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The Invisible Wars of ‘Jujutsu Kaisen’

The show based on the dark fantasy horror manga series is one of the most-watched new animes of the year. It’s also one of the most fascinating.

Ringer illustration

In the ultimately forgettable Kujira Daigo, a comic that first appeared in Weekly Shonen Magazine in 1968 and disappeared 11 issues later, a giant high schooler with an even bigger heart goes about the community helping the townspeople with his freakish strength. Shonen manga—comics aimed primarily at young men ages 12 to 18—have always centered young, affable, good-natured heroes with supernatural gifts. By the time I was introduced to the genre in the early 2000s, once sho anime adaptations like Yu Yu Hakusho aired on Toonami and ViZ Media began to serialize translated titles in Weekly JUMP Magazine like Naruto, it had dawned on mangaka that the fictional townspeople might be threatened by children with superpowers. That the good-natured heroes might feel a little isolated by their exceptional status and weary of all the thankless work. They were politely ignored by day and conscripted to face the sum of their fears at night.

So like any gifted teenager, Yuji Itadori, the protagonist of Jujutsu Kaisen, is a spawn of the devil, and everyone hates his guts. Which is a shame because he really is quite likable. The pink-haired 15-year-old is due to be secretly executed by people he’s never met for a crime he can’t easily explain, because he’s just now learning the rules: Consuming a “special-grade cursed object” is a capital offense for sorcerers and non-sorcerers alike, even if they do so in the heat of conflict to rescue their friends from impending doom. Yet, no one with Yuji’s talent for extracting and wielding the awesome power of “special-grade cursed objects” has come along for centuries—what is a shadow world ruled by fear, tradition, and bureaucracy to do? Treat him as a threat or a weapon?

The plot isn’t what sets Gege Akutami’s Jujutsu Kaisen, the dark fantasy horror series first published in 2018, apart. There is an invisible war going on: On one side are cursed spirits, the grotesque, discolored, homicidal manifestations of humanity’s negative emotions, and on the other sorcerers who exorcise curses without exception. Consuming the rotting finger of the “King of Curses,” and becoming part curse, thus presents a problem for an aspiring sorcerer. Ryoumen Sukuna, the demon “King of Curses” with whom Yuji comes to share his body, could just as easily be Kurama, the nine-tailed fox that Naruto inherited, making the sacred Jinchuriki a social pariah; the sorcerers are ninjas are demon slayers; our hero is unprecedented and marked for death. While its focused execution of genre tropes make the show infinitely watchable, it is Jujutsu’s specificity, its personality, its ultra-slick stylishness, that make it special.

Take Nanamin, for instance. He is one of Yuji’s several mentors, a kind of premature Old Prime—after advancing to the sorcerer rank of Grade 1 (that’s the second highest) he quit the jujutsu world at 27 because he didn’t see any point in being miserable and broke. Nanamin took a job as a banker and traded in his black nehru suit for tailored white linen and round-frame sunglasses, but you wouldn’t say he’s more fulfilled. He greets everything from cleaving curses in twain to imparting the difference between adolescence and adulthood with cool resignation and vague annoyance. He is 29 now and knows that Yuji isn’t an adult just because he’s faced a few life-or-death situations: “Finding more stray hairs on your pillow than before. Realizing your favorite bread has disappeared from the local convenience store.” The accretion of these little despairs as you spin on through life is what makes you an adult.

The anime adaptation for Jujutsu is produced by MAPPA (Dorohedoro, Dororo, Attack on Titan Season 4) and directed by Sunghoo Park (Garo: The Vanishing Line, The God of High School). MyAnimeList’s top show of 2020 began airing in October and recently returned from a brief holiday hiatus. Like with Park’s previous work, there is a sumptuous amount of splashy, expensive, mo-cap-enabled animation, delivering on the action promised by the comics—you’ll be hooked by the melee at the beginning of the second episode between Satoru Gojo, the self-proclaimed “strongest” sorcerer and another of Yuji’s mentors, and Sukuna. It’s all wild limbs, disturbed air, and flying concrete, then for a quiet moment Gojo-sensei lays his head on Sukuna’s shoulder and whispers that since there are people watching, he’s gonna show off a bit.

There is no love interest to speak of so far in Jujutsu Kaisen, but Park’s most treasured objects of affection are pronounced: First among them are the action set pieces, which are as balletic as they are ballistic, and then, the clothes. There’s special attention paid to how these characters might dress themselves, and how the small choices they make in their off-screen time define them—you know because each character has a capsule wardrobe. Gojo cultivates mystique by wearing a bandage over his eyes when he’s not wearing shades, and dystopian, high-funnel-necked jackets, none of which seem to jibe with his practiced superficiality. Yuji’s bright-red plimsolls are seemingly always in the foreground as he’s charging into haunted office blocks half-cocked. Todo, a student from the Kyoto School, a sort of rival-mentor to Yuji, and the alleged strongest among the high schoolers, is always shirtless or close to it.

He means well but he’s a bit of golem, and his expression is always darkened with impatience. If it were just the square chin, the monstrous physique, and the school uniform, I’d say he resembles Kujira Daigo. Of course, if Todo has any interest in helping the community, it’s buried beneath his devotion to cultural ephemera. In the most recent episode, he begins to storm out of a meeting about a serious matter because to Todo, there are more serious matters, like watching his favorite reality TV show live. When it’s suggested he just record the show, Todo kicks down an entire wall.

“I’m going to watch it and record it.”