About 54 issues into Jujutsu Kaisen, I’m starting to see why everyone is head over heels for it. The manga has a gorgeous, fast-paced anime from the same studio behind Yuri!!! on Ice, Dorohedoro, and the upcoming Chainsaw Man series. Which certainly didn’t hurt its chances at popularity. The connection also made me assume Jujutsu Kaisen would be up my alley. Though that wasn’t immediately the case.
The battle series mostly follows Yuji Itadori: a thickheaded, strong-willed, and well-meaning beast of a high school student. His physical abilities are through the roof, but he has no interest in sports, instead opting to goof around with a paranormal activity club after class. Things take a turn (as they so often do in shonen) when the club accidentally unseals a very real supernatural threat. Itadori saves his friends by literally consuming a cursed object before being transferred to a special school for “jujutsu sorcerers.”
Battling spooky monsters the rest of the world can’t see is nothing new for this sort of series. But even this has a nice touch in Jujutsu Kaisen. The creatures, called curses, are living urban legends — born from concentrated negative emotions humans experience. Many of their styles and mannerisms feel pulled out of Masaaki Nakayama or Junji Ito tales, only told from the perspective of people who understand and catalogue the disturbances. It’s not really a scary story. But a working knowledge of horror manga makes the curses’ impact on regular humans feel much more grievous. When a powerful “special grade” curse kills an entire diner full of civilians by making them spontaneously combust, you can easily imagine the horror story version of events, where someone who left work early comes back to find the restaurant full of charred corpses.
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Jujutsu Kaisen doesn’t pull punches. It’s brisk — almost breakneck — in its pace. Though it’s not played for shock-a-minute laughs and gore like Chainsaw Man. It’s ultimately a pretty traditional battle manga, but one that’s clearly aware of many mainstream shonen that came before it. It borrows liberally from Bleach and Hunter x Hunter. It doesn’t hide it, either. Itadori and his newfound classmates are also aware of pop culture. They reference it when it would make sense for real people, when faced with concepts they might recognize from Dragon Ball or Yu Yu Hakusho, to recognize it. Which feels rare for a genre where novelty is often king.
At the same time, Jujutsu Kaisen feels thoroughly modern. Empathetic heroes are more and more the norm in battle shonen. My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer sport protagonists with their emotions on their sleeves. Itadori isn’t quite so weepy as Deku, but a passing in his family at the start of the series makes him constantly, questioningly aware of death. He accepts it as a natural part of life, but feels everyone should be allowed a “natural” death, and the chance at a meaningful life before it.
The cursed creatures don’t share this sentiment. And that’s where the series finally, really started to grab me. Just as Jujutsu Kaisen feels in conversation with modern pop culture, it also feels in touch with modern society as a whole. The central curses have increasingly clearly human motivations. Not to mention familiar rhetoric.
Early on, a central villain radicalizes a bullied teen into attacking his school by slowly convincing him that people aren’t worth caring about, and handing him the supernatural equivalent of a gun. Itadori offers an alternate path by simply… being normal, sensitive friend. This is what battles between good and evil actually look like for many people today. It’s the fight between compassion and manipulative, nihilistic ideologues on Reddit over the souls of those society overlooks.
Jujutsu Kaisen doesn’t waffle over the difference, either. The climax of the same arc sees Itadori hoping a last-minute, Vegeta-style turn from another might villain save the day. It doesn’t. The cold cruelty of those who simply do not value people they see as “lesser” than themselves washes over the page. Itadori is crushed by the realization. You cannot bargain with people who do not see you as people. You shouldn’t even try.
Instead he fights — side-by-side with a class conscious, workaday sorcerer, no less. And the layers of real life just continue to paper over Jujutsu Kaisen from there.
About where I’m at in the series, it’s started grappling with how very recognizable sexism and classism permeates the world of sorcery, as well. The leading women of the series — a gruff, fashionable country sorcerer named Kugisaki, and a powerful physical fighter without magic named Maki — are both conscious of these issues and not ruled by them. They have outlying motivations and motivations, as well as the same prowess and determination as the male characters. Even then, Jujutsu Kaisen doesn’t mock or belittle Kugisaki’s more “feminine” interests, like clothes. It’s… really quite something for a Shonen Jump creation.
Like a lot of manga, Jujutsu Kaisen gave me an uncertain start. But there’s so much to chew on between the battles that I can’t stop reading. What it lacks in novelty it more than makes up for in sincere connections to reality. It’s the perfect complement to my regular rotation of series, and I can’t wait to catch up.