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December 12, 2016

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Blogging (Part 1)

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is more than just memes.

I repeat: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is more than just memes.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s a masterpiece, or the greatest thing ever (in the anime/manga world or otherwise).  I know I’ve said this before, but I have to make it absolutely clear: paring down JoJo to a bunch of images and out-of-context YouTube clips is a huge disservice to it.  It’s lasted this long for a reason.  It has fans for a reason.  It’s got a brand new, still-in-progress anime for a reason.  There are many, many, many things you can pull from a decent-sized chunk of said anime -- most of it accidentally hilarious -- but if you look at it as a whole, it’s truly something special.

So here’s the big question, and one that I hope to answer over the course of this miniseries: is it really as bizarre as the title claims?  It’s hard to say for now.  But if I’m going to come to a conclusion, I’ve got to start somewhere -- and it might as well be at the beginning.


Part 1: Phantom Blood
(Or: All the World’s a Stage -- A Side)

Best opening so far?  Best opening so far.

Here’s the setup.  It’s (primarily) Britain in the 1880s, and follows the exploits of the young heir Jonathan Joestar -- commonly called “JoJo” for short.  Life is good for the young lad, but all that changes one day when his father George makes an impromptu adoption.  He takes in Dio Brando, the mistreated son of a dirty rotten scoundrel; from there, Dio proceeds to make life for Jonathan miserable so he can knock him out of the “favorite son” position and come closer to seizing the Joestar fortune.

Time passes, and the boys grow into men.  And while they’re able to keep up appearances of liking each other in public, their rivalry has hit a fever pitch (which is to be expected when your new adoptive brother burns your dog alive).  Dio’s schemes to seize power eventually lead to him putting stock in the Stone Mask, an artifact which can turn a mortal man into a near-immortal, unfathomably strong vampire.  So of course, Dio manages to use it on himself; in turn, Jonathan learns about the mystic power known as Hamon, the energies of which can take out vampires in one shot.  And so begins the fateful struggle between two brothers, bound by blood, family, destiny, and some spiky-ass hair.

All right, confession time: Phantom Blood is my favorite part so far. 

I should stress “so far”, because as of writing I’m not done with Diamond is Unbreakable (and it’s not even done airing, so there’s that little roadblock lined with spikes and acid).  It’s entirely possible that Part 4 -- the part I’ve been waiting for since the beginning, more or less -- ends up becoming the reigning champ once I have time to digest it.  Likewise, it’s possible -- likely, even -- that Josuke is going to become my favorite JoJo when all’s said and done.  But since things aren’t said and done, I’m giving the crown to Part 1, and to Jonathan.  Don’t worry, because I can back up my claims with a specific line of reasoning -- and not just the result of my increasingly obvious biases.  (Well, mostly.)

I don’t have a pulse on every JoJo fan out there, but from what I can gather, Part 1 is one of the less popular installments, and Jonathan isn’t topping a lot of lists for “Best JoJo”.  I disagree with that sentiment, BUT I won’t hate anyone for it.  I understand their opinions.  Part 1 may have gotten the whole franchise rolling, but it did so with moves and particulars that might not be for everybody.  It’s a straight-up, no frills tale of good guys and bad guys, of familial ties and virtuous beliefs.  If I had to guess, I’d say that Stands weren’t even a twinkle in creator Hirohiko Araki’s eye, which removes some of the bizarreness factor the series is famous for.  (Then again, who knows how far ahead he planned?  I’ve certainly got aims to play the long game.)  How do you appeal to people when they’re already drooling over aspects distinctly missing from the maiden voyage?

It certainly doesn’t help that, for as much as I like Part 1, there are some obvious problems with it.  The first opening is glorious, and in a perfect world the entire anime would look like that (maybe with a slightly faster frame rate, but whatever).  But then you get to the actual anime, and it looks…janky.  I know that people like me who can barely draw hands shouldn’t go criticizing the art of others, but there were times throughout Part 1 where I thought that it didn’t look great -- far from deal-breaking, of course, but certain segments just seemed off.

Like, am I imagining things, or are there moments where it looks like Jonathan and crew have thighs the size of redwoods?  And am I crazy, or do the visuals take a hit whenever they zoom out from the characters (which to be fair might be a problem with the anime in general -- Part 3 especially)?  I’m OK with the color scheme and its random changes, but what might be damning for some is the fact that Part 1 doesn’t have the slick, high-octane kinesis of One Punch Man, Gundam Build Fighters, My Hero Academia, and/or various Gainax/Trigger productions.  I’m super into Sunlight Yellow Overdrive, buuuuuuuuuuuuuut…I don’t know, it kind of feels like a letdown when you see it in “motion”.

I went in expecting this…

…And ended up getting this.

Technically it’s fine, but knowing what anime can do nowadays -- and in fact, what JoJo itself can/will do in future seasons -- it’s hard to shrug off the visual shortcomings in an audiovisual medium.  That clip above features a triumphant moment for our hero; while there’s still plenty of catharsis to be had from it, repeat viewings expose the faults.  Lots of speedlines.  Shaking to imply movement.  Honestly, it feels like there was a bunch of missing frames; you don’t even get to see Jonathan rise into his fighting stance from that tree.  He’s just up and ready, and then he gives Bruford da bizness.  But how, exactly, did Jonathan intercept the attack?  Did he move into position?  Did Bruford?  And why does it look like the zombie getting blown away was done via adding a slide effect straight out of PowerPoint?

I will be fair, though.  There are times when Part 1 looks better (like the final fight with Dio, for one), and the overall style of the anime makes for something that’s hard to slam too harshly.  Still, there were other times when I was left wanting.  Maybe the studio behind it (David Production) did some edits to the Blu-Ray release to buff things up.  Maybe they just didn’t have the money to make top-notch visuals in the first outing -- which would explain why there’s been a steady increase in quality over each new installment.  Maybe Part 1 was just emblematic of a lack of faith -- like they didn’t expect it to get as far as it did.  Who knows?  And really, who cares?  There’s more going on with Part 1 than just its looks, and in fact, some of its particulars help explain why things play out the way they did.  But I’ll get to that.

For now, I’ll start with this: Part 1 is my favorite because it has the feel of something grander.

I don’t want to dump on the modern anime industry (or anime in general, really), but I’m well aware of the stereotypes been spoken of repeatedly by fans.  Well among them: there’s a complaint that too much anime is built around or in high (or middle) school, following students that do cool stuff.  Or uncool stuff, if we’re talking about the harem genre.  Either way, I get the sentiment; the idea is probably that an anime or manga needs to appeal to target audiences, and who better to turn into a loyal viewer or reader than a high school kid eager to eat that stuff up?

Obviously JoJo isn’t immune to the allure of high school, given the existence of Part 4.  But this is Part 1 we’re dealing with here, and Part 1 takes place in Victorian England.  Moreover, it’s basically a gothic horror story with vampires, rites of succession, and supernatural stuff like vampires and zombies.  That’s not something you see too often in the anime world -- well, unless there’s some Castlevania manga bumping around out there.  In any case, Part 1 manages to carve out a niche for itself with its setting and aesthetic.  Is it 100% original?  Probably not.  But A) it doesn’t have to be, and B) what’s more important is that it comes with a built-in style that makes it hard to shove off.

This is going to sound like an insult at first, but hear me out on it: Part 1 doesn’t feel like an anime.  It doesn’t feel like a manga, either.  Every episode feels like an act in a play, or part of some lengthy opera.  Anime is no stranger to bombast, but JoJo takes it and makes it into a weapon.  Characters lay emotions and plans alike out in the open.  It’s not enough to talk to others; in some instances, it’s best to have a verbal, verbose Duel of the Fates go on.  The dialogue, the soundtrack, and more come together to create a sense of grandiosity -- even if it’s for something as dumb as punching a zombie knight a million billion times.

Another way to put it is that Part 1 (and JoJo in general) manages to skate effortlessly across the line.  It’s the divide between not taking itself seriously and getting its head caught up its own ass.  Yes, this series believes in its own hype and plays a high percentage of its events seriously (like using magic yoga to make an impromptu glider out of leaves), but never so excessively that it becomes intolerable.  There is a LOT of grisly shit in this series, yet it’s impossible to deny that as a whole, JoJo is a ton of fun.

And I can name in an instant why I had so much fun with Phantom Blood.  Because you see, the word of the day -- the key thematic element of this part -- is bonds.

See?  Look how much they’re bonding!

The interplay of Jonathan Joestar and Dio Brando is one of the strongest tools in Phantom Blood’s box -- which by extension means that Jonathan and Dio are the best parts.  That assessment comes from a biased place, of course, because one of my most beloved storytelling tricks is the use of foils.  Still, the fact that the anime (and manga) managed to create something so thrilling to watch -- a rivalry and inevitable showdown between two men -- has to stand for something.

Part 1 puts every last ounce of itself on the line for what it believes, with all of the bluster and moxie you’d expect and then some.  Jonathan isn’t just a good guy; he’s the best of the best.  Dio isn’t just a bad guy; he’s the worst of the worst.  It’s taken to extremes in more ways than one, given that it literally becomes a battle of fire and ice by story’s end.  The choice to have such decisive polar opposites was a decisive one, and one that infuses Part 1 with a style that’s hard to imitate.  It’s not enough that these guys dislike each other.  They have to come within mere seconds of breaking out into monologues and soliloquies that basically boil down to “Man, screw that guy!”

As you can guess, I’m up to my eyeballs in the Jonathan camp.  He’s a pure-hearted, noble person who fights on the behalf of others -- for his father, for his main squeeze Erina, and even people he just met a few seconds ago.  And through it all, he’s as polite a gentleman as the laws of physics will allow; he earns the respect of fair ladies, monks, crooks, and even the occasional zombie, all by virtue of his glowing personality.  Even if he is a kind and well-mannered heir (well, following his age-up; he’s a bit of a slob at first), it’s his penchant for laying his passion bare that makes him a delight to follow.  It’s almost as if his number-one rule is “Never say quietly what can be shouted at the top of your lungs.”

It’s hard to deny that Jonathan is yet another one of those Boy Scout characters, joining the ranks of characters like Superman, Captain America, Leonardo, and Ky Kiske.  I get why people have a problem with that archetype; when your character is already hairs shy of being a messiah, where do you take him on his story arc?  It’s a fair question.  In Jonathan’s case, though, I’d argue that there’s more to him than being a Boy Scout -- that even if it’s shown in the brief span of Part 1, he still changes as a person.

He just happens to become a worse person.

What do I mean?  Well, I’ll gladly explain…next time.  Every so often, I summon just enough kindness in my heart to spare the eyeballs of others.  So let’s go ahead and reconvene sometime next week, shall we?  Until then, make good use of your eye drops of choice.

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