JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1: Phantom Blood Review
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“I will defend my father and my family!”Jonathan Joestar.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is one of the most known and popular manga and anime franchises in the world right now. While a lot of people are familiar with it due to the wide variety of memes that have spawned from the anime series, beneath those and the exaggerated nature of the story lies one of the most ambitious, daring and experimental franchises in fiction in recent decades.
This series was created by manga artist Hirohiko Araki and was first published in 1987, telling the intergenerational story of the Joestar family, with every arc featuring a member of said family as the protagonist while carrying the nickname “JoJo”. Every arc, which are usually referred as parts, has its own set of characters, antagonists, historical context and even style of storytelling as you have parts that range from road trip shonen storylines to slice of life stuff and mafia conflicts.
Araki has continuously pushes the envelope and the story keeps going even to this very day, but every massive franchise has their own humble beginnings and JoJo’s first part is known as Phantom Blood, as it centers around the first main character, Jonathan Joestar, and his feud with his adoptive brother, Dio Brando.
Over the top, with lots of twists and turns, but filled with a lot of heart and classic heroism, Phantom Blood is certainly a far cry from what JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure would eventually become, but you can’t understand the franchise without the basis that this story set and the influence that it has on everything that happens afterwards. This is where everything began and every part has its roots here.
What Is Phantom Blood?
Set in England in 1988, Phantom Blood tells the story of Jonathan Joestar, a young man from a rich family that is aspiring to become a high class gentleman, and Dio Brando, a teenager of lower class that was adopted by Jonathan’s father, George, after his own father, Dario Brando, died of illness. But things are not as simple as that.
Dio grew up resentful of his father and decided to use this new opportunity in life to become the favorite and keep the Joestar fortune. That is why he does every little dirty trick in the book to ruin Jonathan’s life and how he is viewed by others, but the latter ends up standing up to him and Dio lays low for a few years.
Things take a turn for the worse as Dio discovers that an old mask in the Joestar house has the power to turn people into vampires and decides to use it on himself to gain more power, which results in him becoming a vampire lord and Jonathan having to learn an old power called Hamon in order to face his adoptive brother in an epic showdown.
This being the first part of JoJo, there is a natural search for an identity and it shows, whether you are reading the manga or watching the anime. Araki was still a young manga artist at the time in the mid-80s and his work was finding its identity, which is why Phantom Blood feels like a bizarre (pun intended) mix of classic Gothic horror a la Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Fist of the North Star, which was a massive influence to Araki. But I think the series’ biggest virtues and flaws lie between their two main characters, Jonathan and Dio.
As foils to one another, JoJo and Dio work amazingly well when they are together. They are a powerful contrast of good and evil in the most traditional sense of the words. Jonathan represents the ideal version of heroism while Dio is the sadistic, unhinged nature of the classic vampire of horror tales. So when seen together on the page or on screen, you can see how well they bounce of each other and that is where Phantom Blood is at its strongest.
The strength in characters has always been one of Araki’s biggest virtues, but there was still work to be done because Phantom Blood definitely has ups and downs when Dio and Jonathan are not together. I personally enjoy the other moments for what they were, but other characters don’t have the same gravitas that these two have.
I like Speedwagon as much as the next guy and his memes are glorious, but there is no denying that, beyond a moment here and there to support Jonathan (like when he discovers Dio’s lies about him feeling sorry for trying to kill George Joestar), he is not a character that does a lot throughout the story. And while I find the role that he has in future parts, both directly and indirectly, very compelling because of his connection to Jonathan, it’s hard to say that he has as much chemistry with our main protagonist as future “JoJobros”.
Again, having watched other parts of the series does make you see Phantom Blood in a different way, with the characters being a direct contrast. Araki would grow a lot from this part and develop strong casts of characters that are a great complement to both the hero and the antagonist, making almost every scene in every part feel engaging and compelling, which is not something that I can say here in Phantom Blood.
I think this weakness is shown a bit when you have the training sequences between Jonathan and William Zeppeli. While it does serve as a natural way to explain the nature of Hamon, Zeppeli is not a very interesting character and I would argue that his eventual death to ignite the fire within JoJo’s was the best part of his story within the franchise.
Again, the side characters mostly serve the plot and move the story forward, but they don’t add much personal agency or genuine influence. The two main characters dominate the story and while their feud is very engaging, it sometimes feels like a bit of a chore to move past some parts,
I would dedicate a section to the character of Jonathan. Much has been said over the years, that he is a boring character because he is too heroic and “pure”, which I think is unnecessarily derogative. His character has even been undermined by Araki himself, stating that he found him to be very linear and that he was still finding his voice as an author when writing Jonathan.
Now, it is definitely true that Jonathan doesn’t have the complexity of character than some future JoJo protagonists, but its his heroism and good heart that makes him such a perfect first main character for the franchise. He is the one that sets everything in motion in the Joestar family. His good nature is what his descendants inherit from him.
Jonathan starts out as very reactionary to everything Dio throws at him, but after the latter turns into a vampire, JoJo starts to become a lot more proactive, learning Hamon, searching for Dio and eventually defeating him through the kind of wits and smarts that the series would become known for. This is something that, much like an antagonist mentions during Phantom Blood, that highlights how Jonathan is “made out of the stuff of heroes” and it fits quite well as a myth of sorts in the JoJo franchise.
Not every main character has to be overly complex or tortured and Jonathan serves as a perfect response to Dio and what the latter is doing, thus making for a powerful contrast. Plus, JoJo is a very endearing protagonist and you only have to look at surveys where is highlighted that he is one of the most popular characters of the series, which is saying a lot.
On the other hand, you have Dio Brando. In many ways, you can’t have Phantom Blood without Dio. In fact, you can’t have the entire JoJo franchise without Dio, which goes to show the level of influence that he has over the plot.
Dio has become one of the most iconic villains in manga and anime, but what I find interesting when watching or reading Phantom Blood is the fact that he is a victim of circumstances in a way, growing up in an abusive home and only knowing evil and mistreatment. Now, Dio is obviously an unredeemable character, but its interesting to see where the root of his evil comes from and the moment where he snaps and tells Jonathan, “that bastard (his father) never had any other”, is quite fascinating when you consider who he would eventually become.
There is a very human and resentful evil in Dio. His depravity when he becomes a vampire is actually quite human, highlighting how most men are corrupted when they find power. It’s also interesting to see the contrast of their ways: Dio finds power he didn’t work for, both when he joins the Joestar family and when he turns into a vampire, while Jonathan had to work to become a gentleman and train to master Hamon. It’s another contrast of their abilities.
If Jonathan has been reactionary in the beginning of the plot, then the start of the story is entirely dominated by Dio. He sets the wheels in motion for the entire plot to get going and he cultivates a figure of imposing darkness and sadistic elegance as the story moves forward. But it’s in those soft moments where you start to see reflections of his insecurities, such as Jonathan’s last seconds of life and how even Dio found a moment of shock in the passing of his adoptive brother.
Phantom Blood also works a lot better when you have seen future JoJo parts as some moments become a lot more powerful in hindsight and they resonate a lot more with the audience. This is not something that should be analyzed when critiquing this part because it was the first story, not a prequel or something along those lines, but I think its worth pointing out.
The action is good and while its only going to get better in future installments, I think a lot of reviewers do it a disservice when stating that it doesn’t have strategies like in other parts. For example, Jonathan defeats Dio in the mansion through strategy and does the same when they confront each other in the final battle in the castle. It might not be as elaborate as what Araki would do in the future, but the seeds are there and are quite compelling to see.
Plus, you also have the final part of the story, which is the boat. For the vast majority of people that have watched JoJo, this is the moment where the series really clicked as a lot of readers and viewers were not expecting the main character to die and Jonathan’s death is handled in a superb and elegant manner, really hammering home his heroics and his kind-hearted nature by saving his partner Erina and a baby he didn’t know in the process.
Phantom Blood is a fun, compelling and albeit flawed start to the JoJo franchise. Araki still hasn’t found his style as an author, but the potential is certainly there and Phantom Blood is an installment that ages very well as time goes by in the series, with a lot of fans appreciating the simplicity, classic good versus evil nature and straightforward approach to storytelling.
This was the beginning of one of the most creative, daring and ambitious series in manga and anime and one installment of JoJo’s that deserves a lot more recognition even if it has some fundamental flaws. But there is a lot to like here if you watch it or read it with an open mind.