Capturing the magic of a serialized manga in a movie format is very difficult in the best of circumstances. Shonen manga in particular usually have long, complicated stories with esoteric battle systems and numerous fan-favorite characters, and shoehorning all of the must-see characteristics from any given shonen property into an hour-and-a-half runtime is complicated, balancing the equal dangers of confusing the uninitiated with pleasing the established fanbase and hopefully providing something new and suitably exciting in the higher-budget constraints of the feature film. With the astonishing success of Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train back in 2020 (the highest grossing film worldwide from that year), the pressure is perhaps higher than ever.
The standard tactics for adapting a manga series into a feature film often boil down to one of the following.
- Try to tell the lion’s share of the main story, including most of the iconic sequences, along with all the introductory beats and introducing the most popular characters. (A successful version of this tactic might be 2016’s A Silent Voice; an unsuccessful version might be the American live-action Dragonball: Evolution).
- Tell a story outside of the main canon. This provides a fresh tale for fans and a way to introduce newbies without all the weight of the serialized fiction, but also often feels throwaway and inconsequential as the events usually have no lasting impact on the characters. The My Hero Academia trilogy of films mostly takes this route.
- A less common strategy is to simply adapt a story arc from the manga/anime without bothering to introduce all the main plot points and devices, with the downside that the story might be quite confusing or unsatisfying for those not following the serial. Demon Slayer the Movie takes this tactic with surprisingly accessible results—even friends who had not watched the main story reported to me that they really liked it.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0, which was released starting on December 24, 2021, in Japan and Stateside starting March 18, 2022, steps outside of the usual approaches. The movie is an adaptation of an arc from the comics—but it’s a prequel arc, drawn by creator Gege Akutami before the initial serialization began. This strategy has enormous positives. The story is still canon, and was not animated in the highly successful anime adaptation—which nevertheless occasionally references the events of the tale, adding fan interest to what actually happened therein. Newbies can come in and understand the story easily without having read vast collections of manga or sitting through the first season of episodes. The scope of the story also suits the scale of a movie adaptation very well. And the film has proven very popular, pulling in enough cash to rank as the 27th highest grossing film in Japan, and as of this writing (March 14th) can still be viewed in movie theaters nationwide in Japan nearly three months after its release.
I had a chance to watch the movie through a screener provided by Sony Pictures and Crunchyroll, and I selected the dub for my viewing experience. I will be eschewing my usual comprehensive spoiler review in concordance with the guidelines of the review embargo, but I will be providing my honest opinions below. In preparation for my review, I read the Jujutsu Kaisen 0 manga twice and watched the entire first season of the animation to familiarize myself with the property.
Story: Teenage nebbish Yuta Okkotsu has a girl problem—his childhood female friend Rika (who he promised to marry) has died and her ghost follows him around, putting anyone who gives him a hard time into traction. After a particularly bloody incident of the above, Yuta is inducted into Jujutsu High School, a training ground for Jujutsu Sorcerers—individuals whose job it is to deal with malevolent spiritual beings and curse users. As Yuta gets to know his insane teacher Gojo, the bitter blade-user Maki, quiet Toge, and jovial talking battle animal Panda while going on dangerous outings against the aforementioned supernatural threats, a frightening figure emerges in the form of curse user Suguru Geto. Geto is a ferociously powerful and vicious head of an organization gathering power and money unto himself, and he has innumerable curses at his disposal. Plus, Geto has designs on Yuta and Rika, and is not above mass destruction and slaughter to obtain what he is after. As Geto and his team close in their net of malevolent machinations, Yuta and the entire Japanese cohort of Jujutsu Sorcerers end up in a fight for their lives—and for the future of the entire world.
The story is straightforward and allows for ample action, including several curse-hunting missions and fights, but also has time to breathe with funny training and interactions between characters. Even at under two hours, the movie can take the basic story beats from the initial manga volume and extend them with flourishes, extra breaths to enjoy the beautiful scenery or bleak backgrounds, and lengthened or additional battle sequences. For the most part, the story is pretty satisfying on the level of action coupled with character and humor. There is also a bit of mystery—not only around villain Geto, but also around Rika and what exactly is going on with her, and the possible destructive powers of love. Those themes feel resonant, if somewhat underbaked.
Note, however, that some of the key elements from the main story are absent—most notably well-meaning protagonist Yuji Itadori and his perilous relationship with his inner demon and super-sorcerer, Ryomen Sukuna. So much of the narrative tension and intrigue comes from that balancing act and how others perceive and use Yuji, so to have that central sting missing might turn off a lot of fans.
That said, Yuta is naturally relatable as a bullied, introverted young man, and as an audience it is natural to want him to succeed. He also has a perilous relationship, this time with Rika, who has a ferocious and distinctly monstrous design. The mystery behind Rika is intriguing, even if her character for the most part is not. When I first encountered Toge and what just seemed like a gimmick (the fact that he can only speak using onigiri/riceball ingredients), I was disappointed in what I saw as a mere gag bit—but Akutami manages to bring out some real emotional moments from his story. Maki, too, seems unlikable at first—even acting as another bully towards Yuta—but when we find out more about her background, she comes through as remarkably human. Some of these story beats will feel very familiar to fans who have watched the series, but the sequences mirror the manga source material and are needed to understand characters, and they work well in the context of the movie.
Less successful is Panda, who is not well-explained (this is a gag) and does not have much to do… though a bit more than in the comics. Gojo is charmingly silly, but seems less overwhelmingly powerful in comparison to his later appearances, and his idiocy can come across as grating at times. My biggest disappointment was with Geto, who feels like a lesser Magneto to Gojo’s goofy Professor X. Geto’s constant chatter about humans being “monkeys” becomes old very quickly, and we never get a very good understanding of why he hates the Muggles so much. I did appreciate that Geto has evil versions of Chinese philosophical phrases written out in his “throne room” though.
Another aspect of the story that bothered me, though to a lesser degree, was the trope of characters overcoming difficulties easily after little preparation. There are instances where a character just suddenly knows how to use incredible powers with little training or explanation. However, this plot element is pretty common to shonen manga, and also is almost required given the runtime of the film.
As far as the dub voices go, I will say, I am not an anti-dub person, and when I have met folks who claim that “all dubs bad,” it stokes my anger. Dubs are art. So are subtitles, but they are a different sort. Both are equally valid for their purposes, and there are times when I prefer dubs over subs. That said, I was disappointed in the dubs here after sitting through a season of the Jujutsu Kaisen TV series with subtitles. Multiple times watching the movie, I found myself thinking “Geto should sound more menacing,” or “Yuta’s whining is driving me nuts,” or “Geez louise, Gojo, you’re supposed to be cool.” Part of the issue I was having was unrelated to the performances—lines which may have made sense and included emotional resonance on the page fell with a dull thud when spoken aloud, or just sounded unnatural when spoken in English. Still, even with that qualm aside, I often found the English performances unsatisfying personally, and occasionally downright embarrassing.
Animation, I would say, is similar in quality to the series, though of a higher overall level of fluidity and beauty. I loved the CGI and painted backgrounds, and the action set-pieces have a real sense of drama and flair. Fans of the comic will appreciate how much the fights have been accentuated with additional beats, and even outside of conflicts, minor characters felt more fleshed out in their interactions in the movie. Horror elements are arguably stronger in the movie, with blood and slime oozing and splattering (if sometimes a different color from the comic), and is if anything more graphic. One of my favorite moments in the entire film is when Yuta enters the classroom for the first time, and the other characters sense the curse—the drama, and the imagery, and the power expressed in the animation is really impactful.
Music includes several pop music numbers, which were (at least in the dubbed version) sung in English. Having loved some of the themes from the anime series (the initial theme song and credits music I played over and over), it’s disappointing to me that the themes in the movie did not stick out to me, except when some of the lines in English struck me as strange. They felt competent and poppy, but flavorless. Ambient music comes in a variety of forms, from creepy clanking tension themes to upbeat electronic and jazzy numbers, which all underscore the action well enough, but I would be lying if I said they really stuck out to me in the course of watching the movie.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 is in many ways a nearly ideal anime movie adaptation in that it is accessible, entertaining, exciting, and often beautiful. The story has elements of character depth and personality, horror, humor, and even romance, though for me the dub was never outstanding, and some story elements felt cliched or undercooked. Even with its weaknesses, though, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 should be a good time for most fans of the property, and an entertaining diversion even for those not yet invested in its dark world. This is a good, if not quite great, anime adaptation that I could easily see enjoying with fans and non-fans alike.