I begin my first manga review of the new year with a confession: I’m reviewing this fledgling Shonen Jump series entirely to admit I was wrong. See, I wrote off Jujutsu Kaisen’s 2018 debut as one destined for Jump’s axe, but as it turns out, my eye for made-to-fail serials isn’t as sharp as I touted: not only is Gege Akutami’s Jujutsu Kaisen alive and well, but there’s an anime adaption on the way, it’s been nominated for the prestigious 65th Shogakukan Award for Shonen Manga, and last but certainly not least, VIZ graciously began localization for our reading pleasure; consequently, I’m left with no choice but to eat crow — or, in the case of series protagonist Yuji Itadori, a demon finger (yes, really) — and so here we are. With Shonen Jump’s survival-of-the-fittest system infamously merciless towards an already brutal profession, I’ll happily grant a second chance to those I’d spurned before to reward their hard-won success. (And really, it’s not like it was the worst debut I’ve read within my five-year subscription: that honor goes to Jump’s latest in Agravity Boys — a worrisome implication of a magazine’s desperation for anything that’ll stick, what with certain serials set to bow out.)
And yet, here I remain stymied by its first volume. This is not to dismiss the idea Jujutsu Kaisen could improve; as I’ve mentioned before, it’s not entirely uncommon for certain manga to find their “voice” maybe a couple dozen chapters into serialization (to varying degrees, anyway; to cite modern examples, Dr. Stone’s made spectacular strides since its stumbling prologue and firmly settled itself within Jump’s upper caste, whereas Black Clover‘s moseying along as a competently conservative battle manga). Yet for all the passion Jujutsu Kaisen‘s garnered from its readers, I’ve observed little reason why such affection fermented in the first place, what with its premise suffocating from exhausted genre conventions.
Which brings me to my main point: Jujutsu Kaisen‘s especially frustrating in how its plot revolves around a particular brand of fatalism you don’t often see in Jump, yet I’m not given much reason to care about it. Our latest adolescent-headlining battle manga revolves around a high school student, Yuji Itadori, who’s given a dying request by his grandfather: help others. Upon encountering a malevolent Curse under hunt by a Jujutsu Sorcerer, Yuji takes this creed to heart by undergoing the one-in-a-million chance in surviving certain death by ingesting a special-grade cursed object — that being a finger, one belonging to the most terrible demon in recorded history — and instantly slays the Curse, only to discover he’s now hosting said demon: Sukuna. Apprehended by Jujutsu higher-ups, he’s given a choice: either face execution now for the good of the world, or suspend his death until eating the rest of Sukuna’s fingers.
Let us dispense with the obvious Bleach/Naruto parallels and instead focus on Jujutsu Kaisen‘s protagonist working towards his own death — now, much like how we know Luffy will become Pirate King, we naturally expect Yuji will somehow worm his way out of this Sukuna-induced jam and, unlike his grandfather, live out his life accompanied by loyal companions and die surrounded by loved ones. To Jujutsu Kaisen‘s credit, his philanthropy stems from an admirable goal — he could simply die now, he claims, but he’d never be able to live with the guilt of others suffering from Curses — but such good-natured intentions are already a dime a dozen within this genre, and I’m not sold on Yuji as a lead: under the right hands, this predicament might work with an underdog type (such as, say, a bullied outcast learning to value life), yet it’s difficult to muster sympathy for a humbly bland star athlete.
Why, hello, Shonen Archetype #91435!
What doesn’t help is that so much of this is wrapped in the most typical of shonen cliches in everything from the gruff teachers with hearts of gold (complete with a predictable “I’m going to test your morals” routine) to our fussy female lead; you name it, we’ve seen it, and it’s all the tune of sloppy storytelling — the first chapter alone’s a sloppy mess of conveniences (Yes, Yuji’s occult club would be the unlucky saps to pick up a Curse-drawing finger, but why the offhand reveal?) to unexplored contrivances (I’m assuming there’s some underlying reason for Yuji’s innate physical talents — a twist in a similar vein to Yu Yu Hakusho, perhaps — yet its exact purpose feels thematically muddled). Also observe its flashback for Nobara Kugisaki — hastily interspersed throughout her Curse encounter, it comes across as a rushed, clumsy attempt to justify her presence, rather than letting character develop and prove herself naturally.
If any potential could be mined, we must look to the very last chapter — a respectable blend of action, despair, and even a well-earned cliffhanger; really, I point to the scene where Yuji’s mantra of “helping people” fluxes and distorts as he faces certain death, begging to turn back the clock and wishing he “never ate that finger!”. Not that any ordinary teenager would find themselves thinking that, of course, but I imagine one would internally express similar regret if their body’s being torn to shreds by a bloodthirsty demon; point is, it’s the one time Jujutsu Kaisen imbues its lead with relatable humanity — one wavering in their goals, selfless or otherwise, when met with overwhelming adversity. As we’re meant to recognize we could very well end up with a fate as lonely as Yuji’s grandfather, such introspectives are key in compelling us. (Or, I suppose, establishing more offbeat characters like Satoru Gojo — Yuji’s laid-back mentor whose laid-back mannerisms quickly grow on us).
Let us be clear: I’m not hard on Jujutsu Kaisen because of sour grapes; nay, it’s because I recognize even the most base, tired tropes can be competently handled under the right talent (after all, its lauded contemporary in My Hero Academia ain’t exactly original, either), and I’d rather not witness the stale execution on display here smother the humbling message Akutami wishes to convey. The series may not need my stamp of approval for its runaway success, but my insatiable curiosity towards such vindication remains firm; if that means I must risk wading through potential mediocrity, so be it.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.