Jujutsu Kaisen 0 Is a Tragic Romance Wrapped in a Thrilling Origin Story
When a shonen anime releases its first movie, it’s always a big deal. These debuts are often thrilling adventures of debatable canon that have the potential to bring in new audiences and give fans the rush of seeing beloved characters in a new medium. It doesn’t matter what the plot ultimately is, it’s just fun to see these characters we’ve spent weeks watching stretch their animated legs and get into some beautiful chaos with the help of a bigger budget.
So it was inevitable that Jujutsu Kaisen would get a movie after its great debut as an anime thanks to Studio MAPPA. But Jujutsu Kaisen 0 manages to surprise, thanks to its cast, and how effortlessly it showcases the best of what creator Gege Akutami’s supernatural world has to offer.
The film, a prequel set before the events of the anime adaptation, follows the series’ familiar premise: an endless secret battle through Japan between powerful energy-manipulating Jujutsu sorcerers, and sinister supernatural “Curse” spirits that lurk just outside of human perception. But in shifting protagonists from Jujutsu Kaisen’s primary hero—the overpowered, lovably stupid Yuji Itadori—to 0’s meek, timid Yuta Okkotsu (voiced in Japanese by Neon Genesis Evangelion legend Megumi Ogata, and by Kayleigh McKee in English), the new movie plays up the already disturbing and tragic elements of its world in a more personal way that Yuji’s hyperconfident viewpoint doesn’t always allow. In the anime and manga, Yuji eagerly jumped into the Jujutsu world from the proverbial deep end after a chance encounter with the powerful Curse spirit Sukuna. In 0 we meet Yuta after he’s already lived in fear of the supernatural for years, following the traumatic death of his childhood love Rika (Kana Hanazawa/Anairis Quiñones), which also transformed her into a Curse bonded to Yuta—one that viciously attacks anyone who brings him harm.
Yuta and Rika’s relationship is the heart of Jujutsu Kaisen 0, and it’s the key thing that sets him apart from Yuji. In just a handful of scenes, their romance feels very real in a way that love plots in shonen series rarely do, and both the writing and performance of the characters give the chance for Yuta and Rika to play off each other extremely well. Seeing them together in flashbacks makes the present day scenes where Rika monstrously defends Yuta all the more tragic, making you feel for their cut-short romance. For a series that’s never afraid to suddenly take an absurd tone shift at random moments, there’s a surprising amount of warmth and tenderness that Jujutsu Kaisen 0 offers for its two leads and their doomed love.
Afraid as Yuta is to let Rika out and tear apart anything in her way, there’s something cathartic in watching him channel the power she wields to cut Curses to pieces. As a Curse, Rika’s a sight to behold, and the moments where she’s unleashed highlight how striking and gross Akutami and MAPPA’s Curse designs really are. Once you see her rip another Curse to shreds, there’s no question as to why Suguru Geto, the film’s villain, would want her power for himself. 0 stages Geto’s presence in such a way that he can’t help but appear like a god to both his followers and Yuta and his allies, and both his actors—Takahiro Sakurai and Lex Lang—give him a perfectly haughty, arrogant voice that shines through in a chilling performance.
Akutami created what would become known as Jujutsu Kaisen 0 in 2017, a year before Kaisen proper released and took off as one of the biggest manga series around right now. Under the title Tokyo Metropolitan Curse Technical School, the four-part miniseries introduced characters who would later become important heroes in their own right in Jujutsu Kaisen, that now play similarly important connective roles in 0. Primarily in the movie, this connection is made through three senior students we met in the anime series’ first season, where they were leveraged as something of a comic relief effort during a time when levity was sorely needed for Yuji and his friends. There’s Maki Zenin (Mikako Komatsu/Allegra Clark), who sees Curses with empowered glasses and fights them using magically imbued weapons; Toge Inumaki (Koki Uchiyama/Xander Mobus), whose powerful Curse-enhanced voice means he can only safely speak when he lists out rice ball ingredients; and Panda (Tomokazu Seki/Matthew Rudd) rounds out the trio with his loud, dumb charm, and is, well, long story short… a talking Panda.
The film treats these characters like a big deal given their importance to the anime at large, but they really shine when they’re just allowed to be goofy teenagers, and Yuta begins to bond with them when he’s thrust into this strange new world. While their appearances here won’t completely dazzle fans of the series like their debuts in the anime, the moments these characters do have are still pretty great, and each of them gets plenty of time to prove why they’re so lovable and compelling. Maki in particular brings a fun, abrasive energy to all of her scenes and has such confidence that it’s hard not to like her even more.
The most important returning character of all, however, is fan favorite Satoru Gojo, an absurdly powerful Sorcerer who, when we meet his slightly younger self in 0, has decided to take Yuta under his wing. Like in the anime itself, Goji is a lot of fun in 0; actors Yuchi Nakamura and Kaiji Tang effortlessly make Gojo both extremely confident in his ability while also hilariously aggravating because of that—and he gets one of the film’s best, most sumptuously animated fights. More importantly, Nakamura and Tang succeed in making this younger version of Gojo still feel somewhat vulnerable once he crosses paths with his old friend Geto. It would’ve been easy to just make this prequel all about them rather than Yuta, but Kaisen 0 wisely keeps the two men apart for much of the film, and the moments where they get to interact carry a sad longing for the simple days when they were just a couple of dudes who had the potential to be great together, had they not both gone down such tragically different paths.
At the end of the day, “confidence” really is the word to describe Jujutsu Kaisen 0. Beneath its stylish action and gross monsters, there’s a infectiously good energy that makes it easy to love and hard to dislike, even when it gets extremely gory or just completely over the top. It loves itself, and Jujutsu Kaisen 0 does enough with its characters and world to rekindle (or begin) that spark of falling in love with the franchise all over again.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 hits theaters on March 18.
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