2014 was the year I was introduced to the generation-spanning juggernaut that is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. I started watching the Stardust Crusaders anime this spring, and enjoyed it enough to check out the 2012 anime series this past month. It’s a long, strange trip of a show unlike anything else out there, and fully deserving of its passionate cult following. But it wasn’t Stardust Crusaders that really made me a part of that following, that turned me into one of the Jojo’s obsessives who can’t shut up about it on Twitter.
Don’t get me wrong, Stardust Crusaders is an excellent show on just about every level; I put it on my top five for the year for a reason. It has great visuals, an awesome soundtrack, fun larger-than-life characters and is constantly topping itself in plot weirdness such that it’s impossible to look away. Yet, as much as I loved it, it wasn’t enough to suck me into the larger vortex of the Jojo’s franchise. I enjoyed its larger-than-life characters and ridiculous gags, but didn’t feel like I had a reason to care about the overarching story of the Joestar family and their dealings with Dio Brando. That only came this past month, when I started watching the 2012 anime that preceded it. Yep, Phantom Blood, derided by many as a boring slog and the weakest part of the Jojo’s anime so far, is what made me a Jojo’s fan.
It actually really puzzles me why people don’t like Phantom Blood. I get that Jonathan Joestar is pretty dull as Jojo’s protagonists go, although I personally found his selfless do-gooder personality endearing. But Jonathan is far from the only character, and the other ones—especially Speedwagon and especially Dio—are enough to carry a series on their own. Honestly, Jonathan’s simplicity and sincerity is a lot of why Phantom Blood works for me. It makes sense why he’s the kind of guy who would draw so many people into his orbit willing to help him—something his descendants have struggled with in Stardust Crusaders. It also adds a lot of humor to Dio’s intense grudge against him. It’s hard to understand why anyone would hate this guy, let alone hate him intensely enough to spend every waking moment trying to ruin his life.
Those two points distill the things that work so well for me with Phantom Blood compared to Stardust Crusaders. The first is the character relationships. The team in Part 3 hit off each other well, too, but that’s not fundamentally why they’re there. They just happen to have a common goal. Yet, so many characters join Jonathan’s fight against Dio simply because they’re enraptured by Jonathan. Of course I’m mainly talking about Speedwagon, a random London bum who is so overtaken by Jonathan’s forthright personality he instantly falls in love with him. (This isn’t debatable.) Will Zeppeli is so immediately impressed by Jonathan’s drive that he dedicates himself to teaching the boy a complicated art he’s spent his life perfecting. It’s these bonds that tie everyone together that make it so heartbreaking when these characters meet tragic fates as the series progresses. Even as little development as Erina gets in Phantom Blood, there’s enough that it destroys me when she watches her new husband die on their honeymoon. (Battle Tendency, of course, does a lot more with her character, and displays just how smart Jojo’s character writing is. How did the sweet girl turn into such a gruff old lady? Because, as one of my friends put it, life kept kicking her in the ass. Anyone would harden from that.)
The other thing that I love about Phantom Blood is the humor. Stardust Crusaders made me laugh out loud a whole bunch, too, but I knew when that was coming. All its jokes are completely intentional. With Part 1, sometimes you really can’t tell what is supposed to be funny and what is the show earnestly trying to make its silliness serious. I’m talking about moments like “my sword of LUCK and PLUCK,” or Dio bragging from his throne about how “this town is now mine” while surrounded by a menagerie of chimeras. Let’s not forget Speedwagon’s ridiculous expressions for every possible moment. How can you not love this face?
Phantom Blood–the 2012 series in general, really–also is extremely impressive on the visual front. I thought that Stardust Crusaders had some psychedelic color schemes, but the first part uses them to even greater effect, and more frequently. Not only does it just look way cool, but it highlights the characters’ psychological states to suddenly change their coloring and textures when we’re looking in their heads. Stardust Crusaders used this a little bit, but mostly only for battle scenes. It makes me feel like I’ve come to know Part 1’s characters a lot better. And…did I mention it looks cool? REALLY REALLY COOL.
Now I’m well on my way into Part 2: Battle Tendency, which so far, combines the strengths of Parts 1 and 3 into what is basically the perfect Jojo’s arc. (It doesn’t hurt that Joseph is one of the show’s best protagonists, either, far superior to either his grandfather or grandson.) Battle Tendency is a fun show all on its own, as it introduces a new crazy cast of Joestar allies to fill out its Indiana Jones-style adventure plot. Yet, it’s more resonant knowing the piece it plays in the larger Joestar family saga, knowledge that can only come about because of that story’s first part. Phantom Blood is the heart of the Jojo’s story, what started it all and what makes it so meaningful. I would think that to love Jojo’s is to love it. Or, at least, Speedwagon.