As someone who occasionally writes (bad) fiction, I know — beginning a creation is difficult. An author (or a director, an animator, a cartoonist) needs to establish a rich world and believable characters within the first few pages (minutes, panels) of their work. That world and those characters then need to lend themselves to a storyline that will keep the reader engaged until the very end. And all this needs to be decided on before anything is even committed to paper.
(Note: This review is written for those who have already read and/or watched Part 1 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, so it will contain spoilers for that part only.)
Hirohiko Araki, the man behind JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, knows this all too well. The fact that a creator needs to commit fully to their work before they themselves feel at home in the world they’ve established mean that decisions made on the fly initially may impact the more mature work later on.
Nowhere is this more true than in manga, where storylines will often unfold over years, even decades. Araki began Phantom Blood, the first part of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, in 1986 at age twenty-six, but his characters were still inhabiting the same world in 2003, when he himself was forty-three. That’s like if I were to still be working on this same series of reviews in 2037. He seems to have come to regret many of those early decisions, ripping out major parts of the foundation established by Phantom Blood in the later Stardust Crusaders arc, and the rest in 2004 with Steel Ball Run.
Does that mean that the younger Araki’s work is not worth our time? Not at all. Artists are humans who grow and change over the years, but can put out brilliant work at any point in their careers. As Paul McCartney knows all too well, decades of hard work and musical innovation will never erase the fact that his most popular hits all came from his time with The Beatles.
So, then, we are justified in asking the question: Is Phantom Blood the peak of Araki’s career, just as Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the peak of McCartney’s? Is everything he has done since a pale imitation of a work of genius, a poor copy of a flash of brilliant inspiration? Is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood still worth watching?
In reviewing a series called JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, I think it’s fitting that we start by examining the titular JoJo himself: the thickly-eyebrowed Jonathan Joestar. Unlike the other JoJos, who either start the series as muscular badasses (Joseph, Jotaro) or are at least courageous enough to do what needs to be done (Josuke, Giorno), Jonathan begins his adventure as a (pretty wimpy) child, just introduced to his adoptive brother Dio Brando, a boy who jumps dramatically out of a stagecoach and begins a new, and troublesome, life as a member of the Joestar household.
The interesting thing about this setup is that it shows how Jonathan, emotionally manipulated by his foster brother and misunderstood by his clueless father, gained the kind of steely resolve and determination that would later define him. Dio kills his dog, poisons his father, and, famously, kisses his crush, but cannot destroy the will of Jonathan to prove himself righteous, even if he can defeat the Joestar boy at every turn.
The problem is that Jonathan’s character, even when fully developed (after the burning mansion fight), is not particularly interesting. What are his character traits? Oh, he’s so brave, so noble, so kind. What are his character flaws? Um…he’s too brave, noble, and kind? Jonathan’s one “failure” after his character is developed is the failure to destroy Dio’s head, but he can hardly be blamed for that, since no one fully knew what Dio was capable of. This is not helped by the fact that all the other characters, especially Robert E. O. Speedwagon, cannot stop praising Jonathan for being such a cool guy. Likable characters aren’t likable because they’re good people — they’re likable because they’re relatable, and Jonathan isn’t very relatable.
So much for Jonathan. Are the side characters any good? Well, there’s Speedwagon. A thief from the heart of the East End of London, Speedwagon’s inexplicable gratitude to Jonathan for punching him in the face — but nobly — is matched only by his desire to explain out loud what’s going on. He is a fan favorite, but — and I can only speak for myself here — Speedwagon memes aren’t quite as funny right after watching an episode of Phantom Blood. That’s because the guy is genuinely annoying. Action in anime does sometimes require explanation, but later seasons of JoJo’s would do this better. Plus, he steals Zeppeli’s hat.
Speaking of Will A. Zeppeli, the Italian baron is the only character to receive much in the way of backstory or character development. He is Jonathan’s friend and mentor, and a genuinely interesting character with a quest-for-revenge motive. He teaches Jonathan Hamon and goes on to die a hero’s death, becoming the first of many JoBros to heroically sacrifice themselves in the line of duty. If there is a problem with Zeppeli, it may be that his flamboyant appearance and serious manner don’t match — which, of course, is a series staple for JoJo’s, but since this is the first time we see it, it’s a bit disconcerting.
There are also a number of unimportant side characters, the most memorable of whom is probably Dire, who’s also on a revenge quest and uses probably the single greatest move in the whole anime with his Thunder Cross Split Attack. It’s so utterly impossible to suspend disbelief and take the show seriously when he does this, and I find it side-splittingly funny every time. I’m not sure his inclusion, or the inclusion of many of the others, added much to the story, but I’m willing to give Araki a pass on that. It was worth it just for that one line.
As far as villains go, Bruford and Tarukus are the only ones besides Dio to receive much attention. While they have an interesting backstory, featuring the only time in JoJo’s history that characters interacted with real historical figures, Bruford suffers from Speedwagon disease, and instantly sees the light after getting beaten down by Jonathan. Why? Because Jonathan is so noble. As if we didn’t know that already. As for Tarukus, he just sort of…stays evil, which makes more sense, but takes away any potential for character development.
The part’s best character is undoubtedly Dio himself. He has all of the agency in the plot and all the best lines, and he goes from cunning schemer to flamboyant villain over the course of the storyline. His goals are pretty vague, but that matters less than it maybe should — it doesn’t matter to me how he wants to be evil as long as he does it in style, with his army of Halloween-store baddies. Maybe viewers won’t find Jonathan relatable, but they will love to hate Dio. I wasn’t rooting for Jonathan as much as I was rooting for his foster brother’s destruction. It’s pretty obvious why Araki brought him back for another round — he must have been incredibly fun to write.
So much for the characters. Of course, this is JoJo’s, so we don’t just care about the personalities — we care about the fights between them. In a series this short, though, there’s not that much room for fights, and only a few really qualify as “JoJo fights” in that they span multiple episodes and see the advantage swing back and forth multiple times.
The fights themselves are solidly okay. A good JoJo’s fight is one where you know about all of the tools available to both the hero and the villain, and where the villain has the advantage…but then the hero does something unexpected, clinching the victory. But Hamon, the arc’s central conceit, is a bit of a black box. Zeppeli seems to always be pulling new Hamon abilities out of absolutely nowhere, which means that the viewer can never know what’s possible in a given situation. Araki seems to give up on this too, and the final fight between Jonathan and Dio revolves around Jonathan having his breathing cut off, meaning that he can’t use any Hamon abilities, no matter how arcane. Add to this that Speedwagon is narrating every single movement out loud, and you have a recipe for slightly unsatisfying viewing.
Of course, it’s still JoJo’s, and the action is still very watchable. The burning mansion fight in particular stands out as a highlight; it was just as cool in 1986 as when they did it thirty years later in Deadpool. It’s just a shame that there weren’t more limits established for Hamon, or at least more interesting techniques like Cesare Zeppeli would later show off.
I’ve been spending a lot of space ripping into Phantom Blood, but there are reasons I enjoyed it as well. As discussed before, I liked some of the characters, especially Dio and Zeppeli. The fact that we got to see Jonathan’s backstory, and the fact that the story starts when he is a child, makes him more sympathetic than he otherwise would be.
The music is another highlight, as always. “Sono Chi no Sadame” is a banger, though unfortunately it accompanies the kind of anime opening that you can’t watch until the last episode because it spoils the whole thing at a stroke. Jonathan’s theme is probably the single best thing about him as a character. Apparently Zeppeli has a theme, but I only found it later on YouTube; it’s pretty good, but if you don’t notice it the two times it appears, you’re out of luck. Finally, of course, “Roundabout” is probably the perfect song to end episodes on. The way the guitar slowly fades in, letting you know things are wrapping up, makes it one of the best ending themes in anime, period.
But what really makes Phantom Blood tick, what really makes it an anime that’s not just watchable but actually good, is the camp, man. The way they say the names of their moves in English every single time they use them! The way that Dio’s minions are gruesome Halloween ghoulies rather than something actually frightening! The way that everyone in this ridiculous anime is so serious about what’s going on! I think a lot of this disconnect is down to the culture divide, but I cannot take Phantom Blood seriously. And that’s great! Sure, maybe it doesn’t quite reach its goal of being a dark, dramatic introduction to the rest of the series, but it’s highly entertaining anyway.
So, to go back to our initial question: Is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood still worth watching? Oh, definitely. Even if it were nine episodes of raccoon feces, having Battle Tendency and Stardust Crusaders make sense would still be worth the time investment.
But it isn’t! Sure, you can’t really take it seriously, but if you concede that point, the anime really is pretty good. If all of JoJo’s were more like Phantom Blood, maybe the series wouldn’t be the classic it is today, but people would still come back to it. Araki should be relieved that his best work didn’t come first; after all, it’s not good to peak too soon in your career.
So, to conclude, Phantom Blood does a serviceable job of establishing the world and characters that would go on to define the rest of the series, and, while it’s not a modern masterpiece, it makes for a very watchable (and funny) anime that is a must for any JoJo’s fan. Seriously, why would you skip the first part? You need to get on this right now.