The first few episodes of Jujutsu Kaisen feel like an anime you’ve seen a million times before. Yuji Itadori is a powerful yet clueless rascal with a heart of gold who gets pulled into a world of fighting dangerous apparitions known as Curses.
Our rambunctious hero eats a cursed finger (which … grody) and swells with a power that is not entirely his own, with a powerful spirit named Sukuna possessing him. Now to master his powers and save people, he needs to be trained at a mystical academy where he meets his companions which include a stoic no-nonsense dark-haired peer (who totally isn’t Sasuke), a spunky heroine who’s rough around the edges (definitely not Sakura), and a silly yet mysterious mentor who’s always wearing a face-covering (not Kakashi).
Those few establishing details could be plucked from about five different series, setting the show up to be yet another by-the-numbers anime about magic teenagers fighting the forces of evil. But then our hero hits a wall — more specifically, a monster that he can’t beat.
And rather than have him magically power up through the power of good/bravery/friendship, Itadori instead has his hands ripped off and his spirit broken, chiding himself for his own weakness before the Cursed Spirit inhabiting him takes over. And rather than be a sad misunderstood apparition like Naruto’s fox spirit, Sukuna is a cruel and emotionless sadist who immediately attempts to torture and kill his friends, and then succeeds at killing Itadori himself.
This is a beautiful trick Jujutsu pulls again and again: feigning predictability with a simple setup before giving a complex genre aware punchline. And while the death doesn’t stick (benefits of being possessed by a demon), the fact that our lead ends the episode with its leading man laying on a slab in the morgue for doing the right thing sets a precedent: Our heroes can and will lose miserably. In its first five episodes, Jujutsu Kaisen has established itself as a shōnen anime that questions the very ideals of the shōnen genre.
What is Shōnen?
Though originally meant to describe a demographic of 12- to 18-year-old boys for whom it was first intended, shōnen (which literally translates to “boy” in Japanese) manga and anime has grown into a full-fledged genre, with its typical conventions, archetypes, and themes. While there are exceptions, most shōnen anime start as weekly serialized manga in the pages of Japan’s Weekly Shonen Jump. Titles like Yu-Gi-Oh, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, One Piece, My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer and many more — including Gege Akutami’s Jujutsu Kaisen — all emerged from the legendary magazine.
But while shōnen is so vastly popular that its mainstay have become somewhat synonymous with anime in the west, the genre hasn’t seen many great changes over the past four decades, ever since Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball defined the genre.
Part of the reason shōnen stories can feel samey is because of Weekly Shonen Jump’s editorial practices. Within its hallowed pages, new series live and die by their stances in weekly reader rankings and trade sales figures. The ones that earn and sustain popularity stay in this magazine longer. The longer you are in Jump, the more likely your work is to be immortalized in an anime.
This whole system, while key to the publication’s success, discourages creative experimentation, encouraging mangaka to stick to well-tread formulas that are more likely to appeal to their primary demographic of young males. More often than not, that means a scrappy underdog hero with a belief in courage, friendship, and duty. Our hero quickly learns he has strength with no upper limit and fights many superpowered battles against worthy rivals and evil monsters.
I grew up on shōnen manga and anime. Shonen Jump classics from Assassination Classroom to Zombiepowder make up 80% of my book shelf space. But as many great stories as there are, it’s hard to deny the genre can end up feeling a bit repetitive. Jujutsu Kaisen manages to crib themes and inspiration from other series while still feeling fresh and subversive.
Yuji Itadori and the modern world
Yuji Itadori himself is a typical shōnen hero meant to appeal to young boys in a classic way. He’s earnest and goofy like Naruto, incredibly self-sacrificing like Midoriya from My Hero Academia, and his supernatural job and headstrong attitude bring to mind Yusuke from Yu Yu Hakusho or Ichigo from Bleach. On his deathbed, Itadori’s grandfather gave Itadori two very straightforward guiding principles: to “help people whenever you can” and the idea that “everyone deserves a proper death”. But the inciting incident that sparks in him a grand ambition also damns him.
Eating Sukuna’s finger gave Itadori the cursed energy he needed to save his friends from a horrible death, but doing so made him a host to Sukuna, and the Jujutsu sorcerers want to execute him for the danger he poses. Now he’s effectively on a stay of execution, set to be killed as soon as he eats the rest of Sukuna’s fingers, serving as the tomb for the evil spirit. And while his desire is to save others and lead them toward a proper death, Itadori is quickly forced to accept that he’s not strong enough to save everyone and the path he’s chosen will expose him to horrible things.
Whereas the prototypical shōnen protagonist’s function is to change the world around them through singular purpose, Jujutsu Kaisen recognizes this as an impossibility. It attempts to reconcile the ideals of its genre with the crushing nature of modern life — while still making room for joy and hope. All of this affects Itadori. He is scared to die and is horrified by the world he has wound up in. But it doesn’t make him cynical, and it doesn’t stop him from pushing through his pain to try to help others.
Jujutsu Kaisen is starkly modern in its setting, tone, and how it looks unflinchingly at both the good and bad of 21st century humanity. The magic that powers the show’s characters is called “Cursed Energy,” a version of ki born of negative emotions such as shame, hatred, fear, and grief. The show’s Cursed Spirits aren’t ghosts, but accumulations of intense negative feelings that humans create. As a byproduct of humanity, they are stronger and more common in metropolitan areas; highly populated environments brimming with human feelings.
In the show’s latest arc, viewers have been introduced to Mahito, the show’s leading villain and, to put it lightly, a huge piece of shit. Mahito is part of a group of highly advanced cursed spirits that represent some of humanity’s oldest fears, with him representing the fear of humanity. His power involves manipulating flesh by touching the soul and disfiguring others into grotesque monsters beyond human recognition or cognitive thought.
Mahito is the most hateable villain I’ve seen in anime in a long time. He’s manipulative, childishly cruel, and his horrifying power enforces his belief that life is inherently meaningless and his to play with, cutting at the very idea of Itadori’s belief in a proper death (to make matters worse, he is also drawn to be incredibly hot). Especially after the psychological sadism he’s put Itadori through in the show’s most recent episodes, it’s hard to think of another antagonist that has got under my skin the way he does, which I think speaks to how differently the show addresses the complexity of humanity compared to other shōnen, even series I love and care about a great deal. The horror that fills the series isn’t there simply for shock, but there to more thoroughly engage viewers’ emotions.
Even before the show’s anime premiered this October, Jujutsu Kaisen’s manga was already seeing unprecedented success, especially for a first time creator like Gege Akutami. After watching the initial few episodes, I continued on into the available chapters of the manga and, taking into account the 130-plus chapters I’ve read without giving any spoilers, it’s not hard to see why. Jujutsu Kaisen exists in a well-worn genre but consistently tests its limits with inventive storylines and unique characters.
In that way, Jujutsu Kaisen is thoroughly humanist in both its message and its execution. It knows its fans want more than predictability. It believes people as a whole are more than just the sum of what they’ve been. It recognizes that our negative feelings might seem never-ending, but in fact can be overcome, and survived. While it does feature plenty of the action and tropes typical to the genre, Jujutsu Kaisen feels like the first shonen about modern humanity, using a mix of horror and palpable emotion to examine the weight of 21st-century life.