I think Jujutsu Kaisen was trying to break new ground. Partly because of that, I don’t fully know what to think of it yet, as it has just ended S1 as of this writing (March 2021). But I do know one thing about it for certain. It was really good.

Even if it wasn’t attempting to break new ground, or even if it didn’t—and I think it did—this anime has a lot going for it anyway. The characters are not super relatable, but oddly normal, and very interesting. The story is a bit winding, but never too convenient. It feels edgy, visceral, but also doesn’t try to grapple excessively with your emotions. And the artwork, especially the action, is fantastic. But above all, this anime is something that even I’m susceptible to overlooking when I examine shows in too great of detail: it’s extraordinarily enjoyable to watch! And sometimes, it’s not easy to define why. That’s quite something. Or, at least, I believe it is.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 8

For a supernatural/surreal genre anime, the characters are oddly human. They don’t take themselves super seriously. And while I don’t think there’s a ton of development for any of the characters, they have a strange familiarity about them.

I don’t expect characters to get a ton of development in an action anime like this one. Imagine if we spent more than five minutes total digging into the psychology of Jotaro Joestar. Yeah, that would hardly do. I think Jojo is an apt comparison to this show for several reasons, but I’ll speak of that more later on. But anyway, I don’t expect a ton of development. That does mean you sacrifice some of the attachment viewers could develop for the characters. But it doesn’t have to sacrifice memorability, which is probably more important than relatablility or attachment even. 

So how do you make an action character memorable without making them relatable? Funny, I hardly have to ask. People have been doing that for ages with legends and heroes and superheroes and all the like. So I won’t dive into that deep ocean here. I will simply note one aspect that these characters possess in this regard. Their powers and abilities are just imaginable enough to feel possible, without being so overpowered or conveniently available. All while being very human about it all.

Yuji Itadori is not a superhero. He’s an ordinary dude taking life one day at a time. He encounters this power in the course of his existence and goes with it. And here’s where Itadori, and all the characters really, begins to shine. He’s not your typical shounen action hero! He doesn’t turn into an emotional wreck anywhere along the way. Almost to a man, shounen MCs have ebbs and flows in power, and they’re thrust into ethically difficult situations, and in an attempt to make them feel human, authors cause them to react quite emotionally to their encounters. Usually this occurs in two ways.

Sometimes this shows up as those overdramatic speeches during fights. I need but mention The Rising of the Shield Hero, and you probably all know what I’m talking about. A few moments of fighting would last ten minutes! Not that this is always a bad thing either, as the same thing happens in the aforementioned Jojo, and it kind of works there for various reasons. We see a little of this in Jujutsu Kaisen, but often it occurs with Fushiguro, and almost never with Itadori.

The other way authors clad such characters with strong emotional responses occurs in those calm moments when the fighting is over. They’re depressed because they couldn’t save someone. They question their powers, or their worth, or their morality. Sometimes they “turn to the dark side” as a result. Inevitably this results in dramatic speeches, whether during fight sequences or not. This appears really briefly one time I can remember for Itadori, after he killed Junpei Yoshino. But it doesn’t last long, and doesn’t overwhelm Itadori’s character. He jumps back in the fight and does what we expect of him, without going through any cathartic process along the way. 

This show is funnier than you’d expect.

Drama during fights is an anime norm and is expected. I like that it’s minimal in this show. We do pause some fights pretty often at one point to flash back into certain characters’ pasts, as the writers try to fill in material for their 24-episode S1. But it doesn’t last long or take up too much of the series. It distracts from the main characters a little, but we get to meet some new characters this way too (Fushiguro’s sister tugs at our hearts, as an example), and it’s kind of fun. Mostly we just realize it’s just filler, and it does its work decently. We’ve all seen dumb filler material before, and can recognize the difference here.

What I really like is how minimal the the downtime emotional drama is. I get so tired of seeing all that. For one thing, not everyone reacts that way. That’s artists getting in their own way. Not all fighters react so emotionally to a fight or an outcome of a fight, in a way an artist-type might. But also, acknowledging that these are difficult matters to manage emotionally, not everyone reacts in a predictable way. Not everyone gets depressed or feels they’re inadequate simply because a fight didn’t go as well as hoped. Losing a comrade or failing to save someone could very much cause emotional trauma, but not everyone reacts to this exactly as we see so often portrayed in media. In action anime, such things are somewhat expected, but can often very much get in the way of the show itself. Action is about action, and characters should therefore engage in action, not sit alone in a dark room with the weight of the world on their shoulders wondering how they could have gotten stronger ten years ago to prevent the occurrences of ten hours ago. Portray that in characters how you will as an author, but don’t let it control your creation. Don’t turn action into drama. Jujutsu Kaisen deals with this emotional side of things carefully, but doesn’t let it overwhelm its characters.

We’re used to anime characters being “characters.” Like when you say “that guy’s a character!” Most fictional characters are kind of that way, hence the evolution of that term in colloquial use. What Jujutsu Kaisen does well with its characters is they all have some ordinary humanness about them, but they’re also as unique as we’d expect. I love Kugisagi and her angry spells. She’s never so crazy acting that it’s unbelievable however. Gojou Satoru is so carefree, and you can see how this influences Itadori, or how Itadori responds positively to him. Aoi Toudou, oh lord. That whole “brother” thing is really funny. Also there’s a panda. Probably my favorite minor character is Toge Inumaki, the guy that uses cursed language and therefore only communicates with the words for ingredients for onigiri.

So if I had to characterize the characters, I’d say they’re really creative in a human way. This series is heavily artwork-driven, as it is action, but the characters don’t take a major backseat. They’re memorable and effective in their roles.

No I didn’t forget Sukuna. I’ll mention him more in the Story section below.

Artwork

Rating: 10

I’ll venture to say that a sizable number of anime viewers watch anime on relatively small screens. Phones, tablets, or smaller desktop computers and laptops. Most watch on TVs I’m sure, but I’m guessing there’s enough people watching on these other devices to make this point relevant. Watching Jujutsu Kaisen on a small screen versus a big one is not the same thing!

It’s already really good regardless of the screen type. But power up your modern TV of choice and play these fight sequences on there, and you will zone out everything else and gawk in disbelief. It’s fantastic!

There’s some typical anime action fixtures in this show that it takes to almost a new level of great. I’ll note the most prominent two I noticed. 

First, we’re used to the zooming-in effect as a character approaches with the knockout punch. From Dragon Ball Z to My Hero Academia, this has been around forever and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And while I’m not versed enough in animation methods, historical or modern, to comment too much on this matter, I will simply say that it feels different in Jujutsu Kaisen. Like an upgrade. I don’t know if its the animation per se or if its where the image focuses or something completely different. I just know I like it!

The second thing is similar to this. Layered action is used in animation, but not as often as you’d think. I can remember any number of memorable action moments where one character is doing something in the foreground, talking or fighting, but behind him or her is another character actively moving towards the main action. And as I noted, I remembered a lot of these scenes. This is part of what makes the action excellent in this show.

Here’s a great example of that layering of action I mentioned.

If you don’t remember this show for its action, you’ll certainly remember it for its styling. Between the dark coloring and all the angular lines, this show definitely tries to go where no anime has gone before. I can point to Jojo again, but the coloring is nowhere near the same there. The color is intense but subdued. Even when they’re just in ordinary life scenes, it feels somewhat subdued. Of course fight scenes with cursed spirits are the most like this. Again I could point to a Mob Psycho 100, but even that’s not the same. Nor is it even the same as Puella Magi Madoka Magica, as that’s more just desaturation. Did he just compare Jujutsu Kaisen to a mahou shojou anime? The biggest reason I point to Jojo is because the style is attempting to be groundbreaking, just as Jojo’s artwork tries to do the same thing. Sure there are comparable shows out there. But they’re not as original as these kinds of groundbreaking shows, for whatever reason you could imagine. These series deserve credit for that.

Either way, it’s really engaging to watch. I wouldn’t call it beautiful. I reserve that title for other kinds of artwork in this case. But Jojo isn’t “beautiful” either, but it’s astounding visually nonetheless. This is where I like to think this show is trying to be groundbreaking. Yeah that’s going to draw the Jojo comparison. But it’s unique enough on its own to simply compare that for the sake of comparison, not as an attempt at copying it. The artwork in both of these shows attempts to do something new and different, and if that works effectively (and it does here) then I can only applaud the creativity and execution. Among a lot of positives, the artwork is the best thing about this show.

Story

Rating: 7

The story is not the driving force in this show. But it serves up nice sets of arcs that allow for great action and character presentation. I hate overly long arcs, and teeny tiny arcs are jarring because they’re over before they can do any work for the characters. This show finds a nice happy medium in arc lengths. One progresses to the other pretty smoothly, and we learn about each character more each time. And we get some fine animation in the process!

Sometimes shows with prominent arcs don’t have an underlying thread that courses through the whole. Here that’s handled very well. The thing with Ryoumen Sukuna is the entire basis for this story, and it’s present in every motive behind each arc. And as whacky as the whole idea of cursed spirits is, the premise of them hunting the extraordinary power present in Sukuna’s fingers is decently believable. 

This thread of storyline does a couple of things really well for this show. First, it allows this weird dual-personality thing for Itadori. Seeing the markings on his face in the promos was one of the reasons I starting watching this show. Seeing how good a character Itadori was on his own, then combining that with another fine vocal performance from Junichi Suwabe (Jojo, Black Butler, Yuri!!! on ICE, but probably most memorable as Archer from the Fate/ series and Aizawa-sensei in MHA) as the alter-ego Sukuna, it makes for a great combination that consistently doesn’t take itself too seriously. The back-and-forth between those two is pretty fun when it appears periodically.

Second, it gives this show another little bit of edge. It’s already a little on the gross side, with the weird curses and their weird appearances and voices and weird effects on people. The artwork is a little on the surreal side, adding to this effect. But above all, we’re talking about mummified fingers here. And Itadori eating them. It makes your stomach turn just a little bit and gives this story a bit of edgy memorability. I don’t remember Mob eating any dead guy’s fingers!

And it always allows the story to move forward. What are we up to, six fingers are accounted for? And Itadori’s eaten three of them? I don’t remember at the moment. But not all ten are accounted for, I’m pretty sure of that. And Itadori hasn’t eaten more then five of them. We don’t know what’s going to happen when he eats another, much less when he gets all of them! So not only do we have that hanging over the story during S1, we have all those mysteries to look forward to in coming season. Yes, seek-the-treasured-item can be a tired out action-adventure trope, but it can still be used effectively, as we see here. 

Overall: 9

I mentioned this at the beginning: this show is really fun to watch. And as I think back while I’m writing, I realize I can’t always put my finger on why. I look up at what I’ve written in this review, and I see it isn’t super long. Because I can’t quite figure out what it is that’s so appealing about this show. I think a lot of people are experiencing that same sensation too. This was probably the most popular show of 2020. And while I can try to point to fantastic action, interesting characters, or engaging story, none of those is so crazy exceptional by themselves to warrant such appeal (with the action as probably the exception).

It’s just that one thing that entertainment media should be regardless of artistic elements: it’s fun. And as I often point out, great works of art are often difficult to describe. Sometimes it’s their beauty that’s difficult to describe, or the emotional response they prompt in us. But in some cases, they’re just a ton of fun, and we can’t really explain why. That’s what I walk away from this show feeling the most. I had a great time watching it, and I can’t give you a really good reason why!

I look forward to S2!

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