In 1929, the Surrealist painter René Magritte stunned the world with his painting The Treachery of Images, which depicted a pipe accompanied by the cheeky caption, “This is not a pipe.” He was right of course: it was the painting of a pipe. Audiences were split in their reactions: many were enraged at the perceived insult to their intelligence; others found it amusing. Whether a joke in bad taste or a clever insight into reality and its representation, either way, Magritte’s painting marked a turning point in art history.
In the spirit of Magritte, Jujutsu Kaisen 0—the prequel film to the wildly popular anime series—is not a film. It is not a prequel either. And although it is not going to mark a watershed moment in anime history the way that Magritte’s painting did for modern art, it is likely to split audiences just the same. If you are looking for a decent four-episode television arc to tide you over until season two of Jujutsu Kaisen next year, then this release will hit the spot. If you are hoping for a film that makes a substantive contribution to the franchise, well, don’t get your hopes up.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 follows the trials and tribulations of one Yuta Okkotsu, a high schooler who has been haunted since childhood by what proves to be a special grade vengeful cursed spirit that goes by the name of Rika-chan. Fortunately for Yuta—and for the school bullies who keep being ripped apart by Yuta’s monstrous companion—the mysterious sensei Satoru Gojo soon turns up and whisks him off to a special school for those who tango with cursed energy, and the youth’s adventures at Jujutsu High begin. There, he learns about the deeper realities of the world from classmates Maki Zenin, who is the very picture of tsundere capableness; Panda-kun, who lives up to his name in all its furry glory; and Toge Inumaki, a young man of few words and much scarf. But all is not fun and games, and pretty soon the teens find themselves facing off against the corrupt jujutsu sorcerer Suguru Geto, who is bent on gathering together as many curses as he can, both great and small, for use in his diabolical plans.
Now, there’s nothing inherently treacherous with taking an arc scripted for television and turning it into a film. That is, assuming you actually adapt it for the big screen. This means more than simply sinking some extra budget into beautiful sunsets and epic fight scenes; it means adopting the kind of storytelling that plays out over ninety minutes as opposed to twenty-three. Jujutsu Kaisen 0 doesn’t take this into account though, and as a result, the pacing is fatally off.
Pacing may not seem like a big deal—what does it matter as long as the art is of good quality (which it is), the characters are interesting (which some of them are), and the plot keeps you on the edge of your seat? Well, that’s just it: pacing is what enables the plot to keep you in suspense, to keep you wanting more until the very last moment, and it is the pacing that has been ruined here by the decision to string together four television episodes in a row with nothing more than a fade-to-black every twenty-three minutes to tie them together.
The result is a very straightforward plot that peaks and lulls in all the wrong places. Critical sequences are cut short, like with Yuta’s training montage, which is far too skimpy and routine to foreshadow the specific abilities he later manifests. The consequence is a run of rather unconvincing “abilities ex machina” moments at the film’s climax that could have been made believable with a bit more groundwork laid during his training, or the establishment of certain key details about the “magic system” earlier on. Meanwhile, filler scenes crop up at the start of each new episode within the film. For instance, Geto—whose toothy grin proves that the more teeth you can see when a character smiles, the more villainous they are—gets a long introductory sequence that does little for the plot and muddies his characterization.
The final battle too suffers from constant cut-aways to a myriad of unnamed, often silent characters who, though important to the tv series, are included in the film for the sake of fanservice alone. These interruptions stall the momentum of the most exciting part of the film. The worst offense, though, is when the film spoils its own twist early on, giving away far too much to an audience that doesn’t have two weeks in which to forget that odd line of dialogue before the arc’s culmination. (Seriously, there should have been spoiler tags on those subtitles.)
If we take a giant step back and consider the franchise as a whole, the pacing is off with this film there too: MAPPA jumped the gun and released this arc too early. For a prequel to work well, it needs to have a kind of double twist, where fans will anticipate the first twist, but not the second. The thing is, Yuta Okkotsu’s arc in the manga has the potential for this, and it is being squandered by releasing his backstory before his main arc has been revealed on the small screen.* Without the foreknowledge of who Yuta becomes, his origin story does not have the same kind of impact that it could have later on, after season two of Jujutsu Kaisen airs. So when Redditors start asking about watch order for the franchise, I will be recommending that fans wait until after season two to check this film out. It should be more interesting then.
Fundamental flaws aside, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 does have several features to recommend it, not least being that it does a better job than the first episode of the tv series of introducing the world of curses, demons, and possession that define Jujutsu Kaisen. Infodump averted! The opening scene in particular is fantastic—straight out of classic horror and quite gripping.
MAPPA’s stunning aesthetics are on full display throughout the film as well, particularly when it comes to depicting a moody Goto contemplating the sunset. (And yes, his eyes make an appearance! So ready your swooning hearts.) The character designs for the new characters are strong, particularly Rika-chan in her monstrous form, which channels the hybrid alien in Alien: Resurrection. In fact, the similarity here goes beyond outward appearance to the level of characterization: as with the disturbingly child-like creature that stalks Ripley, Rika-chan’s relationship with Yuta is part antagonist, part deuteragonist, and rather uncomfortably at times, part love interest.* The creepy factor is strong with this one.
In contrast, Yuta’s interactions with Maki are pure tsundere gold—though the way that the possibility of romance between the two is introduced has to be the most awkward I’ve seen in anime, which is saying something. Nevertheless, a blushing tsundere never gets old, and may just be worth the price of admission for any Maki fans out there.
So, is it worth the watch? It depends. If you are new to Jujutsu Kaisen, start with the tv series. This prequel relies too heavily on prior knowledge (and fanservice) for its entertainment value to be a captivating introduction to the franchise. If you are an established fan though, and are looking for a snack between seasons, this film will likely give you the carbs you’re craving. But if you’re a JJK purist and a two-marshmallow kind of kid, then I’d say wait on this one. It will only get better with time.
* The difficulty lies in the fact that the original manga for Jujutsu Kaisen, Tokyo Metropolitan Curse Technical School, actually follows Yuta Okkotsu’s story, and not Yuji Itadori’s. The manga was so popular in Japan that it inspired a brand new anime series rather than an adaptation of the existing manga, which is how we have the Jujutsu Kaisen we know from the anime. In other words, Yuta’s arc was not originally written as a prequel, but rather became one retroactively when it was retitled after the anime’s release.
* Indeed, there are deeper parallels between JJK0 and the fourth Alien film, but alas, spoilers.
Jujutsu Kaisen 0 opens in cinemas in the US and UK on 18 March.
Also, it really isn’t a pipe. Not even the painting of a pipe. Just a digital image of a painting of a pipe…