The Lost JoJo's Movie

by Matthew Roe,

Whether a casual anime or manga fan, or a diehard otaku, I imagine almost everyone has at least heard of the still ongoing and massively influential JoJo's Bizarre Adventure (or have been unendingly subjected to its memes). Created by Hirohiko Araki for Weekly Shōnen Jump in 1987, the manga series has amassed 127 volumes over its thirty-three-year span, and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. The story of the Joestar Family has endured as one of the best-selling series in history, subsequently producing a massive multimedia franchise ranging from video games and light novels to toys and jewelry. While the series' consistent sales numbers are indeed impressive and a testament to its lasting appeal through literal generations of fans, what is even more remarkable is its effects on the genre from which it has spawned: shōnen.

While we all could endlessly argue that numerous other standout series from several other demographics, like Berserk and Dragon Ball, have equally contributed to shōnen as a whole even if they weren't essentially shōnen (of which you would be completely correct), it can be said that the maturity of the shōnen storytelling style is intrinsically linked to the evolution and execution of each JoJo's arc. Shōnen has historically been dominated by male power fantasies, with the overindulgent international culture of the 1980s birthing pages of unrivaled brute physical force, heavily limited character and world logic, and severe droughts of internal conflict. These can be attributed as direct results of the success won by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's 1983 series Fist of the North Star. Now, don't get it twisted, Fist remains a knockout work of overt masculine machoing (which was directly influenced, among other things, by Mad Max II, Blade Runner, Akira, and Bruce Lee). It's almost perfectly emblematic of the '80s, and its protagonist Kenshiro is the prototypical insanely-overpowered badass with a stoic heart of justice in a world gone sour – everything you'd expect from a shōnen battle manga.

Kenshiro is defined by his god-like skill, tragic past, endless succession of manly antics, and is always looking awesome while doing anything – that's about it. While he is a character with some depth and duplicity, his meandering encounters between (and sometimes because of) fights usually only manage to reaffirm his personal ideals, and marginal care is given to the ne'er-do-well supporting cast. The appeal of Kenshiro inspired a growing typicality to provide protagonists as a vicarious experience, rather than an individualistic character – in other words, Kenshiro is a blank slate and immersion into his wasteland adventures is pretty easy. For several years, this was the most constant denominator in popular shōnen entertainment, and that's when and how JoJo's came on the scene.

While Araki's influence for JoJo's has been reportedly credited to the worldwide popularity of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone at the time, his arguable connection to Fist is heavily apparent throughout the first chapters of Phantom Blood, which was echoed by some critics and audiences when it was first being released. Araki would take many criticisms to heart, finding newer methods to explore the tropes and themes he loved, including a heavy influence from the French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin. His understanding and mastery of his artistry and narrative would grow exponentially with each chapter produced, its standard elements clustered around muscular posturing giving way to more robust and intricate character designs and personalities - and that says quite a lot, considering the level of bonkers that is Phantom Blood. By the time 2007 had rolled around, the series had become an industry phenomenon, with numerous additional properties launched, including a pair of OVA anime seasons (released in 1993 and 2000) from Studio A.P.P.P. centered on the third JoJo's arc, Stardust Crusaders.

While Araki was knee-deep in writing (arguably) the best JoJo's arc, Steel Ball Run, some people back over at Studio A.P.P.P. decided that it would be a fun idea to adapt the whole Phantom Blood arc into a theatrical film to be released to commemorate Araki's twenty-fifth year in the business, as well as JoJo's twentieth year publication anniversary. While not a terrible idea, you can already start to see the issues – how the hell can Phantom Blood be condensed down to a ninety-minute movie? Short answer: it wasn't. Junichi Hayama, who had served on both OVA seasons as an animator and animation director, took over full directing responsibilities for the film, and teamed up with screenwriter Mitsuhiro Yamada, who had no experience with any previous JoJo's material. While Hayama already had considerable experience animating episodes and features (including the anime adaptation of Fist of the North Star), this remains one of the only two times he has ever helmed a project (the other being an episode of Drifters).

Though crafted to be a feature-length prequel to the OVAs, the filmmakers reportedly altered a considerable amount of fundamental material from the original manga, with even less apparent regard for the existing anime. While there existed intense speculation over what details could have severely botched the adaptation, there are a few tidbits that are generally accepted and publicly known. Dio's motives for his venomous treatment of Jonathan are never explored; his inner monologues, along with key early scenes between Dio and Jonathan that add a necessary context to their relationship, have been completely removed. These interactions have been replaced by arguably far weaker scenes involving a needle placed in Jonathan's bed and Dio stepping on a necklace from Erina (they also largely altered Erina's inclusion at the climax, and axed the baby Elizabeth completely). The characters Poco, Dire and Straizo are completely removed; they are neither consolidated into one character nor are their aspects and involvements in the plot pushed to other characters. But most egregiously to some, the supremely-iconic Robert E. O. Speedwagon was never included within this theatrical version of Phantom Blood. The filmmakers would acknowledge his exclusion to the fans at the time of the film's production, hiring the comedy duo Speedwagon (who were themselves fans of the series) to voice the characters Wang Chan and Dario Brando.

Though there are numerous other supposed changes that helped mutate this adaptation into the weird carnival of disappointment that its reputation boasts, numerous other external factors have contributed to the film's mythos. While the most popular assertion comes from an unsubstantiated claim that Araki had scathingly disowned the film, there doesn't seem to be much evidence for this being legitimate, even though its been repeated seemingly everywhere (and I even believed it after a while). According to self-proclaimed Phantom Blood archivist Red Mango, the more concrete possibility as to why the film was canned so quickly upon its premiere and denied a home release was that Studio A.P.P.P. faced major distribution challenges, especially in North America where a cooperative deal with its San Francisco dubbing/distribution arm Super Techno Arts fell through with a local distributor. This would eventually be echoed with the planned OVAs for Sci-Fi Harry and Kage being scrapped just as unceremoniously as Phantom Blood not long afterwards.

These business woes, compounded by Phantom Blood's limited release in Japanese theaters on February 17, 2007 being greeted by a nearly nonexistent box office and blistering critical reactions, made it certain that the film would disappear into the vaults of history and be labeled a “lost film.” Numerous concept drawings, character designs, and screenshots from the final film exist online (with many being recently uncovered by Red Mango), showcasing the movie's visual style and aesthetic idiosyncrasies. Based off these drawings alone, there isn't much that can be deemed by the film's overall quality, as the characters and backgrounds are not too far removed from the original manga, though it can be noted that generally these designs are far more restrained in execution than even the original OVA series. There is a serious lack of that signature Araki style and energy which makes Phantom Blood such an intriguing opening arc to the Joestar story, though that's more of a personal observation than a definite fact.

While two official theatrical trailers were the only readily available animated evidence of the film being complete for nearly half a decade, a sixteen-minute collection of scenes (without dialogue) surfaced on an anime torrenting site in 2012. This incomplete compilation was allegedly uploaded by a student of an Academy of Art University professor who utilized this compilation to teach sound design, though who they are and how they were able to secure this material remains largely a mystery. In the wake of the torrent leak, rumors began trickling throughout internet anime communities, from reddit threads on r/anime (and even r/Lost_Films) to discussion boards for MyAnimeList, JoJo's Bizarre Encyclopedia, and Behind The Voice Actors – several of which have remained active (in some way) to this day. These conversations usually only hinge on rumors and revolve around debating whether or not releasing the film would actually add anything to the JoJo's catalog. Though, there exists a relatively recent petition on Change.org calling for signatures to convince the rights holders to make the movie “available to the public.” However, as of this article, it has only collected just over 230 signatures over two years.

It seems the dominant desire of JoJo's fans is to speculate on why Araki and Studio A.P.P.P. had abandoned or refused a DVD or VHS release, rather than clamour to actually consume the media. It's like a good conspiracy theory - it only remains attractive to conjecture if you're not in possession of the whole actual picture. The resounding critical and financial failure of the movie could have been the deciding factor in Studio A.P.P.P. refusing a home release, though vague whispers around the Twittersphere circa 2011 suppose a lawsuit of some kind is being navigated in private with regards to production details, though that is as allusory as anything else I have posited till now. Though many have continued to suggest that the infamous 2008 Qur'an scandal could have had the most direct impact on any potential release plans, the scandal forced Studio A.P.P.P. to remove almost all of its association with the series, and they have subsequently never helmed another project since. For those unaware, in the original OVA series, Dio is reading a book depicting pages from the Qur'an - and there were some fundamentalists that didn't like its inclusion. I have found little to verify these assertions, but given what I have managed to see of the movie, and what I have understood from the historical context in which it was created, I wouldn't disregard any of these theories as being at least partially valid.

With a series as amazingly complex with numerous complimentary themes and tropes always branching into new and brilliantly insane realms, JoJo's always manages to subvert and evolve its form. Its popularity and uniqueness has directly affected its market for the past three decades, so much so that the biggest shōnen (and shōnen-esque) properties we now laud today (from Naruto to Persona) all have traces of JoJo's ethical conflicts, moral conundrums, hero and villain tropes, and plot mechanics. While adaptations must always be taken with a sizable grain of salt, and be consumed with a full understanding that it is its own piece of art, it is hard to divorce the source material in the case of the 2007 movie. Not only because the iconic manga was riding a very high tier at the time, but also because the people who had worked on this were those who had already delivered acceptable JoJo's material - there was absolutely no reason for such a reported lack of quality and regard for the source.

Only the individuals who were present in theaters during its painfully short run, or the actual makers of the movie, would be able to comment any further. After its release, there wouldn't be another JoJo's anime adaptation until David Production began their (still ongoing) progression through each manga arc, using each anime season to fully explore what the manga has to offer, and expanding on it as a highly kinetic experience. The first half of the Diamond Is Unbreakable arc would also be adapted into a live-action film by the prolific Takashi Miike in 2017, which opened at number five at the Japanese box office but suffered lukewarm reviews. While it's fairly likely that JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Phantom Blood is an anime equivalent to Jerry Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried (1972), I would be dishonest to say that I am not intensely compelled to watch the entirety of this supposed trainwreck - maybe one day.


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