roles sorta mapped to that so you could crudely summarize it that way, the long story is much more nuanced. Tsuda and Suzuki were credited as director and series director respectively (in their katakana forms ディレクター & シリーズディレクター) precisely because they refused the idea of an absolute hierarchy, so they instead tackled the job together as equals, covering for each other whenever needed. For the sake of efficiency, Suzuki became the ultimate authority during pre-production while Tsuda had the final say during the execution of all those concepts, but even that was more about specialization than about putting one above the other. For the most part, the two worked side by side.

With these two in charge of making Jojo feel like Jojo, only one thing was left: making the series feel like a Bizarre Adventure as well. That’s easier said than done, and may sound like too vague of a job, but that about sums up the role of visual director Yasufumi Soejima; in his own words, the person who was in charge of making abnormal proposals throughout the entire production process.

Soejima is a multitalented individual with an uncanny ability to think outside the box, something that makes a lot of sense once you factor in his background. We’re talking about an oil painter who looked for a career elsewhere because that won’t put food on the table, whom ever since then has bounced from videogames to traditional and CG animation, even doing live action work on the side—all of this, while always mixing techniques he’d mastered in other mediums. His involvement with David Production runs quite deep, as he was part of studio Gonzo during their wildly experimental era; one of his first major claims to fame is none other than Gankutsuou’s one of a kind aesthetic, a gaudy textured extravaganza that embodies the show’s themes better than any standard approach could have. Following one of the studio’s many implosions, producers Kouji Kikuta and Tairo Okiura went on to found David Production, attracting talented Gonzo regulars like Soejima in the process. Ever since then, his anime efforts have been focused on David Production titles, though he makes a point to always have multiple things on his plate as he has admitted that routine is his kryptonite.

When it came to Jojo, Soejima’s role was acting as a positive source of chaos. To summarize it as simply as possible, he contrasted it to the role of art designers, a job he undertook during the show’s production as well. As an art designer, the flow of the work is logical: locations, objects, and palettes are coherently derived from the narrative, even when it comes to details not depicted in the source material—those gaps are simply filled with the logical assumption of what would be there had Araki shown the world in full. In contrast to that, Soejima acted as an in-house disruptor, switching the palette dramatically as Araki would when he deemed it necessary, editing space itself to increase the gravitas, and warping the surroundings as he saw fit. Although the show’s success was collective, it’s hard to deny that Soejima was their ultimate weapon, as someone capable of constantly surprising the audience in ways that didn’t put much strain on the team; the spice of the production, the Bizarre to Tsuda and Suzuki’s Jojo.

As admirable of an effort as the team pulled for the first two parts of the story, they would be the first ones to point out that many aspects didn’t work out as they’d have liked, to the point of perhaps overcompensating when the time came to adapt Stardust Crusaders for the second season. Frustrated with the heavy limitations of the animation they had to deal with during the first series, and fully aware of the iconic status of many Part 3 fights, the team committed to a full adaptation of it with action as the main draw. Although that would prove to be too taxing over 48 fighting-packed episodes, the addition of Fumiaki Kouta and Takahito Katayama as action directors made that aspect a lot more impactful, in particular during the earlier episodes of its run.

Once again, though, it was the directorial crew that spiced things up the most. On paper, Soejima wouldn’t return as visual director… which is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t take production credits at face value. Not only did he still provide similar input, but also greatly increased his output as an episode director and storyboarder throughout the show, while the rest of the team still followed the guidelines he’d established during the first series. Fans got a clearer taste of what Soejima’s style as a director is actually like, with its tremendously sleek flow aided by eye-catching transitions; which is to say, the same principles he applied to his beloved ending sequences for the series. And it wasn’t only him that got to work on a whole lot more episodes: both Tsuda and Suzuki, who barely had time to direct individual episodes during Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency, did so quite regularly for Stardust Crusaders.

What was the trick that allowed everyone more time to do hands-on work, then? While part of it is the fact that they had fewer aspects to figure out after the original series, much of it is owed to a new role in the production. The nominal disappearance of the visual director role was compensated by the addition of a chief episode director (チーフ演出, chief enshutsu) to oversee the execution in Toshiyuki Kato. Truth to the told, Kato was far from a newcomer to Jojo; he had storyboarded and directed episodes as early as the second one of the original series, already exhibiting quirks like his neat abbreviation of space that with time would flourish into Jojo’s greatest showcases of direction prowess. While he hadn’t quite found his footing to that degree by the time of Stardust Crusaders, Kato’s episodes were often among the most inspired, so he unsurprisingly ended up directly in charge of multiple reality-bending Stands. As we now know, that was only a prologue of things to come.

After acting as the series director for the first three parts of the story, Diamond is Unbreakable marked Suzuki’s departure, which he took as a chance to direct other titles like Cells at Work! and DRIFTERS. To replace a director who had been a key figure since the start, the team relied on… a director who had also been with them since the start, and proved he was ready for higher responsibility during the previous season; which is to say, Kato. This once again changed the dynamics of the directorial duo, as Kato is a much more execution-oriented director than Suzuki, meaning that the previous workload prioritization no longer made sense. Although Tsuda kept the final say, he was happy to let Kato’s own color dye Diamond is Unbreakable to its core—a decision that resulted in modern Jojo’s direction at its most cohesive and interesting.

An important detail we’ve neglected the mention is that Kato and Soejima happen to be very good friends, the kind that complements each other at that. They coincided in those experimental Gonzo titles, which naturally led them to work together with David Production as well. On his own, Kato has always been a perfectly serviceable director with a reputation for cost-effectiveness, as he can put together fairly engaging anime without stressing the animation team all that much. Not necessarily one to elevate an entire title, but a capable leader to build around.

When paired with people like Soejima, though, the synergy takes them both to another level; look no further than Kato’s Level E, a mostly unremarkable adaptation of a Yoshihiro Togashi sci-fi comedy with a memorable exception in Soejima’s sleek, heavily textured episode #04. After working closely together for this many years, there are traces of their mutual influence even when they happen to be separate, but it’s when they join hands again that they seem to unlock their full potential. At the end of the day, Soejima’s wild imagination needs Kato’s effective direction to be properly channeled, and Kato’s rock solid fundamentals need the ability to think outside the box that Soejima provides.

With Tsuda still covering their backs, Soejima and Kato teamed up to take over the show’s execution by either directing or storyboarding half the episodes themselves; on top of that, the former was also entrusted with two bewitchingly smooth opening sequences, as well as his recurring ending duties. As impressive as the workload is in and of itself, Kato’s greatest achievement might have been getting everyone else on the exact same page, achieving a level of cohesion that far surpassed previous iterations. All the smooth transitions, perspective shifts to build up tension, the aforementioned abbreviation of space, and above everything else the conceptualization of all the animation as a heavily layered composition are qualities most apparent in Kato’s own episodes, but that were conveyed by the team as a whole; that even includes Tsuda himself, who embraced this style despite having never really given it a spin before.

Those coordinated efforts resulted on a tremendously cost-effective yet unique feeling work, once again adding up Kato and Soejima’s qualities. The layering was exploited as a constant shortcut for the animation team, but also made for curiously dynamic transitions even as it switched from one talking bust to another, a common occurrence in a series where people stand in awe commentating fights. And, whenever those supernatural fights got truly crazy, it was that same layering that allowed them to depict the powers in appropriate reality-bending fashion—talk about a weaponized crutch! After the more straightforward depiction of a high-stakes narrative like Stardust Crusaders’, this quirky approach to the direction felt like the perfect choice on a narrative and tonal level.

But of course, we all know that all good things must come to an end… sort of. Kato went on to direct, storyboard, and even write the spinoff Thus Spoke Kishibe Rohan, with the inestimable help of none other than Soejima; although it was a modest side project with a less hectic story, it still featured flashes of the excellence we’ve gone over. What happened to the main series, then? After multiple seasons of rearranging the same directorial lineup, the team underwent the first fundamental changes… though again, only sort of. Although Tsuda remained on top, the very structure of the team changed, no longer adhering to the arrangement he initially had with Suzuki to put aside hierarchy. As chief director for the first time, Tsuda took a small step back to be a mentor for the two big newcomers: the more animation-focused Yasuhiro Kimura and Hideya Takahashi, who shared responsibilities as the show’s new directors.

Why make this change when things had gone so well, then? Again, there are multiple reasons, starting with the fact that anime creators are human and eventually need a breather—even if that simply means going on to create a different cartoon. Although all staff members stick to the Warner-mandated script and pretend that new Jojo series aren’t set in stone unless people continue supporting the franchise, whenever they comment on the production timeline there’s always an implicit acknowledgment that those are all lies, as the preparation for the next series always begins soon after one ends. And, when you’ve directed consecutive projects that have all undergone pretty severe scheduling collapses by the end, right about anyone would want out for a bit, no matter how much they love the series. With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why new directorial blood was needed.

On top of that, it’s worth considering that David Production had been quietly but rapidly undergoing change. Jojo’s continued success had allowed them to grow, their increasing mastery of techniques like CACANi’s computer-assisted in-betweening was making their pipeline more efficient, and a big influx of talent from studio SHAFT made them pack more of a punch than ever before—as Fire Force fans can surely attest. Much of Jojo’s success before relied on smart shortcuts, but given their increase of production muscle by the time of Vento Aureo, I can’t argue against the decision to entrust the project to directors who—especially Kimura—excel at showcasing animation in a more traditional sense. Though of course, this was accompanied by a lessened role for the craftiest directors so far; the most notorious case being Soejima, who can never truly be separated from the series for as long as the staff follows the precepts he set during the first season, but who skipped directly working on an iteration of modern Jojo for the first time. When it comes to the personnel, as well as the approach derived from that, Vento Aureo was the biggest departure from the bizarre norm thus far.

Was the change in philosophy worth it, though? Your mileage may vary in this regard, but it’s clear that the decisions they took had their pros and cons. Vento Aureo had the most traditionally excellent tidbits of action in the series, by far the most visceral peaks of animation that TV Jojo had ever seen, as well as moments where the likes of Kimura proved that an increased focus on the animation was by no means at odds with creativity; incidentally, he did regret putting so much effort into one admittedly unimportant dance sequence, which is something we can all agree he was categorically wrong about as that might be the best moment in the whole show. To make things even better, Vento Aureo weathered the production decay way more elegantly than all of its predecessors, despite Kishida’s intricate character designs raising the bar for the team. Though that’s more of a testimony to the studio’s growth, it’s another victory for Jojo’s management, as their bet paid off once again.

In exchange for all that, Vento Aureo lost a bit of its Jojo magic; or, to be more precise, it lost a bit of its Bizarre magic. You might have noticed that it was more rooted in reality, that color shifts were less frequent, and less inspired when they did happen. The storyboarding became more straightforward, with a shifting focus from the composition to the framing of movement even in cases where things got more intricate than usual. As if to exemplify that, Kato made a chilling return to handle the climax of Golden Experience Requiem that embodied the type of smooth, bewitching delivery that Vento Aureo had left a bit behind. Now if only Jojo was able to strike a balance between David Production’s current production muscle and the economical yet creative execution that defined the first seasons of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, chances are that you’ve already guessed the reason why this long retrospect exists in the first place. And if you haven’t: surprise, that’s essentially what the studio is set to do with the upcoming adaptation of Stone Ocean! Kato will be the show’s director, with the also returning Suzuki as his chief; given the latter’s focus more on the pre-production side of things, chances are that Kato will have more creative leeway than ever. What about Soejima, though? While his presence hasn’t been confirmed, both of them were last seen drawing scattered storyboards for Doraemon, which appears to be too much of a coincidence for two long-time friends like them. Whether he’ll be as strongly committed to the series as he’s been in the past remains to be seen, and likely depends on how refreshed he feels given his hatred of routine work, but I have no doubts that he’ll be assisting his pal in some way or the other.

Does that mean Stone Ocean will be the greatest season of David Production’s Jojo yet? That much no one can tell, and assuming that Kato will replicate Diamond is Unbreakable’s brilliance just because he’s at the helm again is an oversimplification that ignores how well this whole team adapted to the specific circumstances of that production. At the same time, that’s a reason to be hopeful about it: given how well consistent the creative team has been in identifying the specific needs of each series, managing to keep this adaptation just as fresh as the source material in the process, there’s no reason to believe they’ll drop the ball now that one of its best directors is making his return. Consider myself excited!

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Kaato higashikata
Kaato higashikata
1 year ago

Inca no mezame potatoes

Maycon Silva
Maycon Silva
1 year ago

Hum… so Yasufumi Soejima is responsible for those changes in the color palette during the fights since part 1?

11 months ago

thanks for this article, very great stuff here. I wonder how the studio is handling production now that Netflix is distributing it in cores rather than weekly releases.

11 days ago

“Strike a balance between David Production’s current production muscle and the economical yet creative execution that defined the first seasons of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure”

“Chances are that Kato will have more creative leeway than ever”

“I have no doubts that he’ll be assisting his pal in some way or the other”

“There’s no reason to believe they’ll drop the ball”

Things that aged poorly lmao