It’s hard to know if the Japanese animated fantasy “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” might be a good entry point for anybody who hasn’t already either watched the recent anime series or read its battle shonen manga comic-book source material.
This new feature-length prequel doesn’t deliver much more than what the anime series already has: a satisfying, faithful, and hormonal action-drama about teenage “jujutsu” martial-artist sorcerers/exorcists and their ongoing (in the manga comics, at least) quest to destroy monstrous sentient curses and cursed objects.
Set about a year before the events depicted in both the anime and the manga, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” presents a self-contained story about Yuta Okkotsu (voiced by Megumi Ogata in the Japanese-language version), a young jujutsu sorcerer who’s haunted by the cursed spirit of his childhood sweetheart Rika (Kana Hanazawa), who died in a hit-and-run accident shortly after exchanging engagement rings and lovers’ vows with Yuta.
Yuta’s one-and-done narrative might help uninitiated viewers to understand the series’ appeal since he, like the series’ main protagonist Yuji Itadori, has a mysterious symbiotic relationship with a powerful and apocalyptically dangerous cursed entity. There are also a few allusions and cameo appearances by characters, objects, and events from the anime that will probably satisfy initiated fans only. These well-timed callbacks can be satisfying, but they also illustrate this new movie’s limited appeal.
Like the anime series, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” sometimes feels too much like a Cliffs Notes adaptation, despite also featuring more interaction between the supporting characters and the lead protagonist than the original manga. There are a number of characters to keep track of, and they only tangentially help to develop the main hero’s story. So it’s not surprising that Yuta barely learns how to weaponize his relationship with Rika –who usually appears as a hulking, eyeless demonic wraith whenever Yuta’s in danger — by training with the same Jujutsu High students that befriended Yuji in the anime series: Panda (Tomokazu Seki), Maki (Mikako Komatsu), and Toge (Koki Uchiyama).
Still, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” serves as a decent showcase for the world of “Jujutsu Kaisen,” since each new battle highlights individual characters’ abilities and personalities through a series of light, well-paced, well-choreographed fights. There’s also about as much purple monster blood and overheated declaiming throughout these monster battles as in the anime, too.
“Jujutsu Kaisen 0” also climaxes with a big splashy monster battle led by the villainous sorcerer Suguru Geto (Takahiro Sakurai), whose Magneto-like belief in “survival of the fittest” makes him the natural antagonist of the ingratiating and relatively optimistic Jujutsu High teacher Satoru Gojo (Yuichi Nakamura).
Fans might enjoy the fight scenes in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” for their typically well-mounted action and neat creature designs. It’s harder to know how anyone else will feel about fan-service–y references to, say, Panda’s “gorilla mode” fighting style or the Kyoto-based rivals of Jujutsu High’s Tokyo students. These references stand out since they serve as mini-peeks in a few set pieces’ rising action. Still, while references to the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series don’t do much to advance Yuta and Rika’s lightly likable doomed romance subplot, they do speak to the series’ general focus on the sort of involved backstories that only fans could really love and/or take seriously.
“Jujutsu Kaisen 0” could also be off-putting to viewers who aren’t used to the anime’s convoluted expository dialogue, occasional shifts in tone, and general focus on the guilt, jealousy, and petty rivalries that motivate individual characters. Like the anime series, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” often works best as a collection of dramatic gestures supported by economical and detailed plot-pushing dialogue, especially whenever characters explain why certain curses or cursed fighting techniques are more dangerous than others.
You don’t really need to know that evil curses are like jujutsu sorcerers in that they’re both ranked on a power scale of 1-5, with 1 being the second-highest grade beneath “special.” Still, it’s hard to imagine being impressed when Tamamo-no-Mae incarnate, an antagonist that Yuta must defeat at movie’s end (who’s shoehorned into a sprawling melee with dozens of other sentient curses), when we’re told that it’s one of only 16 special-graded curses. At least this flimsy explanation works in the moment since Tamamo-no-Mae incarnate only serves as a heavy-duty tool that Geto uses to attack Yuta. Then again: Who cares what happens to Yuta, knowing that he’s not only not part of either the “Jujutsu Kaisen” anime or manga, but also doesn’t really add much to viewers’ understanding of the series’s main characters?
Your enjoyment of “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” probably depends on how much you like its action scenes, as fans know to expect given their presumed familiarity with not only the source manga, but also its genre’s battle-focused conventions. The best set pieces in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” — particularly Toge and Yuta’s team-up fight, as well as the very ending of the climactic group brawl with Geto and his cursed minions — not only accurately represent the “Jujutsu Kaisen” anime series, but also, perhaps, offer newbie viewers enough information to decide if they want to read more into this sudsy and mostly ingratiating super-teen saga.
“Jujutsu Kaisen 0” opens in US theaters March 18.