Puts the “beatdown” in narrative beats
Just beneath the surface of the ordinary world lurks a spirit realm populated by monstrous curses, dangerous supernatural creatures born of fear, hatred, and other negative human emotions. But none of that mumbo-jumbo means much to Yuji Itadori, a happy-go-lucky high school student with far more brawn than brains. Yuji is in the occult studies club at his school, but chasing after UFOs, cryptids, and haunting phenomena is merely a hobby. It’s all fun and games—or at least that’s the case until his grandfather passes away and Yuji and his club-mates run afoul of an actual accursed object: the mummified finger of Ryomen Sukuna, a legendary, evil sorcerer.
When a seance focusing on this cursed object goes wrong and summons malign spirits, Yuji rescues his occult club friends with the help of Megumi Fushiguro and Satoru Gojo, a pair of wandering sorcerers. It’s a rough fight; Yuji’s school is destroyed, and he is nearly killed in the process. During the fracas, Yuji swallows the mummified finger and becomes Sukuna’s living host. Somehow Yuji manages to subdue Sukuna and prevent the spectral sorcerer from taking over his body. Pulsing with accursed energy and awash in strange new circumstances, Yuji vows to track down and devour Sukuna’s remaining fingers in an effort to exorcise the evil spirit once and for all. And so Yuji moves to Tokyo and enrolls at a vocational school for Jujutsu practitioners, modern day spiritualists who combat curses with a variety of magical techniques.
This is the premise of Jujutsu Kaisen, a Fall 2020 TV anime with direction by Sunghoo Park and animation production by MAPPA. Based on the supernatural shonen action manga by Gege Akutami, Jujutsu Kaisen has all of the right elements for an action-adventure anime: dynamic action scenes, slapstick comedy, and a cast of lovable weirdos with big, broad personalities. The series is a prime example of average material elevated by excellent execution. The setting and premise aren’t terribly original, since there have been plenty of ghost-busting shonen action shows over the years (such as Bleach and Yu Yu Hakusho). The themes that the show explores aren’t especially deep. The characters aren’t particularly well-rounded or nuanced. Yuji is an open book, well-meaning and without guile, while Sukuna, the monstrous force within him, is capricious and cruel. But these details aren’t a major detriment, because watching Jujutsu Kaisen is pure “popcorn flick” pleasure.
The series lures you in with glossy production design, tickles your funny bone with well-timed comedy, and as soon as you’ve lowered your guard, Jujutsu Kaisen smacks you upside the head with a sudden burst of body horror, graphic violence, and exquisitely choreographed, high concept fantasy action sequences. All of these elements play into Sunghoo Park’s strengths as a director. In his earlier efforts (such as Garo: Vanishing Line and The God of High School), Park demonstrates an ever-increasing skill for exploring themes and developing characters through how he stages his action set-pieces, and Jujutsu Kaisen continues that upward trajectory. If you’ll pardon the pun, Park really puts the “beatdown” in narrative beats. The pacing of the series is pitch perfect, able to segue from goofy comedy to chilling horror in an instant. Changing tones at a break-neck pace can result in story where the motivations seem muddled and the plot feels directionless, but Park and the crew at MAPPA make this narrative mutability seem effortless.
Rating: Not rated