Jujutsu Kaisen 0 has apparently pleased fans of its franchise, but the uninitiated should be cautious of its undercooked characters and scattered storytelling.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 was directed by Sunghoo Park and is an anime adaptation of the manga series of the same name, which is itself a prequel to the Jujutsu Kaisen manga series (though you don’t have to know a single thing about this franchise to follow the film’s story or worldbuilding). A teenage boy named Yuta (Megumi Ogata) is reeling over the death of his childhood friend Rika (Kana Hanazawa), who now lives within him as a cursed spirit. He’s offered an opportunity to control and break this curse by enrolling in Jujutsu High, where students are trained to fight off other evil spirits. He forms friendships with fellow students Maki (Mikako Komatsu), Toge (Koki Uchiyama), and Panda (Tomokazu Seki), who all must work together when a sorcerer named Suguru Geto (Takahiro Sakurai) declares war on all non-sorcerer humans.
I would not call myself an anime fan, mainly because I don’t have nearly as much experience with anime to qualify as such. Only in the past few years or so have I really taken an interest in exploring that realm of animation. Still, I’ve seen how incredible it can be, and every time I sit down to watch something within that medium, I’m ready to enjoy it. That’s why, despite me having zero knowledge of the Jujutsu Kaisen franchise, my curiosity was piqued by this prequel. However, when checking out critical reviews for Jujutsu Kaisen 0, I saw relatively few that came from critics who were uninitiated with the franchise like me. Reviews declared this prequel to be newcomer-friendly, but they’re still coming from well-established fans with good will already built. What would someone like me who’s never even heard of Jujutsu Kaisen before, and who’s only dabbled with anime here and there, think of this movie?
Unfortunately, in my case at least, the answer isn’t too pretty. I really, really don’t like Jujutsu Kaisen 0. I’m particularly sad about that because of how much I love the setup with Yuta and Rika. The idea of having your childhood friend killed at such a young age and having her stay by your side as a beastly, demonic curse is chilling, and the film initially looks like it’s going to really dive into the psychological and horror-driven potential that comes with it. Yuta starts out as a very tragic, grief-ridden character that you want to see escape his despair, and the design of Rika’s curse is really striking. Every creature looks great while on the subject, so dark and grotesque like something out of a nightmare, and I have no qualms with the breathtaking animation that brings them all to life. What I do have a problem with, though, is how Jujutsu Kaisen 0 completely sidelines this storyline one third of the way in and doesn’t bring it back until we’re deep into the third act. Rika is barely mentioned at all anywhere else, and almost all of Yuta’s depth is taken out of focus in favor of a pretty standard journey of him growing stronger as a sorcerer. He has a bit of growth through this portion in regards to bonding with his fellow students, but it’s so disjointed from his established motivations that the attempts to carry out any sort of arc for him wind up being ineffective.
The group of heroes Yuta joins averages out to being just fine. Maki has the most interesting backstory that feels nicely sprinkled in throughout the film. Panda has little to him, but just the image of an anthropomorphic panda walking around like it’s an everyday occurrence is funny enough to get a pass. And Toge … for whatever reason, every word he says is a type of food. Literally every word. I have no idea why, but it’s unfunny, it’s not charming, and it nullifies every attempt at a dramatic moment with what would otherwise be a cool, mysterious presence. Geto as a villain has interesting motivations on the surface, but they rarely go deeper than that, partially because he doesn’t show up or have any major role until over halfway through the film. It’s interesting how he treats those he’s fighting against but doesn’t want to kill, but that’s the only standout thing about him. He and his army show up with no buildup, and the conflict that they start feels like we’ve suddenly started watching this film’s sequel for how abrupt the transition to this new plot is. The grand scale of Geto’s plan is barely ever even felt, to a point where I at one point forgot that literally millions of lives are on the line if it succeeds.
But my biggest issue with Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is how it conveys information and characters’ mindsets to the viewer. There are a lot of inner monologues from many characters that often either state the painfully obvious or spout overly-complicated exposition and explanations in a cluttered, unnatural way. Dialogue both thought and spoken is constantly interrupting the flow of action scenes, especially in the climax. It’s a very choppy, artificial way of building character and letting us know what they’re thinking or how their abilities work. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 doesn’t know how much it needs to verbally explain, how much to keep simple, or when to just let the visuals do the talking, which makes the pacing of many scenes extremely awkward and uneven, in addition to just getting on my nerves. I’m wondering if the dialogue was just not translated properly, as there are also a handful of lines that don’t make sense. There’s a point where a character has been fighting a bunch of curses, sees the next one in the way, and says, “This one’s dangerous!” as if the other dozens before were not dangerous. A lot of flashbacks to scenes, even recent scenes that I had no trouble remembering, are also unneeded.
One last major gripe is that, at several points, for brief periods, the art style Jujutsu Kaisen 0 changes to a 2-D, heavily cutesy, highly comedic style to convey really exaggerated reactions, with no rhyme or reason as to when or why. These moments honest-to-God feel like a parody of what most of the general public thinks when they hear the term “anime”, and all of them are really grating and clash heavily with the rest of the film. Special mention goes to a minute-long detour where Panda asks Yuta whether he prefers big breasts or small breasts … I honestly had to tell myself to not leave the theater during this part.
I must reiterate: I am not an experienced, knowledgeable fan of anime as a medium. But I know enough to recognize a lot of typical anime tropes like overexplaining fight sequences or highly exaggerated comedic expressions, and I know that a lot of anime fans do enjoy these tropes. If you love all sorts of anime but have no history with Jujutsu Kaisen, you’ll probably like this film. If you’re a fan of this franchise already – which a majority of critics who covered this film seem to be – then I’m safely assuming you’ll like this as well. Those who are in my camp who would be going into this just as a film entirely on its own … I’m not sure what you’ll think. I’m not going to tell anyone to not see this film, not just because I want more anime projects to get these kinds of wider releases, but because I don’t like causing people to miss out on something they might like. But I personally can’t say that I enjoyed Jujutsu Kaisen 0 almost at all. The animation and hellish imagery are wonderful, but the characters are either wasted or underdeveloped, the style jumps between epic and annoying, and the storytelling is scattered at best. I would at the very least advise cautious expectations to any average moviegoer, or even any film lover with little anime background, who’s interested in seeing this. If that caution proves to be unneeded in the eyes of most people, then I’ll just have to settle for being in the minority on this one.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is now showing in theaters in the US and in select countries.