The prequel to Gege Akutami’s hit dark fantasy action manga boasts excellent fights, a lovable cast, and a terrific score.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is a darn-good adaptation of manga artist and author Gege Akutami’s equally-darn-good dark fantasy shonen battle manga. Its protagonist is compelling, his peers likable, the villain hateful but not without shading. The action is excellent. Alisa Okezahama, Yoshimasa Terui, and Hiroaki Tsutsumi’s score rules. The storytelling is overstretched in places, and narrative jumping during the climax gets frustrating, but 0 works far more than it doesn’t.
While it’s a prequel to Akutami’s ongoing hit manga and anime Jujutsu Kaisen, 0 is fairly newcomer-friendly—in part because it predates its mothership series. In comic form, 0 was originally the self-contained short-run series Tokyo Metropolitan Curse Technical School in 2017. It was successful enough to become the basis for a long-form project: Jujutsu Kaisen, which launched in 2018 and became a worldwide big-deal success. Subsequently, Tokyo Metropolitan Curse Technical School was retitled Jujutsu Kaisen 0. As a film made well into the Jujutsu Kaisen anime’s production, 0 does incorporate material from the larger work that wasn’t present in the comic but it does so without becoming illegible to first-timers.
0 follows Yuta Okkotsu (Megumi Ogata and Kayleigh McKee), a meek teenager who lives in fear of his childhood sweetheart Rika Orimoto (Kana Hanazawa and Anairis Quiñones). Rika adores Yuta and would do anything to protect him. Yuta loves her back. The problem is that Rika has been dead for years, killed in a horrible car accident. Her bond with Yuta was so great that her spirit lingered in the mortal world, twisted into a monstrous curse—one happy to rip and tear anyone who would harm her beloved to pieces.
Yuta, traumatized by all the havoc Rika’s curse has wreaked on his behalf, is willing to accept execution at the hands of supernatural Tokyo’s ruling old men. But before they can carry out his sentence, an opportunity for redemption kicks down the door. The powerful exorcist sorcerer/goofball high school teacher Satoru Gojo (Yuichi Nakamura and Kaiji Tang) is not having the “put a hurting teenager to death” plan.
Gojo offers Yuta a place at Tokyo Jujutsu High—one of the world’s foremost curse-breaking academies. There, Yuta can learn not only how to control Rika’s curse but how to wield it in the service of good. There, he can learn how to unravel the curse, how to free his best friend from her destructive, monstrous state. There, Yuta will not be alone. And so despite his fear, he takes Gojo’s offer.
While curse-breaking is both intense and terrifying, Yuta blossoms. He finds his resolve. He faces his fears. He makes dear friends with his classmates—embittered but good-hearted weapons expert Maki Zen’in (Mikako Komatsu and Allegra Clark), amiable cursed speech (i.e. he says the word “explode” and things explode) wielder Toge Inumaki (Koki Uchiyama and Xander Mobus), and the gregarious sapient curse-in-panda-form Panda (Tomokazu Seki and Matthew David Rudd).
But 0 being both a shonen action story and a coming-of-age tale means that Yuta’s self-actualization and the resolution of his relationship with Rike doesn’t come without a fight. Specifically, one with the twisted former exorcist-turned-curse master Suguru Geto (Takahiro Sakurai and Lex Lang). Once Gojo’s kindhearted best friend, the now genocidal Geto covets Rika’s power for his plans. To face him, Yuta and company will have to bring their all.
As a shonen battle story, 0‘s action is the make-or-break core of the film, and it’s excellent. Director Sunghoo Park translates Akutami’s emphasis on the moment of impact in the manga’s action sequences into a reliable build-and-release engine. The fighters are fluid and graceful even at their most relentless, constantly vying for an opening that will let them take the upper hand. When big beats drop, it’s a seizing of those openings, a turning point in the battle, rather than an awkward halt.
It’s consistently thrilling work, and it’s frequently just plain cool. My favorite moment? Geto conjuring a three-section staff to take on the katana-wielding Yuta, both fighters employing curses to trade inhumanly strong blows at inhumanly fast speeds as the score turns to full, gloriously driving rock.
0‘s character work is strong as well; Yuta’s coming of age and increasing ease with himself and with Rika, and the long-soured but not-wholly-dissolved friendship between Gojo and Geto, emerge as highlights. Both the Japanese and English casts do good work, with Ogata’s Yuta standing as the best performance in Japanese and Tang’s confident Gojo as the best English-language turn.
The storytelling is a more frustrating matter. While strong sequences and setpieces abound, the narrative as a whole is scattershot and marked by abrupt time jumps. Likewise, the climax’s momentum is disappointingly herky-jerky, due to repeated hops between Yuta’s battle with Geto army in Shinjuku.
In its weakest moments, 0 is awkwardly balanced. Sudden lurches in the narrative are followed by character moments that, while strong on their own, feel out of sync with the ostensible pacing of the picture. These don’t break the film, but they are an issue. Additionally, while it features a Black sorcerer prominently (and respectfully) in its ensemble, the design of one of Yuta’s ill-fated bullies bears elements of caricature—an ongoing issue in manga and anime.
Keeping these issues in mind, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is a well-crafted, highly enjoyable adaptation of a pretty darn good dark fantasy action comic. It’s got quality monsters, a lovable ensemble, an awesome soundtrack, and clear, creative action that operates on multiple scales. I like it a lot.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 opens in theaters in subtitled Japanese and English on Friday, March 18th.