How The Structure of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure Avoids The Pitfalls of Shonen Cliche

by Mary Lee Sauder,

Hirohiko Araki's legendary manga JoJo's Bizarre Adventure has been in constant publication for over 30 years, and in that time it hasn't lost one ounce of its unique appeal. Even though all eight parts are drastically different from one another, they somehow manage to work together as a cohesive whole. Many other famous long-running shounen manga like Dragon Ball, Bleach, and Fairy Tail have faltered over time, so how has JoJo ridden so high for so long?

Today, we'll explore how the “parts” structure of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure allows Araki to engage his readers with a moment-to-moment narrative that adapts and changes when it needs to, while staying rooted in good storytelling practices and keeping the overarching themes consistent throughout the whole series. We'll also talk about how other long-running manga can take inspiration from Araki's methods. Let's get started!

The Perils of a Long-Running Series

The longer any kind of story goes on, the more likely it is to trip over its own feet. We can see this in other media like the Star Wars prequels, post-resurrection Sherlock Holmes books, and later seasons of Dexter. Falling from grace can happen for any number of reasons, but for shounen manga, the main problems that arise are losing sight of character goals, raising the stakes past the point of human empathy, and refusing to innovate. If the story ceases to be grounded in a reality that the reader can understand and connect with, or it stagnates to the point that there isn't a direction or goal to focus on anymore, the manga loses the magic that made fans love it in the first place.

So how do these problems happen? Reality Punch Studios' video “Shounen Anime's Biggest Problem” (along with Gigguk's follow-up video on the same topic) explains that the magazine serialization system forces mangaka to keep up their issue-to-issue rankings or else risk premature cancellation. If a new manga isn't catching on with readers quickly enough or an established series dips in the rankings, the author may never be able to tell their whole story. So they employ cheap tactics like introducing upgraded powers out of nowhere just to make sure their rankings don't suffer. But then, if their manga becomes very popular, the magazine's editors will push them to keep the story going far past the point that they want to naturally end it.

The author has to make sure that their story takes advantage of the serialization system instead of being hindered by it. This requires a good grasp of storytelling and a willingness to innovate. When a mangaka doesn't do this, they resort to writing by the seat of their pants and are likely to fall into bad habits, and that's how we get travesties like Fairy Tail's Alvarez arc, Naruto's Fourth Ninja War arc, and everything after Erina's dad shows up in Shokugeki no Sōma. Making a long-running shounen work in a competitive magazine format isn't easy, but Araki has it almost down to a science with JoJo's “parts” structure.

An Understandable Goal That Pays Off

Each part of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure tells the story of one member of the Joestar bloodline – the parts vary in setting, style, and length, but they're all connected by the supernatural threats the Joestars fight against as well as shared themes of fate and family. One of the key elements that makes this structure work so well is that each part focuses on just a few important characters, and those characters have understandable goals that they actually reach.

The protagonists' goals are easy to empathize with, as they're based in primal emotions that all humans experience at one point or another: Jonathan wants to stop his brother from hurting anyone else, Jotaro wants to save his mother from Dio's influence, Johnny wants to stop being a depressed sad sack and learn to walk again, etc. And since each part is its own self-contained narrative that ends naturally when the goal is reached, there's no room for stagnation to set in. Each protagonist contributes to the ultimate goal of protecting the Joestar family from supernatural evil, but they're allowed to resolve personal goals within their own parts.

When a manga doesn't have a clear goal or continues past the point where it pays off, the story lacks a sense of direction. Katekyo Hitman Reborn! (a weekly shounen manga that was partially inspired by JoJo part 5) continued two arcs past the point where the main character achieved his goal, and suffered because of it. If it had either given its protagonist a new goal or shifted focus to someone else like JoJo does, the last leg of the manga would've felt more fulfilling.

Appropriate Stakes for Each Part

The next advantage of the “parts” structure is that it gives each segment the freedom to set its stakes at an appropriate level. Parts 3 and 7 are grand adventures that span across vast landscapes, so of course their villains are a megalomaniacal drama queen vampire who can stop time and a comically patriotic president who controls alternate dimensions, respectively. Parts 4 and 8, by comparison, are small town tales where the biggest threats are a serial killer who wants to live a quiet life and a group of “rock humans” who try to steal a life-giving fruit. Stakes go up and down according to the needs of each part, but they always stay grounded at a level where readers are able to empathize with the characters.

Many mangaka will continually raise the stakes in their stories to keep readers impressed enough to vote for them in the magazine rankings, but putting the entire universe at stake and having characters throw meteors at each other usually doesn't work over the long term. It goes hand-in-hand with giving characters understandable goals – humans care about other humans instead of broad concepts, so raising the stakes from “this one person will die” to “the entire universe will be destroyed” only serves to alienate the readers instead of tugging at their heartstrings. Dragon Ball's stakes and power levels escalated to such an insane degree that the anime had to rebrand the Saiyan Saga onward to “Dragon Ball Z” just to make the sudden jump feel justified.

If Araki felt the need to one-up himself with every part, the JoJos would be fighting intergalactic space wars by now. It isn't necessary, and it's not what the readers signed up for (just look at the Jorge Joestar spinoff novel to see how that level of escalation turns the story into a dumpster fire). Yes, Dio and President Valentine have ridiculously powerful Stands, but they only threaten the lives of a few characters instead of the entire world. JoJo has always been over-the-top in terms of style, but reserved when it comes to raising the stakes.

Adapt to Avoid Stagnation

Newcomers to the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure series are often confused when they notice that the first two parts don't use Stands. Instead, the power system is Hamon, a fighting style that uses breathing techniques to channel sunlight energy into an opponent. It's highly effective at vaporizing the legions of vampires, zombies, and Pillar Men that Jonathan and Joseph have to contend with, but isn't especially useful for fighting humans and doesn't have enough room for variation to make each Hamon user feel different.

Araki said in a 2012 interview for the special edition magazine JOJOmenon that his editor was sick of Hamon after part 2 and encouraged him to create a power system that wasn't so limiting. So he came up with Stands, which are based on an individual's fighting spirit and can have any kind of superpower imaginable. They started out as mostly “punching ghosts” that fought for their users with brute force, but over time Araki introduced automatic Stands that act independently, wearable suit Stands, Requiem Stands, and many more subtypes that keep the system feeling fresh even 30 years later.

If Araki had limited himself to Hamon or even just “punching ghost”-style Stands, we would never have gotten insanely creative fights like Josuke's final confrontation with Kira or Jolyne's Memento-esque memory battle against Jailhouse Lock. The series might've ended up like Death Note, which saw significant backlash in its second season when it introduced a samey, inferior replacement for L instead of a vastly different detective who would've forced Light to change up his tactics.

And this doesn't just apply to battles, either. Part 1 was heavy on the Victorian melodrama, but each part afterwards goes its own way in terms of tone and genre. Slice-of-life, hardcore gangster thriller, prison break, Western... these wild shifts can be jarring and pretty much guarantee that readers will like some parts better than others, but overall they help each protagonist's story feel fresh and different.

How Can Other Shounen Series Learn From This?

Obviously, not every long-running shounen manga can just start over with a new main character whenever it feels like it. It would be fun to see another series take on the generational style that JoJo's Bizarre Adventure uses, but for most practical purposes, there are two big lessons that other authors should take from Araki's “parts” structure: set up understandable goals for characters that are allowed to pay off naturally, and don't be afraid to innovate on your core concept instead of just raising stakes and power levels.

One Piece has done a fantastic job of keeping its story interesting after almost 1000 chapters, and that's because it uses the islands that the characters visit as self-contained “parts” with their own storylines, character arcs, and goals. The overarching goal of finding the One Piece treasure will eventually be reached, just as the Joestars will eventually rid the world of evil, but what keeps readers engaged are the smaller victories like Luffy making peace with his brother's death. Having an ensemble cast also allows focus to shift away from Luffy every now and then, giving other characters a chance to have their own complete story arcs that help to flesh out the world.

Dr. Stone, on the other hand, takes the second lesson very much to heart. After Taiju and Yuzuriha's love story was resolved in the first few chapters, they didn't serve much of a purpose in the narrative anymore. So the author swapped them out for the stone world villagers, whose individual goals line up much better with Senku's desire to create a new society with science. Taiju and Yuzuriha eventually return as side characters with different roles in the story, which suits them much better.

Final Thoughts

Not everything in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure works perfectly. Araki has a tendency to forget things, which causes issues ranging from small Stand ability inconsistencies to entire dropped plot threads (Josuke's savior and Fugo deserved so much better). But the “parts” structure is genius, and other massively long manga that have to deal with the magazine serialization system would do well to learn from it. We hope that more manga like One Piece and Dr. Stone take inspiration from Araki's work so that the world of shounen becomes as great as we know it can be!


discuss this in the forum (20 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Feature homepage / archives