Jujutsu Kaisen 0 reminds me an awful lot of Demon Slayer – Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train. Both are hyped follow-up films to extremely popular Weekly Shonen Jump anime adaptations. Neither are anime-original stories, so they give off the impression of “essential viewing” to series fans. And although they don’t display significant visual improvements over their TV anime counterparts, they nevertheless shine on the big screen as a testament to the fundamental strengths of their productions.
As a standalone viewing experience, Jujutsu Kaisen 0 has certain advantages and disadvantages due to its status as a prequel. The story was originally written as a self-contained tale and was retroactively referred to as a “prequel” when the main Jujutsu Kaisen series started serialization. As a result, it references characters and events that appear in the main series, but it generally has the feeling of a pilot episode. There’s a certain haziness around the characters and the setting that makes them come across as incongruent with their more fleshed-out counterparts in the main series, but it’s still in-character and the core appeal is still there. It’s also accessible to newcomers, even if there may be some confusion over who some of the minor characters are.
Instead of Yuji Itadori, the protagonist this time is the meek and gloomy-looking Yuta Okkotsu. He’s voiced by Megumi Ogata, whose performance is one of the absolute highlights of the film. While it does lean heavily into her Shinji Ikari voice, complete with that pitch-perfect portrayal of youthful forlornness, Yuta stands out as a distinct character because he is, after all, a Shonen Jump protagonist: When his friends are threatened, his righteous passion is unbridled. Ogata expertly navigates the two sides of Yuta, delivering a performance that elevates the character well above the unmemorable script.
The other crucial link that makes this story work is Yuta’s relationship with his childhood friend Rika, which is portrayed with a unique and morbid sweetness. The film is at its best in its first 20 minutes, when Yuta’s psyche is at the forefront. With its dark, atmospheric tone and horror imagery coupled with fleeting gestures of despairing kindness, the film evokes the feeling of the Vs. Mahito arc, which represented the emotional peak of the TV anime. It’s interesting how the film flits over the trite sentimentality of the childhood friend romance very quickly in favor of establishing Rika’s presence as a Curse. The exact nature of Yuta’s feelings is left deliberately vague until the final minutes, which gives an air of unpredictability to the character drama.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film follows a predictable shonen action template, giving off the impression of a story going through the motions. There are cool fights here and there, but it doesn’t develop any real stakes until near the end. It doesn’t really help that the middle act of the film is about establishing the characteristics of Yuta’s teammates in ways that are almost identical to how they’re portrayed in the main series, even down to the exact same jokes, so it doesn’t offer much interesting insight for established fans. Gojo’s character is slightly more interesting in this film because he gets to show a different side of himself, but the story is still significantly less compelling when it focuses on the characters who aren’t Yuta and Rika.
Geto’s presence provides a welcome conflict and the opportunity for some large-scale battles, but mostly it’s a good opportunity for fanservice (of the non-sexual variety). A bunch of minor characters from the main series get cameos here, a few seconds each to show off their coolest-looking abilities. Although the animation and choreography are consistent with the big scenes from the TV anime rather than elevating them, that still amounts to impressive set pieces. Also, the compositing is better tailored to the visuals this time around, resulting in scenes that generally look crisper and easier to follow.
Although this film is accessible to a first-time viewer, I wouldn’t earnestly recommend it to anyone but series fans. The plot isn’t strong enough to be memorable as a standalone story, and the self-indulgent continuity nods feel like padding in what is ultimately a simple story at heart. From a fan perspective, it might retread familiar ground, but the fun moments should outweigh the tedium of seeing the same character-establishing moments all over again. Yet despite adapting a story from the manga, I wouldn’t actually call it essential viewing. It’s mainly just a good excuse to see some of Jujutsu Kaisen‘s coolest fights on the big screen. That’s perfectly fine for a franchise film, but just like with Mugen Train, don’t let the overwhelming commercial success trick you into assuming that it’s somehow way bigger and better than the TV anime it spawned from.