Strange Magic: A Review of "Jujutsu Kaisen" Season One
I live in Japan, where all the anime I want is at my fingertips, but English subtitles are hard to come by. Most shows just don't have them. Because of this (in addition to region blocks and crappy VPNs) I've missed out on a lot of up-and-coming, popular anime, like Demon Slayer and SK8 The Infinity, as well as major seasons of Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia. Unless it's a Netflix Original (like Beastars, for example), English is mostly unavailable to me, so I have to just wait and hope things will eventually be subbed.
To my surprise, a couple weeks ago Jujutsu Kaisen suddenly appeared with English subtitles! I've seen merchandise for this series everywhere, and my students with keychains and such from the show, or their doodles on their papers of the characters. I figured I had to check it out. I heard this show had a lot of hype, too, so I thought it was worth investigating. I'm assuming it's been around in the States for a while, but it's new to me, so I hope you enjoy reading this review from someone who's seeing it for the first time.
A boy fights... for "the right death."
Hardship, regret, shame: the negative feelings that humans feel become curses that lurk in our everyday lives. The curses run rampant throughout the world, capable of leading people to terrible misfortune and even death. What's more, the curses can only be exorcised by another curse.
Itadori Yuuji is a boy with tremendous physical strength, though he lives a completely ordinary high school life. One day, to save a classmate who has been attacked by curses, he eats the finger of Ryomen Sukuna, taking the curse into his own soul. From then on, he shares one body with Ryomen Sukuna. Guided by the most powerful of sorcerers, Gojou Satoru, Itadori is admitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Jujutsu Technical High School, an organization that fights the curses... and thus begins the heroic tale of a boy who became a curse to exorcise a curse, a life from which he could never turn back.
Story: This is a weird little show and I have to admit, it took me longer than I expected to get into it, but I overall like it enough to be sold on it. The idea of curses, souls in danger, sorcerers and possession—these are all right up my alley. "Becoming a curse to exorcise a curse" aligns a lot with "a monster to fight monsters," which is common in a lot of anime and manga (Hellsing comes to mind immediately). On the premise alone, I was ready to watch this series.
But it wasn't all smooth sailing. I'll talk about the negatives of the story first.
The show occasionally suffers from incoherency with the magic system, based on cursed energy. I came into the series with a certain idea of what curses were, and Jujutsu Kaisen plays with that in a different way. Cursed energy comes from negative emotions, and this energy can be harnessed into sorcery (jujutsu). Even though everybody makes negative emotions, and thus cursed energy, not everybody can control it (and I'm not really sure why). And then there are curses, who manifest as actual beings made from negative emotions, and a curse's sole purpose is to harm humanity. It comes from humans and exists to hurt humans, basically.
Episodes go into great detail explaining all this, but I still can't wrap my mind around it enough to be able to properly convey it all to you. I think part of it might be the delivery of information in the anime—lots of times other things are happening (like battles or fighting!) while important information is being explained. Or, conversely, it's a sizeable monologue that I tune out. Thank goodness for wikis that help me fill in the blanks.
I promise I possess a modicum of intelligence, but for some reason I couldn't get into the technical aspects of cursed energy and curses. Maybe it's my attention span; I don't know. But for whatever reason, it was in one ear and out the other with me.
Anyway, my only other gripe about the story is pacing. There's a lot of bouncing around in the series. For example, there's the setup for the competition between Jujutsu schools in Tokyo and Kyoto; then it's one month later and we're in the Mahito/Junpei arc, and then we're back to the school competition again, making the timeline seem confusing. There's just odd moments like that here and there (another example being the "false flashback" between Yuuji and Aoi chronicling what appears to be a years-long high school friendship, even though they just met each other within a span of minutes). Sometimes the story takes a while to address its weirdness (Panda's existence, for example, or why Toge only speaks in onigiri flavors), or reveal endearing information about the characters (Megumi's past life and sister don't really come out until the end of the show).
I suppose those complaints have to do more with storytelling than the actual story itself, which I do like. Basically you've got a boy who does the unthinkable to save others by making himself a vessel for the King of Curses himself, Ryomen Sukuna, in order to fight off cursed spirits that invaded his school. Then the plot sort of becomes a "gotta catch 'em all" with searching for the rest of Ryomen's cursed body parts (some icky-looking fingers) while Yuuji's impending execution is hanging over his head. His dying grandfather told him he would help people, and that's what Yuuji sets out to do. Combine that with some interesting characters at a magic school and a parade of monsters, and you've got a story worth watching. There are definitely heartbreaking aspects and emotional moments in the series as well that will keep you glued.
Characters: Characters make or break a show, and to be honest, I think it's the characters that kept me watching. Whenever the storytelling of Jujutsu Kaisen seemed off-kilter, it didn't really matter to me too much because I always wanted to know what would happen to the characters.
Let's talk about Yuuji, played by Junya Enoki. He's the anchor to the show. He's a bit on the super-powered side already given his athletic prowess at school, but once he inhales Sukuna's finger, it opens a doorway to even more power. He doesn't know how to use it—that's where mentors like Gojou and Aoi come in—but when he does, woe to anyone who fights him.
But it's the more quiet aspects of Yuuji I like. He's a thoughtful character. When his grandfather dies he contemplates death and what it means to help people. When his heart is torn from his chest by Sukuna and he's dying, he still has a heartfelt discussion with Megumi. After he loses Junpei, he's stricken by the death, but doesn't let it stop him from moving forward. When he kills Eso, he is apologetic and feels remorse because Eso cried for his brother. I like that Yuuji seems to feel the deaths—the emotions around them, and what they mean.
As for Yuuji’s classmates, I think Nobara (played by Asami Seto) is a hoot. She’s got a mouth on her and has an interesting power, using a hammer and nails in her battles. I’m glad in the final battle with Eso and Kechizu we really get to see her shine, although nailing through her own arm right down to the wrist is pretty yikes for me!
I have a soft spot for Megumi, the Boy with the Pretty Eyelashes™. Played by Yuma Uchida, he’s the most interesting character to me because he’s kind of quiet and stoic—he’s holding himself back for a lot of the series until we get to the final episodes, where we learn he used to beat his classmates up, that he has a sister in a coma, and that he has far more power than he’s let on. I love that he goes absolutely bonkers fighting the curses under Yasohachi Bridge—we get to see his innate domain, and a whole new side to his personality!
TOGE AND KAZUMI
The rest of the students at Tokyo Jujutsu High and Kyoto Jujutsu High all have their own little personalities; I have a fondness for Toge (played by Koki Uchiyama) and Kazumi (played by Chinatsu Akasaki) from each school in particular.
As for the teachers, I’ve got to talk about Gojou, the Man with the Pretty Eyes™. We don’t really see anything in terms of classes or other instructors at the school, so Gojou (played by Yuichi Nakamura) is our main representative of the high school. I don’t quite know what to make of him. He is immensely powerful (and what he can do is pretty cool) and has a sort of bemused manner about him. He seems like someone you shouldn’t trifle with, and yet he acts goofy, too. I am interested in knowing more of his story, but as much of a part he plays in the series, we really don’t know all that much about him—only that the curses know they shouldn’t mess with him, he’s so strong.
Of course there are other characters in the show, but I’m sure you want me to get on with the antagonists. There are many villains, but the biggest ones are Sukuna and Mahito.
Sukuna (played by Junichi Suwabe) is mostly a mystery—though he manifests occasionally through Yuuji’s face and body, he mostly chills inside Yuuji’s chest cavity on a throne of bones, offering the occasional commentary. I wanted to see more of him, and I especially want to know more about the deal he struck with Yuuji to bring him back to life (we’re kept in the dark about that on purpose). Because he’s behind the scenes for most of the show, and characters don’t really go into detail about him, he too, is an enigma.
This is why I was far more attached to Mahito as a villain. He’s a curse made from the hatred humans feel towards one another and his goal is to annihilate humanity by turning everyone into cursed spirits. He does this by literally warping the souls of the person in order to change the body, and it always ends in grotesque creations. When he’s not fighting he comes across as mellower and quietly cheerful, but he’s a total beast in battle and cruelly manipulative. We see this especially when he is with Junpei, and I’ll get to that more a little later. Anyway, Mahito (played by Nobunaga Shimazaki) stole the show and I’m interested in seeing more of him as the series continues. He’s probably the biggest reason I will keep watching Jujutsu Kaisen.
Animation: I’m really pleased with this show’s style and fluidity with the art and character movements. Faces are incredibly expressive in this series, too, which I love. Probably my most favorite expressions are when characters go completely haywire. Sukuna and Megumi especially have some good ones—take a look!
The animation especially levels up during fight scenes; when characters unlock special skills or innate domains are summoned, we get some truly creative designs. For example, take a look at the animation for when Mahito creates his innate domain. It’s so cool!
Voice Acting: One of my favorite voice actors is in this show, Junichi Suwabe. It’s nice to hear him again and he does a good job sounding both silky and demented when he plays Ryomen Sukuna. Another familiar voice, Nobunaga Shimazaki, plays Mahito, and I’ve never really heard Shimazaki voice a villain before, so it’s a delight to hear him play one. This is the first time I’ve heard Junya Enoki and he makes a great main character as Yuuji. To be honest, I thought everyone was well cast and there isn’t a false step by any of the actors. Everyone’s performance is excellent.
When I get back to the States, I'll be sure to watch the dub, too!
Low Points of the Season: Aside from the issues I brought up with storytelling, I only have one, and it’s right near the very beginning. We first see Yuuji at his old high school, Sugisawa Third High School, and he’s a member of the Occult Club with two other students, Setsuko (played by Mariya Ise) and Takeshi (played by Takahiro Sumi). The club members accidentally unleash a cursed spirit, and it gets super molesty with Setsuko. Basically another anime moment with boobs.
I am not a fan of fanservice in anime—I find it really distracting from the story and most of it is degrading, rendering people as objects just for the sake of titillation. And most of the time, it’s just boobs, boobs, boobs. Wow, so inventive. Anyway, we get one of these moments when an unconscious Setsuko is felt up by the cursed spirit. Of course, the same thing doesn’t happen to Takeshi because he’s a guy (although he is in the process of being swallowed. But there’s nothing tantalizing about that in its depiction).
If more of the series was filled with these kinds of moments, I would’ve stopped watching. Luckily, this is the only one like that. It remains to be seen with future episodes, but season one is in the clear! But it was annoying to see, nonetheless.
High Points of the Season: One of the best and most devastating arcs is with Mahito and Junpei. I consider this the most emotional parts of the series, and completely engrossing. We kind of know that it’s not going to end well, but it’s still devastating when it does.
Junpei (played by Yoshitaka Yamaya) is a high school student who is bullied constantly and terribly (for example, one of his fellow students burns cigarettes on his forehead, and he hides the scars with long hair). He sees Mahito in the movie theater destroy his classmates, when Mahito should technically be invisible to those who aren’t gifted with seeing curses. Mahito takes Junpei under his wing, and of course Mahito’s ultimate aim is to manipulate and destroy people, and Junpei is no exception.
We feel for Junpei because he is bullied, but also we know deep down he’s a nice kid (we can see this with his relationship with Yuuji and his own mother, despite some of the negativity and indifference Junpei feels towards other people in general). We want to root for Junpei and tell him to stay away from Mahito. When Junpei’s mother is killed horrifically by a cursed spirit, that’s Mahito’s cue to trick Junpei into going after his school bullies and succumbing to Mahito’s wicked scheming. And of course, Mahito uses his power to transform Junpei’s soul, thus rendering his physical body into that of a horrible monster—a curse. Cursed spirits made from humans usually can’t handle the transformation, so they die. And Junpei’s last word is “why?” Oh, my heart!
This whole arc was well done and definitely one of the most memorable aspects of the show, which is why I have it as a high point of the show despite how dark and depressing it is.
As a side note (and I don’t know where to stick it except here), Jujutsu Kaisen has one of the best closing songs ever. Instant earworm—“Lost in Paradise” by ALI featuring AKLO. It tonally has nothing to do with the series, but what a great song. The animation of the characters dancing and strutting is also pretty fun, too. It always had me watching the credits, which is something I normally skip. So, shout-out to the musicians and animators here!
Final Thoughts: Cheers to a weird show with strange magic, memorable characters, off-kilter storytelling, and great animation. It's a funky mix of stuff that makes me think the show isn't perfect, but there are lots of good takeaways from it. It's good enough for me to want to continue the series to see what happens, and to also rewatch it in English when it's available to me. That's a pretty big commitment (and season one was 24 episodes alone!).
I can't wait to see what's up Mahito's sleeves, what's going on with Gojou, and if we'll encounter another emotionally enthralling character like Junpei. Fingers crossed for more!