I was originally on the fence about watching Jujutsu Kaisen 0, the new anime film based on the manga of the same name, a prequel to the wildly popular Jujutsu Kaisen manga series. I’ve read Jujutsu Kaisen 0 and am entirely caught up on Jujutsu Kaisen so I didn’t think the film would have much to offer me. I was wrong. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is one of those rare anime adaptations that presents a completely fresh perspective on a character while remaining accurate to the source material. As someone who follows the manga, I’ve always associated Okkotsu Yuta–the protagonist of JK0 and a supporting character in the ongoing series–with a monstrous, unnatural strength. In the movie, however, his best moments are filled with compassion and emotional vulnerability.
When we meet him, Okkotsu Yuta is a teenager haunted by the soul of his dead childhood love. Whenever someone tries to threaten him, “Rika” emerges to murder them gruesomely. Gojo Satoru, a teacher at Tokyo Jujutsu Technical High and a powerful sorcerer in his own right, enrolls Yuta at the school so that he can learn how to control the spirit. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is a coming-of-age story about overcoming guilt and finding acceptance among peers.
In the manga, Yuta can be moody and dour, and when he achieves mastery over his powers, he’s straight-up terrifying. I liked him because he served a specific plot purpose for me: making sure that fewer characters I care about die. Jujutsu Kaisen is filled with genocidal villains. Whenever Yuta showed up, I knew that he was powerful enough to fix whatever mess was going on. In a series where supporting characters are prone to dying at the author’s whim, he was my pillar, a constant I could rely on.
In Jujutsu Kaisen 0, we learn who Yuta was before he became the powerful practitioner of sorcery I knew him to be. I was immediately captivated by the melancholy shots the film offers of his daily life. While the manga tried to tell me that he started out as an ordinary boy, I only internalized that impression when I actually saw him, in the film, preparing for his first day at a new school. He’s anxious, he’s awkward, and he’s chronically frightened of the supernatural going-ons around him. When Yuta makes normcore jokes about meeting his strange and magical classmates, I was a big fan of how the movie gave dramatic weight to each punchline. At that moment, I understood the movie’s true strength: it took Yuta’s mental health struggles seriously.
Rika, the spirit that haunts him, can be read as a metaphor for what happens when your depression becomes ugly and destructive. It’s not your fault, but the monster still came from you. And it has a body count. Yuta has to take responsibility for his monster, and he can’t do that while he struggles with self-hatred and learned helplessness. Luckily, at Tokyo Jujutsu Technical High School he finds the compassion and understanding he needs to start growing beyond his guilt and shame, a process the film depicts beautifully.
There were several moments in the film where I was reminded of my favorite line in the Jujutsu Kaisen anime: “Being a child is not a sin.” It’s a line spoken to protagonist Itadori Yuji, when he’s feeling guilty about not being able to prevent violent tragedy. This is a huge subversion for shounen manga, where children will regularly beat themselves up for failing to protect people from bloodthirsty murderers. In Jujutsu Kaisen 0, Yuta admits guilt for inadvertently “cursing” Rika to remain attached to him after death, but both the story and the characters treat him like an actual high schooler who needs empathy and protection. He can grow into an elite monster slayer later. As Gojo Satoru says in the movie (I’m paraphrasing, because I was too emotional to remember shit), children deserve a place where they can be innocent.
The movie also gives Yuta plenty of moments to express his grief, and in my favorite moments, even shows him crying. While he isn’t the only shounen protagonist to cry, these tearful scenes are usually fleeting moments that the story tries to breeze past as soon as possible. After all, “real” men aren’t supposed to be drowning in their own sadness when the world is falling apart around them. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 shows that grief is just as important an emotion as rage, the “safe” emotion that shounen characters are usually allowed to default to.
Not everyone is a fan of his vulnerability, however. Second-year student Zenin Maki berates Yuta throughout the film for avoiding conflict and not pulling his weight. Maki believes that social acceptance will only come after one has proven themselves to be strong. I get where she’s coming from. We live in a capitalist society where people are defined by their achievements. But as certain tragic developments in the manga illustrate, there are limits to achievement-based acceptance.
Of course, she’s also not completely wrong. Maki has zero spiritual powers while Yuta is one of the most powerful beings in the series. And though it sucks that the plot pulls a “secret bloodline” reason for his abilities, he doesn’t achieve mastery over his powers through genetics or training alone. All the skill in the world wouldn’t matter unless he felt empowered to use it. Yuta only becomes one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world when he extends an olive branch to the spirit who had nearly ruined his life. By accepting the traumatized spirit of his childhood love, Yuta is able to more unconditionally love himself.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is also subversive for acknowledging that Yuta and Rika’s bond is romantic. In many shounen series, romantic affection is sidelined for brotherly love. Or it’s played for laughs or dismissed as something to understand when the protagonists are older. Yuta not only acknowledges his romantic love for Rika in front of the main villain, his engagement ring is a spiritual conduit for accessing Rika’s powers. And the show still allows him to be one of the coolest fighters in Jujutsu Kaisen, rather than being relegated to “wife guy.”
That’s not even to mention the film’s gorgeous animation, including thrillingly visualized fight scenes that play out as single unbroken shots. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 supports all of its rich, moving themes with a fantastic soundtrack and the incredibly dynamic animation that studio MAPPA is known for. Whether you’re already invested in the series or you just want to watch a well-made anime flick, you shouldn’t miss Jujutsu Kaisen 0.