After 13 episodes, Jujutsu Kaisen‘s first season is halfway done. Between it and Attack on Titan‘s already gripping final season, MAPPA’s biggest year is ending with a bang. In all honesty, I wasn’t certain that this show would be a hit. The first episodes were exciting, sure, but part of me wondered if the characters would grow on me or if the stakes would raise enough to keep me hooked.
Thankfully, the coin toss ended favorably. Not only did Jujutsu Kaisen keep its momentum, it continually got better, exploring the world further through new characters that have made lasting impressions. The end result has been a grim story that takes a unique spin on the philosophies of the shonen genre.
Now, for the record, I’m not here to make one of those bold statements I talked about in my first impressions. Those claims that it’s “revolutionary” or a “fresh take” on shonen series. It’s well documented that the shonen genre is one that constantly borrows from itself, much like most Japanese media. In fact, subversions of those tropes are almost just as common as direct inspirations.
I’ve already heard friends talk about why they like it because it reminds them of Bleach. On the same day, others have told me they like how the characters feel refreshing. On the latter topic, I find that the allure of Jujutsu Kaisen comes from its philosophy, something explored through two things: the world and the characters.
I love stories in which the paranormal or the unnatural are commonplace. Or even when those things are commonplace but hidden from the majority of the populace. These stories have been my jam since I was a kid. However, I love it, even more, when the societies, agencies, and units designed to combat these threats are so comprehensive as to function the way you expect real-world governments or agencies to, down to the tedious minutia.
In the face of something unnatural and chaotic, having functions that are able to lend some order to that chaos is supremely interesting to me. It’s a triumph of the human spirit to combat something supernatural with ingenuity and cleverness. Jujutsu Kaisen spends just enough time establishing rules of its world, hinting at the hierarchy, and presenting the daily grind of an exorcist.
That last part is essential. The “grind.” Rarely are the characters that Itadori meets are in their position because they want to devote their lives and talents to the work of an exorcist. Rather, they do it because it’s a job and it allows them to pursue other things they want in their life.
It’s the idea that “work sucks” but it’s work and you do it so you can put food on the table. It’s dangerous and considerably more threatening than what the common individual will experience, but to these superhumans, the concept is much the same.
The motive isn’t even monetary. It’s usually some kind of personal desire or point they wish to prove through their work. It’s how grounded and personal the motivations are that make the cast so frequently relatable and interesting. The first character to exhibit this kind of motivation was Nobara.
At first, I wondered if her occasional stand-offish attitude would become annoying, but her tenacity and self-assured charisma soon won me over more than anything. In my first post about the show, I praised her desire to become a sorcerer so she could live in Tokyo. She hated the countryside and its people for how they treated someone she idolized and decided to make use of her skills to take on a path that would allow her to be like the woman she looked up to.
As with many of the characters like her, this desire never gets in the way of her work or compromises her sense of morality. Notably, in episode three. Despite knowing that the most effective way to deal with a cursed spirit would be to ignore a hostage, she still tries to save a child.
This same kind of understated motivation can be seen later with Maki Zenin, one of the second-year students who prepare Nobara and Fushigoro for an inter-academy fighting tournament. She’s introduced the same as anyone else, despite being comparatively weaker in her power level. She has no cursed energy and relies on special weaponry and technology to compensate.
In just one episode with plenty of great characterization already, Maki and Nobara become fast friends. Maki’s weakness compared to others in her family is her chief motivation. While “proving yourself to your shitty family” isn’t the most original concept, it’s the casualness and confidence with which Maki states her intentions that makes her come off as so cool. Plus, all of the insults from her asshole of a sister, Mai, just bounce off of her. She doesn’t take any shit.
For as much spectacle as there is in Jujutsu Kaisen, it’s the understated and perhaps grounded characterizations that carry the story. One episode after Maki got her cool development, the best character of the series yet made his grand debut.
Kento Nanami is the very epitome of Jujutsu Kaisen‘s thematic appeal. He is a strait-laced and methodical professional sorcerer. Practically the human embodiment of the world-building I discussed earlier. His introduction immediately sets him apart.
He tells Itadori that he was trained as a sorcerer but quit because “Jujutsu Sorcerers are shit!” Then, working as a salaryman to make enough money to live peacefully, he realized “work is also shit!” And between the two, he picked the one he was more suited for.
From the performance by Kenjirou Tsuda to his character design, he is one of the most mature and level-headed anime characters I’ve ever seen. Every scene and spoken line lingers in the mind, either because he’s just that cool or because what he says is so poignant.
He is indifferent without being heartless. His kindness comes in a different form than someone like Gojo. Nanami values youth and the joy that comes from being young. He hopes to impart wisdom so that a gifted, yet cursed youth like Itadori doesn’t become as dejected as him.
There’s also honesty to Nanami’s view of adulthood.
Finding more fallen-out hairs on your pillow, watching your favorite stuffed bread disappear from the convenience store… The accumulation of those little despairs is what makes a person an adult.
Kento Nanami, Jujutsu Kaisen, Episode Nine
Jujutsu Kaisen is a dark show that consistently presents either death or the aftermath thereof. Witnessing it, processing it, and striving to contain the threat before it gets worse, is the day-to-day of a sorcerer. Itadori’s personal training, separated from Fushigoro and Nobara, allows the audience to see that routine in all its splendor and darkness.
What results is an incredibly heartfelt and clever conclusion to the arc. The latter half of the season’s first cour revolves around Junpei Yoshino, a bullied student whose apathy towards others leads him to be introverted. After witnessing deaths at the hands of Mahito, one of the main antagonists, he confronts them without fear and asks if he could have the power to kill as well.
So begins a precarious but fascinating dynamic between a murderous villain and a human who is fascinated by them and seeks to gain something from them. I love dynamics like these because despite how evil Mahito is and how quickly they could kill Junpei, they don’t. The reason why is rarely pretty in relationships like this, but seeing them talk like teacher and student, or even as “friends,” is no less interesting.
The weaker one in the dynamic is typically broken or traumatized, allowing them to sanction even the slightest veneer of safety from the other. Junpei sees Mahito as someone who can give them the power to punish people who have hurt him. Mahito, in return, sees them as a student and also an amusing experiment.
Mahito’s power allows them to manipulate people’s souls, warping their bodies. He elaborates on his power by articulating his own interpretation of the soul: that it is an entity that determines our form and nature. Because it is a tangible thing that he can bend so easily, he believes that our choices and personalities are nothing more than the “metabolism of the soul.” So, in his eyes, nothing matters.
I could listen to the two of them discuss the nature of the soul and their views of human nature all day. Jujutsu Kaisen is ridiculously well-written when it comes to its philosophies. What puts the arc a cut above is how it pays off this philosophizing with beautifully constructed action that packs heavy emotional catharsis.
Itadori is a far more typical shonen protagonist compared to the other characters I’ve gushed about this far. That is far from a negative, however. He’s a delight to watch. He’s a sweet, funny, and charismatic lead. It’s his interactions with characters like Nobara or Junpei that make him memorable. Because the effect a character has on another can be just as important as how they change themselves.
He becomes friends with Junpei fast as lightning thanks to their shared love of film. From the moment they’re on screen together, you can sense that they’re gonna be great friends. Additionally, Mahito being able to turn humans into cursed spirits makes him a perfect antagonist for an early story Itadori, who despairs having to take a human life, no matter how blurred the line.
I’ve discussed previously the webgen animation talent behind this show, but episode 13 truly was a tour de force of visual momentum in what has to be the biggest action set piece of the show thus far. It comes at the end of a clever arc filled with twists and turns that went everywhere it needed to and yet not nearly where I expected.
Judging by the preview at the end of the episode, the next arc after the show returns from a holiday hiatus will be a tournament arc that brings the cast back together again. I mentioned Maki earlier, but the expanded cast has either been hilarious and charming or a compelling study of the story’s themes. There’s never been a better time to have a tournament arc to let them strut their stuff.
In my first impressions, I was wary of the comedic direction. By this point, the comedy has grown on me and lands a lot of the time. That said, the “Juju Stroll” segment at the end of each episode still clashes tonally with the next-episode previews, which have the most dramatic music possible. Nevertheless, these moments of levity keep the story balanced, and the characters lively as ever.
Studio MAPPA is bound to get heaps of praise for its work, as well as a side-eye or two from those concerned about the overwork in the industry. This is their biggest year ever and they already have some big-name projects lined up in the next year and onward. MAPPA is flying high. Here’s hoping they don’t take a page out of Icarus’ book.
Expect a full review at the end of the season. As it looks now, though, Jujutsu Kaisen is killer.
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Jujutsu Kaisen is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll.
This is the FINAL post of 2020 from Anime Quarterly. If you’ve been following us since we began in July, we hope you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read and we hope you’ll keep an eye on this site in 2021 for even more.