Started by creator Gege Akutami in March 2018, Weekly Shōnen Jump series Jujutsu Kaisen is a supernatural horror/comedy action series involving sorcerers who protect the world’s population by destroying or controlling curses (primarily sentient monster-like creatures) that come to being from the negative energy produced by humankind every day. In 2020, Studio MAPPA began producing an anime of the series, directed by Sunghoo Park, and, frankly, it was only a matter of time before an adaptation was made for theaters. Rather than go the out of timeline route that fellow anime My Hero Academia has done for three films now, Jujutsi Kaisen’s first theatrical event is adaption of Akutami’s prequel manga Jujutsu Kaisen 0, offering the background on series character Yuta Okkotsu, aspects of which have only been hinted at in the main series before 0’s release. Whether you’re an old fan of the series or are coming in blind, such as this reviewer did, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 will not disappoint. It deals with heavy concepts of life and death, grief and recovery, war and peace, all with several kick-ass action sequences crafted from the merging of traditional 2D and 3D animation that not only dazzle, they’re genuinely evocative.
Young boy Yuta Okkotsu (Megumi Ogata) doesn’t know how, he doesn’t know why, but whenever he’s in physical or emotional danger, a beast emerges, tethered to him, and destroys the threat. It would be bad enough finding himself cursed with such a creature, but it appears to be the spirit of his childhood love, Rika Orimoto (Kana Hanazawa), who died in front of him. A secret group plan to have him executed as they deemed him a threat to society, but he is saved by Jujutsu High School teacher Satori Gojo (Yuichi Nakamura) with the offer of joining his school and learning how to control, wield and, perhaps, break the curse. In becoming a student at Jujutsu High, Yuta meets others like him, training to control and defeat curses. But he also finds himself becoming a solider in a secret war as former Jujutsu High student Suguru Geto (Takahiro Sakurai) calls out his former place of education, seeking to destroy them so he can eradicate humanity.
If you’re not familiar with Akutami’s manga or the Studio MAPPA-adapted anime, that’s absolutely fine. For the most part, 0 operates as a prequel should, giving enough information for newbies to follow, while providing insights that fans of the series may not know. For instance, one doesn’t need to have seen Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) in order to understand The King’s Man (2021) any more than someone would need to have seen Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) in order to understand Star Wars: Rogue One (2016), it just means that you may miss some of the nuance presented. As someone who didn’t watch the first episode of the anime series until after enjoying the prequel, there’s never a sense of misunderstanding based on what’s presented. You can follow it clearly, understand the motivations of the central characters well, and there’s never a dull moment. Admittedly, 0 follows the path of just about every tale where someone goes to a school for gifted individuals (terrified of their powers, meets other gifted people, still the outcast until he can befriend them, go on adventures to help with their collective growth, develop interpersonal relationships while strengthening skills just in time for the antagonist to appear and challenge them). Because of this, there are moments where 0 feels more derivative than original in its storytelling, but it makes up for it in some clever aspects, specifically the character abilities and the fight choreography. One character, Toge Inumaki (Koki Uchiyama), has the gift of Cursed Speech, requiring him to only communicate using rice ball ingredients so as not to cause accidental damage to his family, friends, or teammates. At first, this seems like a strange character quirk until we see Toge in action and realize the devastation a single utterance of the word “twist” can do. This, plus seeing what it looks like when Yuta is in full control of his abilities and Rika make for one of the more visceral and satisfying head-to-head fights in recent anime. Yes, I’m including the throwdown at the end of Demon Slayer: Mugen Train (2021) and My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission (2021).
Where 0 stumbles is in its fan-service. Now, how would I, someone who’s only seen the film and one episode of the series know this? Besides doing research in preparation for this review, there are several moments in the film in which unnatural narrative transitions occur in order to show other characters engaged in battle during the final confrontation. It’s one thing, as in World Heroes’ Mission, where there are several people engaged in fights at the same time in different spaces for the narrative to find moments to switch from one fight to the next so that the audience gets a break from one conflict without necessarily losing the narrative tension. Though there are multiple fights occurring in 0, the shifts in perspective often jump to characters not yet introduced in the film. It would be fine if they were used as merely updates to what’s happening elsewhere, but these are prolonged enough moments without any of the characters we’ve met that there has to be a reason for their exposure: they are characters from the regular manga/anime. Awesome for the long-time fans, but it means nothing to the ones without the connection. Additionally, as mentioned, these jumps in perspective don’t typically occur at natural moments where a break in battle might allow it. Instead, these breaks often feel shoehorned in, degrading the fantastic momentum happening in one place in order to offer fan service somewhere else. As someone who delights in imaginative fight choreography, seeing the mixed animation styles used to create effects denoting character abilities (reminded me a great deal of Demon Slayer), 0 has plenty of it, so pulling away from the characters we know to others, no matter how engaging the presentation, ruins the emotional investment in the moment.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is a strong example of why audiences, specifically American ones, should look past Walt Disney, Pixar, Sony Animation, and the other usual U.S.-based studios for their animated fare. There’s so much great international content and the bias which exists, especially against anime, prevents a great number of people from going on an exciting journey with compelling action and interesting characters. Because of 0, I plan to continue checking out the anime (available on HBO Max and Crunchyroll) in hopes of not only getting more fantastic fights but understanding why so much time was given to characters I didn’t know. If that’s not a mark of success for a prequel film, I’m not sure what else would be.
In select theaters March 18th, 2022.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.