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Jujutsu Kaisen 0 Review: Only half the picture

Jujutsu Kaisen 0

Review

Jujutsu Kaisen 0 Review: Only half the picture

Jujutsu Kaisen was perhaps the most popular of Studio MAPPA’s overwhelming salvo of content in 2020. While we wait for an inevitable season two, Director Sunghoo Park has returned to lend his kinetic and striking style a cinematic flair. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 might be one of the prettiest anime films I’ve seen in a long while. But is the story just as gorgeous?

Yuta Okkotsu was a young boy with a childhood crush. A young girl named Rika, with whom he met in the hospital. After a terrible accident, Rika was killed. But she didn’t leave Yuta. Rather, that young girl Yuta promised to marry when they were older clung to him like a curse.

When the story begins, Yuta’s “curse,” Rika’s spirit, follows him and lashes out at anyone who tries to hurt him. When Rika kills a number of people, Yuta is quarantined by the Jujutsu Sorcerers, who wish to exterminate him. However, Gojo Satoru has other plans.

The story shares parallels with the main series in regards to introductions to the world of sorcery and the context behind the introduction. In the TV series, Itadori absorbed a cursed spirit of his own volition and was marked for execution. In the film, Yuta has lived with the curse for a long time.

Jujutsu Kasien 0 doesn’t require you to have seen the TV series to understand it. It’s set a year before the first season. Characters like Zenin, Inumaki, and Panda – who were second-years in the show – are all first years in this story. What we learn about them here is more or less the same as what we learn in the TV series.

I’m happy that the movie is standalone, and I think that fact should be preached more for people who are interested in getting into this series. No re-treaded ground felt redundant because of the TV show’s existence. Because it presents itself faithfully as an intro to the universe, the repeated exposition feels natural since it’s for the benefit of new viewers.

With that said, I hesitate to praise this film as an exploration of the world as a standalone film. Neither would I call it a great character study or a rather expansive adventure. Truth be told, I’m not sure what to make of this story. For one thing, it feels brief. An hour and 45-minute runtime is a decent runtime, but the story’s construction feels rushed.

The first half wastes very little time. Yuta is introduced, his curse is given context, and he is recruited to join the school. From there, he meets the other students, grouping off with them individually for training. The way scenes end makes these feel like higher-budget TV episode plots rather than part of a film, but that could be the result of editing.

Jujutsu High First Years

[From left to right] Panda (Seki, Tomokazu), Zenin Maki (Komatsu, Mikako), Inumaki Toge (Uchiyama, Kouki)

After the official introduction of the antagonist, Suguru Geto, the stakes are raised quickly, the story moves ever closer to its climax, with only a few moments to catch our breath and reflect on the relationships that have built to that point.

The battles are sublime and the character moments, cool on their own, can offer something to new and old fans alike. However, what these spectacles sacrifice are the characters. This film’s appeal might have been the action scenes, but action is made or broken by the emotions going into it and reactions coming out of it.

I looked forward to this movie for the same things that I got from the show, which – at the end of the day – were the characters. And I’m starting to think that what made the characters so strong was the time allotted by a series to develop them.

Yuta and Rika are an interesting combination. A shy boy lacking confidence, haunted by a young girl who died when he was young, hurting anyone who mistreats him. That’s an interesting story, but I never felt like that relationship was explored as deeply as I wanted.

When we see glimpses of their past, it’s only smiles and happy montages. I wanted to see them talk to each other more. I wanted to know what kind of things they said and did that lit that spark of young love. Some might argue that young love isn’t always built upon much substance.

Jujutsu Kaisen 0 poster

I can understand that, but in a visual medium like anime, that paints emotions onto the screen so poignantly, I expect to get wrapped up in that sensation of young love. I want to know what kind of person Rika was before she became a cursed spirit. I don’t even know why she and Yuta were both in the hospital as kids.

People have praised Megumi Ogata’s performance as Yuta. I won’t begin to disagree. They’re an amazing actor and it’s clear that characters like Yuta or Shinji from Evangelion are where they shine. Young men with fragile self-images but strong wills tempered by kind hearts.

And because that performance is so good, I feel especially terrible that I didn’t love Yuta more. He feels only half-explored. We skip a few months of time going into the second act. I could excuse that at first for the sake of giving them more to do in action, but once the villain took over the story, we stopped seeing Yuta’s progression.

By the time the climax hits, Yuta has accessed powers and strengths that we never witnessed him work towards on his own. I won’t lie, I still sat up in my seat in the theater with a shock when Yuta pulled some of the tricks he did. This climax is awesome. But quickly after the credits ended and I reflected on it all, I just wished I liked Yuta more.

If the film were longer and maybe focused more on Yuta and Rika, I don’t think I’d have as many issues with this movie. Many stories have multiple plots, but there is usually one that we associate as the “core” of the tale.

With how much emphasis is put on Yuta and Riks, this film would have functioned better as a character study. Oddly enough, I think it gets closer to being a character study of Gojo and Geto. Two sorcerers who took drastically different paths.

One complaint I had about the TV series was that I never felt all that invested in the antagonists’ plans. I was more interested in everything else. It’s a similar issue with My Hero Academia’s early seasons. JJK 0 course corrects by making Geto the sole antagonist, and quite a bold one at that.

He appears as a monk offering services to people afflicted by curses. However, he soon reveals a deep disdain for humans and wants to eliminate all who can’t use cursed energy. He refers to regular humans as monkeys, nothing but lesser beings.

Jujutsu Kaisen is no stranger to cool antagonists with striking designs who cause problems, but once again, at least here I know what the end-goal is. And it might even illuminate what the point of everything happening in the main story is as well.

 

 

Gojo Satoru is a bad-ass as always and I’m not really sure what to say about him that hasn’t already been said in my review of the series and others’ takes. He’s just one cool dude who steals the show every time he’s on-screen. Doubly so if he’s flashing those beautiful baby blues.

Speaking of beautiful, this film is even more gorgeous than the TV show itself – an already impressive achievement. But they’ve gone a step beyond and given the movie a widescreen 2.4 ratio and while some might prefer to see none of the animation cropped… I don’t know – it just feels so fancy.

To see this particular art style, touched up with such stellar compositing, and blown up on a theater screen had me awestruck. There were times when the image would pan across the screen and it would hit me how far anime in theaters has come. With the new Crunchyroll and Funimation merger, I imagine we’ll see plenty more films get wide releases.

There’s something so exciting about seeing artists and composers I love from anime get their time to be witnessed on the big screen. It’s both exciting for that exposure and because the work is always so god damn exciting in its own right. The music is just as eclectic as the TV series score, pronouncing even subtle moments with sensational genre-blending.

When the song Sakayume by King Gnu hit over the end credits, and lights came on in the theater, I was struck by a fit of excited giggles. Despite what I’ve said about missed opportunities, this film got me very excited. As excited as you probably as expecting to be if you have been anticipating this movie.

To be fair though, because anime has already been on the path to getting further exposure in cinemas for a while, I can’t be too lenient with the faults. This story could have and should have been stronger. These characters are awesome and they are the heart of what makes JJK so damn awesome when things aren’t exploding. They should be the focus.

Between everything going on, I don’t think that 0 had the focus it needed. It adapted a manga side-story but didn’t build a film around a strong core. It attempts to tell the story in its entirety, not fully grasping the limits on the time they had to flesh things out.

However, having limitations doesn’t just mean there is something absent. It can present opportunities to be creative. Maybe that means not exploring every idea, but instead exploring one idea to its fullest extent. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 can present itself as a film and it certainly has the right to be proud of its technical qualifications. But it lacks a solid core to support its story, the foundation of a truly remarkable film.

B-

Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is currently in theaters across the United States at the time of posting, in Japanese and English, courtesy of Crunchyroll.

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