Can I just take a minute to gush about how much I love Hamon?
Sure, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has long since earned fame for its Stands. But having watched and enjoyed Phantom Blood, I still feel like Hamon’s the cooler power of the two -- and that’s saying something, because I agree that Stands are rad. The “power of the sun” not only lets its users fight with supercharged energy and beat down vampires (and zombie grunts), but also gives them a chance to interact with items in the environment in all sorts of zany ways. Lots of creative applications, to be sure -- as Battle Tendency proves later on -- and it’s the sheer unpredictability that makes it a treat to see in action.
I also love how Hamon’s weakness is an obvious one. It’s made possible through the proper breathing techniques, so if you can’t breathe, you can’t use it. I mean, yeah, pretty much every living being is crippled if they can’t breathe, but the applications of it in JoJo add a layer of tension to battles. When mere chains or a dip underwater become a credible life-or-death situation, you know you’ve done well in storytelling.
Also, this doesn’t have much to do with anything yet, buuuuuuuuuuuuuut…cripes, JoJo does NOT shy away from the body horror. Thank god for the censorship, because sometimes it’s seriously hard to watch without cringing so hard my eyes clamp shut.
Anyway, on to Phantom Blood. Again. WITH SPOILERS. Again.
Part 2: Phantom Blood (again)
(Or: All the World’s a Stage -- B Side)
So here’s the thing. Our hero (and gentleman of gentlemen) Jonathan was more or less born into a cushy life, with success no doubt guaranteed because of the Joestar wealth and prestige. He was rough around the edges, but still a decent enough guy on the fast track to a relationship with Erina. Then Dio gets adopted into the family, and throws all sorts of complications into what was once simple and clean. Suddenly, Jonathan has to mind his manners at the dinner table. He has to take a punishing loss in a boxing match. He has to keep his dog from taking a Tiger Knee to the face and being burned alive (which he fails, decisively). He has to (seemingly) compete for his father’s love and respect, which he’d no doubt taken for granted up to that point.
Dio forces Jonathan to become a darker person than he would’ve been by default. Anger, hatred, jealousy, self-pity, disgust, fear -- they’re all emotions and states of mind Jonathan experiences thanks to the entrance of his adoptive brother. And at the outset, he can’t do anything to stop it; Dio usually only bares his fangs at Jonathan, while both of them have to keep up public appearances of getting along. Then things kick into high gear once Dio schemes to (and ultimately manages to) kill George Joestar to gain power and wealth -- and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Dio rejects his humanity to become a near-unbeatable vampire, all to further his goal of absolute domination.
You don’t get to dance with the devil without getting a little dirty. Thanks to Dio, Jonathan is forced to confront the evils of the world -- both inside his home and beyond it. Jonathan is forced to resolve it by learning about Hamon, AKA a certified vampire killer via channeling the power of life/breath to create energy similar to the sun; naturally, he ends up doing resolving the story by the end. But he has to pay the price along the way. He’s forced to watch on multiple occasions as Dio (or Dio’s accomplices, or Dio’s indirect action) takes the lives of innocents, acquaintances, friends, and family. If the gentleman Joestar didn’t get involved, then even more people would’ve died; at least by fighting it out, he only had to deal with his mentor getting bisected. A minor sacrifice, for sure.
Jonathan goes from someone who’s actually shocked (if not distraught) over making his brother cry to someone that actively declares that said brother has to die -- which is kind of a given when you go from “punch him in the face a few times” to “slice him in half, and when that doesn’t work, blow a hole through him with kung fu magic”. That’s a pretty marked leap, and not one you’d expect of a gentleman. But that’s his arc. He has every reason to become a darker person, and the story would’ve had a much unhappier ending if he backed out; still, the fact that he went so far so passionately says good as well as bad things about the man he is.
It’s not as if Jonathan gets corrupted beyond salvation, though. In fact, he proves why he’s such a good guy at story’s end. And in order to explain that, I have to switch over to Dio. And in order to explain him, there’s another topic that’s been on my mind.
So. Let’s talk about fate-bred nepotism.
Like I said, Jonathan was pretty much born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Dio wasn’t. He happened to be brought into the Joestar home, sure, but he was the son of a real dirtbag who didn’t exactly make “family values” a high priority. It calls into question the nature vs. nurture argument, and whether it’s your inherent character or your upbringing that defines you. Jonathan started out living the good life, and became a good person in the years that followed. Dio started off in the wretched corners of society, so it’s no small wonder that his mind was warped into out-and-out villainy. Except he did become an honorary Joestar, and given that there’s a multi-year timeskip following episode 1, it’s not as if every waking moment of his life (up to adulthood) was spent in squalor. So where does Dio fall on the line, and why?
If I had to guess, I’d say that Dio would be a terrible person regardless of whether he stayed a Brando or a Joestar. He would’ve had more than enough reasoning (but not justification) to covet the Joestar lifestyle if he’d stayed on the mean streets, so it’s not hard to see him planning an infiltration or takeover once he had the chance. But even if he was born a Joestar, I have my doubts that he’d be a pure-hearted hero. Rich guys can be assholes too, so instead of using his good fortune to help others, he might’ve opted to line every square centimeter of his lower half with the finest women Britain had on tap. Basically, it’d be the difference between lusting for power he didn’t have, and abusing the power he was born into.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time with JoJo, it’s this: dogs in this franchise have an absurdly high mortality rate. If there’s one other thing I’ve learned, it’s this: having Joestar blood is a virtually-unrivaled blessing. Jonathan’s not just rich and primed to succeed his father; after the timeskip, he’s an almost six and a half-foot mountain of muscle. He’s genetically gifted in more ways than one; he’s a natural with the supernatural power of Hamon, and picks up the gist of it in no time. He’s smart enough to land in a fancy university, yet goes further to have incredible cunning and insight no matter the situation. He’s even got a fancy birthmark that isn’t a random patch of discolored skin.
He’s not the only Joestar to reap the benefits. His grandson Joseph is virtually identical in build, and while he may spend his days on the streets of New York, he’s legendary for his wild yet routinely-successful schemes. Jotaro starts as a 17-year-old built like a tank, and gets a Stand whose stats are very nearly maxed out in all respects. All three of them have incredible wealth to back them (eventually, if not immediately); even Josuke lucks his way into a pretty sizable inheritance by virtue of his Joestar bloodline.
Those four Joestars have to do nothing in order to win…well, except beat vampires, super-vampires, assassins, and serial killers. But you get the idea; they’re inherently bigger, stronger, smarter, and wealthier than most (and desired by more than a few ladies out there), so it’s no wonder Dio lashed out. He was jealous. He felt inadequate. He wanted to stand at the top alone. Even if Jonathan was his blood brother, that would’ve been too much for him to bear. Dio’s a prideful, spiteful, deceitful, lustful son of a bitch; a change in household doesn’t change who he is under normal circumstances, so how can anyone be sure that he’d be a better person if he had a different last name?
But there’s a key difference between Jonathan and Dio, and one that makes the whole “I’m naturally better than everyone else” business easier to swallow. And so, my friends, we come to this: luck and pluck.
It’s actually a pretty thoughtful moment, and a sentiment that I’d say runs through the entire franchise. Jonathan, Joseph, Jotaro, and Josuke (at a bare minimum) are all lucky people. They may not have gotten to choose the circumstances of their birth, but they still hit the jackpot just by having that star-shaped birthmark. With that said, they can’t rely solely on luck to let them coast through life; that’d be true even if they didn’t have to deal with supernatural foes.
So in the case of Jonathan, he has to put his faith in something more: his willpower, his courage, his virtue, and his drive to see his battle with Dio through to the end. Luck was the starting point; pluck is what pushes him toward the finish line. Not only is it a transformative property, but one that surpasses mere luck; Bruford’s blood tried to impart that knowledge upon Jonathan in his final moments. I’m inclined to believe that he took it to heart.
Of course, Dio is the dark reflection of that noble sentiment. He was born without luck, so he relied on his pluck to try and make some of his own. It didn’t go well for anyone but him; his actions lead to the death of his adoptive father, who might’ve been the only one willing to give him a chance. And whether he’s in successor mode or vampire mode, he uses resources and pluck alike to harass anyone he sees fit. We’re talking about a man who was more than willing to con a woman into eating her own baby, after all. It’s hard to feel sympathy for a guy like that.
Dio basically ended up playing himself, though. All he had to do to win was outperform Jonathan (which he already did as a kid), and he probably would’ve won the Joestar fortune in a matter of time. But he got greedy; it wasn’t just about having some luck, but all of the luck. He wanted to stand at the top, and make everyone envious -- and fearful, and loyal -- to him, the man who would reject his humanity for his ambition. As a result, he ended up taking on the worst luck imaginable. He pissed off Jonathan and got his ass handed to him…on more than one occasion.
Here’s the funny thing, though. Remember earlier when I said that Jonathan ended up becoming a worse person because of Dio’s influence? The reverse holds true; because of Jonathan, Dio -- paradoxical as it sounds -- ended up becoming a better person. Jonathan having natural luck inspired Dio to best him, which meant that he had to become (or prove himself as) smarter, stronger, and more skilled. Their rivalry went on for years, on-screen and off of it, with all of the tension that that implies. They were basically locked into a cold war, except this one became very hot before the part’s end.
The tables turned once the Stone Mask got involved. Suddenly, it was Dio who had all the natural luck and advantages; strength, speed, defense, and regenerative powers were all his, as well as vampiric propagation and the ability to flash freeze his foes. Jonathan had to work (however briefly) to gain a counter in Hamon, and even then he only eked out a win after his pal Will Zeppeli gave his life/energy to him. So the reason why I’m not too hung up on the art/animation is because this is one of the few “battle manga” that can get away with not having hyper-drawn, hyper-in-depth battles. If either of these guys land in one good hit, the other one is dead. There’s a lot more tension to be had in that than just a dozen high-speed punch rushes.
Having a rival brought out the worst in both characters, but also the best of them. Jonathan asserts his nature as the noble gentleman, able to defend virtuous life and his father’s gentle teaching. That’s a given for a straight-up hero like him. Dio is pushed to become better than his upbringing would suggest, which means that he has to become worthy of pursuing his ambitions (even if the Stone Mask gave him power, he still had to put in the work to prepare). Once he goes full vampire, he turns into a cackling, trash-talking villain -- but at the very end, it’s Jonathan who manages to bring out the best in him.
Dio recognizes his brother as a threat once he gets the majority of his body disintegrated by Hamon. More to the point, he sees him as an equal. He fully understands that there’s only one man who can stop him, as dictated by their bloody destiny -- so with his pluck, Dio decides to try and gain more luck. He makes a bid to steal Jonathan’s body, the only vessel worthy of his divine self. But instead, he…well, see for yourself. And here’s hoping you can hold back the tears, because I sure couldn’t.
Jonathan managed to do what no one else could. I’m not just talking about the fact that he beat Dio (decisively, and explosively); it’s the fact that the young Joestar, for a few brief moments, managed to bring out the humanity in a man who gleefully declared that he’d thrown it away. Granted I could be reading too far into it -- and the sentiment sort of fizzles out, knowing that Part 3/DIO would come along eventually -- but I really do believe that Dio reclaimed some shred of decency in the midst of that boat’s raging flames. His brother’s warm embrace, and the bonds they shared throughout it all, drew a pulse from the man without a heart.
It really is a testament to Jonathan as a character. He essentially won he story -- beat Dio, stopped the vampires, avenged his father, and even got the girl. But his victory was stolen from him, and demanded a heroic sacrifice instead of the happy ending he so rightfully deserved. But rather than curse Dio, as he had so many times before, he instead chose to hug his brother and bask in the fires with a smile on his face. And even if it only lasted for a few seconds, he inspired reform in one of the biggest monsters in the whole franchise. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, worthy of respect in-universe and out of it.
Jonathan’s death is one of the few heroic sacrifices I actually like (instead of merely tolerate or outright hate). I’m bummed he had to die, but…eh, it’s fine. It’s not like anyone else will ever die in JoJo again.
If you’re reading this, then you probably know that JoJo has been running for a long time -- since 1987, AKA longer than I’ve been alive. That’s some serious longevity, and given that Part 8 is still going (as of writing), there’s still a lot more crazy stuff Araki has to commit to a page. I wouldn’t know, because obviously I’m judging JoJo based solely on the anime adaptation. I’m assuming that content has been cut, edited, or pared down to suit run times and episode counts. Fair enough. But here’s my opinion: honestly, I think that Part 1 in anime form (give or take a few instances) is exactly as long as it needs to be.
In a world where other Shonen Jump properties have become infamous for months of filler arcs (here’s looking at you, Naruto), JoJo managed to dodge that. Granted that’s partly because it has the advantage of its content being finished literal decades in advance, but they could’ve still found ways to drag things out. They didn’t. Part 1 doesn’t even have a dozen episodes to its name, but I feel wholly satisfied. Full. Like I’ve put on a fresh pair of underwear on New Year’s Day.
Part 1 is bold, passionate, stylish, full of meaning, impactful, and overall unforgettable. Can you say the same about the other parts? Absolutely. But if Phantom Blood was just the start of something more, then it’s no wonder it launched a phenomenon.
And that’ll do it for now. Next time: things are about to get fabulous.