Jujutsu Kaisen 0 hits theaters in the US and Canada on March 18.
A common problem with movies based on shonen anime is that their status as non-canonical standalone adventures makes them inconsequential to the franchise and, therefore, devoid of stakes (I’m looking at you, My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission). Thankfully, that seems to be changing somewhat, between last year’s Demon Slayer: Mugen Train acting as a continuation of the anime’s first season and now, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 trying to have its cake and eat it too. This prequel film stands on its own enough to serve as an introduction to newcomers while providing necessary context to hardcore fans eager to see how certain characters fit into the next chapter of the story.
Set in a world where humans emanate Cursed Energy that can bring forth demonic creatures known as Curses, and a secret society known as Jujutsu Sorcerers that fights those evil spirits by controlling their own Cursed Energy, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 adapts the miniseries Tokyo Metropolitan Curse Technical School , which actually came before the main series. The manga proved popular enough to spawn a spin-off, which led to it being retroactively made into a prequel once the main Jujutsu Kaisen story started.
Because of the story’s unique position as being technically both a prequel to the primary plot, but also the first story set in this world, the film acts as a sort of lost pilot episode for the main Jujutsu Kaisen anime. This means Jujutsu Kaisen 0 follows most of the same beats as the anime as well as most of the same supporting cast. This has the unfortunate side effect of having to reintroduce characters we already know and re-explain their backstory and motivation, which is most obvious in the film’s treatment of Maki. This is not a problem if this is your first experience with this world, but if you’ve watched the anime, it becomes a tad repetitive. Likewise, the basic premise is very similar: both the film and show follow a high-schooler who gets control of an incredibly powerful Cursed Spirit and is therefore enrolled into the Tokyo Prefectural Jujutsu High School to help him control the spirit — or execute him if he gets too difficult. Along the way they make some friends, experience some losses, and fight a Big Bad.
But the movie also takes advantage of these similarities and the target audience’s familiarity with the franchise to dive deep into what makes it stand apart, namely its main character. Rather than Yuji, who is already basically a superpowered jock even before he gains the powers of the King of Curses, we follow Yuta Okkutsu, a meek and gloomy Shinji Ikari-like protagonist with a rather bleak look at life and its worth. It helps that he is voiced by icon Megumi Ogata in the Japanese version, whose vocal performance alone is reason enough to watch. Even if it sometimes leans too close to her Shinji voice, it still manages to perfectly capture adolescent angst and loneliness. Within minutes, Yuta becomes a fascinating addition to the franchise, one that plays closer to the horror elements of the story.
This is especially true of the first half-hour, when the focus is on Yuta’s state of mind and relationship with Rika, his childhood friend-turned-horrific Cursed Spirit who died when they were 10 right after promising to get married when they grow up and now haunts Yuta 24/7. There is a sense of morbidity that’s balanced with romanticism whenever Rika is mentioned or shown, as she still has a child’s voice and speaks with a sweetness that runs in contrast to her nightmare-inducing demonic look and horrifically violent tendencies. Their story is heartbreaking and poignant in a way we didn’t see that much in the show, which is tactfully and effectively woven in with the action and horror imagery without making one overwhelm the other. In just under two hours, Yuta and Rika become excellent additions to Jujutsu Kaisen’s roster of memorable characters.
While it works well as an action movie, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is also surprisingly effective as a horror film, diving even deeper into aesthetics inspired by the genre than the anime. It employs a framing device that turns the story into something like a Warren case file from The Conjuring, with on-screen text introducing the date, location, and significant event that took place like it was a paranormal investigation. Likewise, the Cursed Spirits are absolutely horrifying, with spectacularly varied designs that are stretched, splashed, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated into even more grotesque forms, as the sound design plays into your favorite horror tropes with creaking noises and sudden high notes being used effectively to create a spooky atmosphere.
Still, this is a shonen film, so it cannot be all gloom and doom. For one, it is also quite funny, thanks to the dynamic between Yuta’s classmates Maki, Toge, Panda, and Gojo, who gets to show a more lighthearted side as he puts on his teaching hat and becomes even more of a handsome, overpowered clown . Fans of the anime should also keep their eyes out for some cameos, which are just too good to spoil here. Then there’s the action, which is not a huge improvement on the already excellent sequences from the show, but animation studio MAPPA proves again that they have some of the best fight choreography in current anime, with fluid and kinetic fights that’ll get your heart pounding.
By the time Jujutsu Kaisen 0 ends, it fosters a new appreciation for the world Gege Akutami created as well as the characters who appear or have been mentioned in the show, while also serving as an exciting introduction to a new anime world that you can explore after watching the movie. The fact that it works so well no matter your level of familiarity with the franchise, and the way it still sets up Season 2 through a post-credits scene, makes this one of the most unique shonen anime films in a while.