But Phantom Blood is still important.
Spoilers for Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency ahead.
Anyone who has even a passing interest in anime has at the very least heard of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, likely through videos of a very surprised man shouting “Hoooly sheeeet!” which was how I became aware of the show. There’s a lot of love for JoJo and with that love comes a favourite part, whether it’s the globetrotting tale of Stardust Crusaders or the outlandish stories of a peaceful town in Diamond Is Unbreakable. For me, however, Battle Tendency will always have a special place in my heart, but to fully explain my reasons we have to go to the very beginning of JoJo, that being Phantom Blood.
The first chapter of JoJo is often overshadowed by later instalments, which is a shame because to me it displays a charming quality due to its quaintness. Phantom Blood might not be the strongest entry, but it introduced many of the mainstays of the JoJo series, most notably how characters will give a play-by-play of the fight they’re currently in. Apparently, in the world of JoJo, you can rattle off a good few sentences detailing the situation as a blade is hurtling towards your neck. It also shows the team’s playfulness when it comes to colour, with scenes suddenly filling up with striking blues and burning magentas to punctuate a dramatic revelation or a fierce battle.
And of course, how could we forget one of the most notorious and beloved antagonists in all of anime: Dio. It’s odd to see such a larger-than-life character reduced to a regular person, well as regular as it is for someone who’s first reaction when seeing a dog, is to kick it as hard as they can in the face. Phantom Blood is his origin story, and his actions would have such consequence, they would shape entire chapters to come. And it’s also the origin of one of the most quotable and hilarious lines in the show: “But it was me, Dio!”
But a story has to be more than just its villain, and this is where Phantom Blood falls short. Most of its supporting cast just fade into the background, with such forgettable characters such as Dire, Poco and Poco’s sister (that’s right, they didn’t even name her). And Johnathon Joestar himself isn’t much to write home about, with his two most distinguishing qualities being that he’s a very good guy and he punches things real hard. This lack of characterisation isn’t helped by Phantom Blood’s brief runtime, with relationships forming insanely quickly. Speedwagon goes from trying to kill Johnathon to thinking he’s the grandest guy around within a matter of a few scenes for instance.
Phantom Blood had its problems and it’s clear that JoJo as a series hadn’t quite cemented its identity, but what did is the next chapter: Battle Tendency. The biggest change that came with Battle Tendency was the switch in protagonists, with the simple and altruistic Johnathon being replaced with the cocky trickster Joseph. When I think of Joseph, a much clearer person forms, with his comical cries, shouts and laughs making him quite the endearing idiot.
Battle Tendency all around has a much more defined cast, such as the cool-headed Lisa Lisa or the brash show-off Caesar. And with better characters comes better relationships, such as the one between Joseph and Caesar, beginning as a bitter rivalry that turns into one of mutual respect. The villains also turn in a great (as well as strangely erotic) performance, with my personal favourite being Wamuu, who starts off as your typical merciless warrior type, but shades of humanity start to show as we delve into his past.
You could hardly call Phantom Blood’s fights grounded, but Battle Tendency is when they started to become akin to a fever dream conjured from the mind of a drug-addled insomniac. The part where JoJo uses a Nazi’s hair to deflect bullets being shot out of a semi-naked man’s fingers, is just one example among many that gives you an idea of the kind of crazy you’re dealing with. Also, expect to hear the phrase “Hah, I knew you’d do that highly specific action, and now you’ve fallen for my trap!” or some variation of it at least four times per battle.
It might seem that having combatants pull another plan out of their arse at the very last moment would rob the fights of any dramatic tension, but they are done with such passion and creativity that you can’t help but be drawn in. Needless to say, it really earns that “Bizarre” in its title. Battle Tendency was also the start of a more camp and carefree JoJo, a trend you can see in the character designs themselves as you journey through each chapter.
The second part still suffers from characters that could have used some extra time in the oven, with Suzi Q and Smokey not exactly bringing a lot to the story. Plus, Lisa Lisa, who initially bucks the trend of damsel in distress is then shoved into the role of – you guessed it – a damsel in distress at the very end, the third damsel in distress in Battle Tendency alone I might add. Lastly, the show has an oddly generous view of Nazis, casting them as saviours of the day at one point, which doesn’t sit quite right to say the least.
Those issues aside, I still adore Battle Tendency, it’s what made me want to keep watching, eager to see what batshit crazy thing would happen next in the JoJo saga. But Battle Tendency’s successes were built off of Phantom Blood’s groundwork. It can be all too easy to overlook an artist’s or team’s older work for the simple reason that it's usually their most unrefined. However, that work helped them to become what they are today. Take Uncharted 1 for example, a rather mediocre third-person shooter, but I’m absolutely positive it helped Naughty Dog to make Uncharted 2 a title that I enjoyed far more.
While I’m not saying Phantom Blood is mediocre (I would still take it over a lot of other anime shows), I doubt you would find it at the top of many people’s lists. I still appreciate its existence though, because without it, we wouldn’t have the JoJo we all know and celebrate today.