JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a special manga, where the enjoyment is somehow irrevocably tied to the meme culture that surrounds the series. No one familiar with anime has completely escaped JoJo, and indeed most people on the internet have failed to dodge the phenomenon. When my concept of anime began and ended with Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, I still managed to pick up the phrase “but it was I, Dio!” from long hours spent at the family computer. It would be years before I realized the origin of that phrase, but it stuck in my mind nonetheless.
JoJo’s ability to be joked upon and referenced to no end with countless variations has carved a unique place for it in the pop culture canon. It has allowed JoJo to be this sort of touchstone that has inspired many works well beyond the scope of battle manga, so even if you’re not a fan of JoJo, you are a fan of fans of JoJo. If you like My Hero Academia, Persona, Hunter X Hunter, or countless other pieces of media, you have JoJo to thank.
Now JoJo’s quality as a meme goldmine is well documented, but the series has a large wellspring of positives that might otherwise get overlooked amid all the in-jokes. So I am beginning a multi-part retrospective on every part of the series that has been made into an anime thus far. It’s a big ask to watch as much anime as JoJo currently is, much less to read as much manga as it currently is. This will be a summoning ritual to the creation of the Part Six anime, and like any good ritual, I’ve already lost my arm and my brother, so the only thing left is to dig into JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part One: Phantom Blood.
[the following contains in-depth spoilers for Phantom Blood…duh]
First, an introduction. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure began its life in 1987 in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. Written by Hirohiko Araki, the new series wore its influences on its sleeve: it combined the muscle-bound gory action of Fist of the North Star with the gothic horror of classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These strange bedfellows give Phantom Blood a unique feeling, despite clearly taking inspiration from its peers.
Jonathan Joestar, the first titular JoJo, lives a carefree life in the late 1800s as the scion of the prestigious Joestar family. He’s a kind and popular boy, but his life is quickly disrupted with the arrival of Dio Brando, whose late father tricked Jonathan’s into believing that he had saved the elder Joestar’s life. To pay this debt, the Joestars take Dio in, who secretly plans to con JoJo out of the family fortune in order to make a name for himself, and to spite his father.
Dio steals the family heirloom Jonathan was studying, an Aztec stone mask that reveals sharp tendrils when exposed to blood. Dio quickly finds out that the mask transforms its victims into vampires, and uses this newfound power to accelerate his plan to rob and kill the Joestars. After killing Jonathan’s father, the two battle in the burning Joestar estate, and both manage to escape despite being gravely wounded.
Jonathan recuperates and studies hamon, a breathing technique that harnesses the power of the sun, in order to defeat Dio and destroy the stone mask. His mentor, Baron Zeppeli, reveals that the stone mask has been a menace to the world for centuries, and believes that JoJo is the only one strong enough to finally rid the world of the curse of vampires. JoJo learns the capabilities of hamon as they track down Dio with the help of Robert E.O. Speedwagon, a street urchin turned loyal ally to Jonathan.
With the main cast set, the characters are probably the best part of Phantom Blood. Jonathan is pretty dry; he’s a lawful good type who behaves like that because it is the right thing to do. That makes him an interesting foil for Dio, but with the eccentric personalities of Speedwagon and Zeppeli, it dooms him to always be the least interesting person in the room. That is a glaring weakness, considering how intriguing most of the later JoJos are.
Dio, by comparison, is delightful. In the anime, both his Japanese and English voice performances are absolutely phenomenal. It’s a lot easier for an audience to grasp a character who is just evil for kicks than a character who’s a morally upright paragon of justice. Dio is fun because he is a loud conniving braggart, and it is refreshing when most of the part is dominated by Jonathan and his white knight act.
The side characters are fun too, mostly. I have a love/hate relationship with Speedwagon, because I generally dislike the “guy who explains everything the protagonist does” archetype, but he does it with such awe and gusto that it makes it hard to get annoyed at him. Having the sidekick worship the ground the main character walks on is generally bad writing, but Speedwagon’s narration and demeanor is the most prominent ‘bizarre’ aspect of Phantom Blood. A lot of what makes JoJo so appealing is that it takes conventions of writing and manga and manage to make its flaws endearing.
Jonathan’s love interest Erina is pretty one-dimensional, especially considering their relationship as adults is non-existent until they decide to get married at the end. She shines more in Battle Tendency as an old woman reining her grandson in line, but in Phantom Blood she exists more as a device to motivate Jonathan than anything. Baron Zeppeli is an eccentric personality, but his death in the late middle of Phantom Blood is put in there just to give Jonathan more motivation. It’s also so that he can ‘transfer the last of his hamon’ to Jonathan to put him on equal footing with Dio, but the plot contrivances are part and parcel of JoJo, so a weak explanation is better than nothing.
Overall, the story of Phantom Blood is that of Jonathan and Dio, so the other characters are secondary to that conflict. Sensible, as the next two parts are going to still feel the reverberations of that conflict.
The original manga has some serious problems with pacing. Jonathan and Dio’s childhood and early adolescence drags on for an obscene five chapters, which the anime manages to meaningfully condense into the first episode. Focusing the narrative is just one of studio David Productions strengths in adapting JoJo, cutting out a lot of the excess while preserving the iconic quotes and panel moments.
The story is largely standard fare for late 1980s shonen manga, but JoJo has been such a mold setter for what it means to be shonen that it feels natural that the first part feels basic. As always, the influence of JoJo cannot be understated. At the end of the day, JoJo is about the simple pleasure of ripped dudes demolishing each other, and also about a dinosaur searching for the skeleton of Jesus Christ, but that comes later. And it does pretty well in that regard, most of the fights in Phantom Blood are interesting and use the power of hamon well. Even in the barebones fight in the Joestar manor, the tide of the battle changes repeatedly and keeps the viewer on their toes.
The villains besides Dio are forgettable, and it continues a long tradition of anime and manga using Jack the Ripper for name recognition alone. The few direct confrontations between Dio and Jonathan are the real spice in this rather short part. Hamon was a unique shonen superpower at the time, and its applications are wide and creative, although its power limit is unclear. It is overpowered when it needs to work, and it is worse than useless when it needs to fail. Well, nobody likes JoJo for the consistent writing.
Phantom Blood is a flawed classic, and it embodies many of the characteristics that would make JoJo popular, while emphasizing most of its flaws. Needless to say, the growing pains are far from over. Araki’s weaknesses in character writing and plot structuring are most apparent here, but the appeal still glints underneath the rough edges. Still, it’s thoroughly fun, and Araki made the wise decision not to focus in on Jonathan Joestar.
He must have seen that such a brazenly upright protagonist would not be able to carry a long-form story, and decided to end Phantom Blood with the lives of Jonathan and Dio. It carries the sensation of a Greek tragedy, two lives inextricably bound to one another although neither can allow the other to continue unfettered. With the deaths of the two brothers, he carried on from a brisk 44 chapters and moved 50 years into the future and across the ocean, to America where the second World War had just barely begun.
And that is the true strength of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, not that it has whacky characters and unpredictable battles. It never lingers longer than it has to. Araki has since significantly refined his art style and sense of pacing, but I have a soft spot for Phantom Blood, blemishes and all. However, my bias is even more evident when it comes to Part Two: Battle Tendency, which I hope to tackle soon.