Japanese Title: Jujutsu Kaisen
Watched in: Japanese
Genre: Supernatural Action
Length: 24 episodes
- Slick animation for great action
- Grotesque enemies
- Interesting powers
- Serious power creep
- Main characters lack mystery and story
As the penultimate review of the 30 Reviews in 30 Days challenge, this one for Jujutsu Kaisen is two days late, as I needed more time than I thought to ruminate on it. I can’t quite decide how good I think this is. Let’s lay out the good and the bad and see where we get.
Jujutsu Kaisen is the latest big thing in the battle shounen space, having made waves with slick animation from the studio behind the goodness of Dororo and Yuri on Ice. It follows Yuji, a high school student turned “Jujutsu sorcerer” after he eats the finger of a cursed being, granting him extraordinary power. This power does come at the cost of having the finger’s owner, Sukuna, taking residence inside him and threatening to take control at any moment. He now studies at the Tokyo Jujutsu High School to hunt for the rest of the cursed fingers and so the teachers can keep an eye on him. He teams up with the stoic Fushiguro and brash Nobara under the tutelage of Satoru Gojo.
I want to start with the good points since they caught my attention initially. First, the animation. Fantastic! What ever happened to the good old days of battle anime having the most static animation in the industry? The best of times! All kidding aside about nostalgia blindness, Jujutsu Kaisen has excellent action animation. More than fluid, the choreography draws in the viewer and shows attention to the camera work as well. On top of this, the abilities have visual variety. A signature move of Jujutsu sorcerers is the Domain Expansion, allowing them to envelop the nearby area in an environment to enhance their power. Think of it as a home turf advantage. The look of this domain will vary by character and match their personality or power type. For example, a villain who fights with lava powers and has a volcano for a head will transform the environment in a lava hell. The variety in techniques changes up the setting on a regular basis. A concern with an ordinary modern Tokyo setting for a supernatural action series is a lack of interesting settings in which to stage fights. Domain Expansion nicely solves this.
There are plenty of other great abilities too. One guy claps and swaps positions with the target, another creates dogs from the shadows, and a girl harms enemies by hammering nails into straw dolls. An old geezer even fights with an electric guitar that generates energy!
If action is your priority in battle anime, then Jiujutsu Kaisen has you covered. It would be tough to decide what would go into a “best of” highlight reel since there is so much good-looking action.
The next great element is the grotesqueness of the villains and certain abilities. Jujutsu Kaisen isn’t a horror anime, but it feature plenty of body horror. When Sukuna awakens, an extra pair of eye open on Yuji’s cheekbones and a second mouth grows on his cheek. Disgusting. And fantastic. One villain has a row of arms inside his mouth. Another grows a plant that shoots buds of biting teeth. Just about every enemy is disgusting is some way and it works! You won’t forget these freaks anytime soon.
The third notable positive is how this anime distinguishes itself from its inspirator, Naruto. The similarities are obvious – protagonist has demon inside of him that grants great power but also takes over on occasion; second main guy is from a special clan bloodline with a unique technique; the girl of the trio is the strong aggressive type; the teacher has magic eyes he keeps covered except in combat (his Domain is akin to the Sharingan’s Tsukuyomi illusion) and is goofy during downtime. That’s just a few of the similarities. However, it sounds a lot more similar on paper than in practice, as this brings more than enough of its own spin on the common elements to feel fresh. My Hero Academia, another Naruto inspired battle shounen, often just feels like Naruto in a superhero skin. With Ninjutsu Kaisen, I don’t find myself thinking, “This is just like Naruto.” Instead, I think, “Reminds me of Naruto, but I like how they did that differently.”
Now we get into the negatives.
While I said the action is great, this is more so in the moment (much owed to the animation). When you step back and look at the fights in terms of story and arcs, the quality wanes in large part to the odd power creep. There is a hint of this problem from the very first episode, before Yuji eats the finger. He already has immense strength and speed for a human. Then he grows stronger in the middle of fights after nothing more than a pep talk or a “I just need to be stronger” thought. Eh? The power curve also ramps at a random rate with little explanation behind the progression. Some characters are so powerful that they could seemingly deal with all villains alone. Spinjutsu Kaisen also does that thing where it tells you someone is a mega genius, yet has nothing to show for it, or some guy can pull of some feat so miraculous it would render all challenge meaningless if used at the start of the fight.
The second season focuses a new set of students from the sister school in Kyoto and they have a show match with the Tokyo kids, like a mini, mini Chunin exam. This is the perfect opportunity to develop characters and give a sense of power progression. Think of Naruto season one when Kakashi uses a few Sharingan techniques. This makes you wonder what else can it do and when will Sasuke learn those moves. Give us a taste of future power. Or it’s like the opening of any Metroid game, where you start with a full arsenal of equipment only to have an incident break your gear at the end of the first area. Now you have something to look forward to without being overpowered right away. Doesn’t reveal all the upcoming power though; that’s for you to discover as you progress.
In Jujutsu Kaisen, a teacher demonstrates the technique and then the character of focus learns it or develops some other power to deal with the situation too quickly. It feels as if the action writing goes, “What power would make this fight look awesome?” and then just puts it in with little thought to how he gains/masters this power. Flashy fights will only hold my interest for so long.
The sister school leads me into the other significant failing – the main characters. They simply aren’t interesting (yet?). The power creep disconnects you from them on an action level, while the personalities and backstories disconnect on a personal level. Yuji’s motivation is the death of his grandfather, who passed away peacefully but alone. He wants to avoid the same sad end. This leads him to value his friends and protect them at all costs, just like any shounen protagonist. There isn’t much beyond that.
Main characters need mystery and sub plots. Sasuke’s backstory with the Uchiha Clan or Killua’s story in HxH, are some examples. Even Bleach, when it was good for a couple of seasons, had Rukia’s relationship with Byakuya. Why is her brother of all people so adamant on imprisoning her? Fushiguro has a hint of story (in the vein of Sasuke’s), but why do they introduce it so late? As for Nobara, she doesn’t have anything. I’m sure her story will enter later – it would be madness otherwise – but you have to give something on main characters early to make the audience care. Doesn’t have to be the full saga. In fact, it’s better to hold answers back for later. Still, the more important the character, the more impactful their hook should be. It can be the little things, doled out over time. Let’s stick to the Kakashi example. He’s an important character, though not a main. How does he have the Sharingan when he isn’t of the correct bloodline? Why does he teach the kids that protecting teammates is more important than anything else, which goes against the ninja code? What is under his mask!?
On the other hand, the minor characters from the other school are far more interesting. Granted, they don’t have the pressure to grip the audience like main characters do, but I’d rather see them over the main students. Todo, a wrestler-looking dude and Itadori’s self-proclaimed best friend, is hilarious with his eccentric personality and way of judging others based on their answer to the question, “What’s kind of girls do you like?” and he has a simple though effective backstory as a delinquent too strong for his own good. And that’s just one of them.
I want to be clear that none of the characters are bad. None make me clutch my temples in frustration at yet another moronic decision. The main ones simply aren’t compelling enough to carry the series.
I know more of this review went to negatives over positives, but my overall experience with Jujutsu Kaisen is positive, on reflection. I didn’t mention the great music and quality acting either. It’s simply that I value story and characters above all and when those are your weakest elements – made more disappointing amid high production values – I become concerned. And yet, no problem is unfixable in future seasons.
My concerns going forward are the lack of mystery, in both story and main characters, and power creep with everyone already so powerful. I want to keep watching Blingjutsu Kaisen, but I do not want a Bleach situation where it’s one fight after the other and Domain Expansions go down the route of Bankai – “Oh look, the new ability is an even bigger Bankai. How exciting…” Don’t disappoint me.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A must watch for battle anime fans. The core demographic will almost certainly love Jujutsu Kaisen, while others may find that a lack of mystery dampens long-term engagement.
Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)