Okay, so, we’re getting there — Jujutsu Kaisen‘s altruistic message of “helping others” may’ve been an admirable goal, but it didn’t make for an interesting debut; indeed; I may’ve started warming up to the series as of its second volume, yet not since Black Clover have I found myself flummoxed by the popularity of something so ordinary — Yuji Itadori is nothing but the most vanilla of teen protagonists, the art isn’t particularly novel, and we’ve seen this song and dance of demons, one-in-a-million leads, and their commendable sense of justice a thousand times before. Writer/artist Gege Akutami couldn’t just skate by forever with novelties in a talking panda and eccentric, ambitious teachers, so Volume 3 asks itself this: what’s the best narrative contrast to selflessness?
The answer: extreme nihilism. In this iteration, we’re introduced to a potential antagonist in Junpei Yoshino: another typical high schooler going through the works in being bullied, adhering to childishly hypocritical philosophies, and…bearing witness to a demon attack slaughtering his tormentors. As the demon Mahito sinks his hooks into him, Junpei’s forced to confront the revenge fantasies that’d been racing across his mind; for instance, he’d readily direct hatred towards whoever’d be responsible for killing his mother, yet he’d offer not even a speck of sympathy towards anyone else. (Least of all his bullies, who fit squarely into his hypothetical “kill button” fantasy) It’s here Jujutsu Kaisen finally breaks free of its white-bread battle manga mold in Mahito’s chilling reassurance of Junpei’s indifference — what we witness in his speech isn’t merely exploitative grooming of a vulnerable individual, but the ramblings of a sociopathic individual whose innate power has long since forsaken any semblance of compassion or humanity in favor of their selfish interests. (For Promised Neverland fans, think back to how Leuvis’s “matters of perspective” echoes eerie parallels to real world class division.)
For those of us who’ve long been in the Shonen Jump game, alarm bells already ring during his budding friendship with Itadori: whereas our hero initially approaches him for interrogative purposes, the two hit it off even despite not knowing where their core philosophies lie. Hence why the following events — not the lies in a certain death fulfilling one of Junpei’s hypotheticals — sends chills down our spine. Again, Itadori isn’t the best protagonist, but even if his grandfather’s dying wish hadn’t already proved itself an obvious parallel to Junpei’s selective apathy, Jujutsu Kaisen wastes no time propping up a reasonable foil towards Yoshino’s selective apathy; in particular, his hesitance on killing people — after all, what good is his motive of helping people if he’s forced to slaughter others for the sake of his Jujutsu job? Of course, we’ve seen the concept of “helping” varying as recently as last volume — let’s not forget how Megumi Fushigoro “assisted” Itadori for the sake of a peaceful end, but it’s not as if he punctured our hero’s heart himself. As this volume sets the stage for a grueling confrontation, Itadori will likely already have to face his worst fears — could the death sentence hanging over his head give birth to an despairing apathy of his own?
Come to think of it, Kugisaki’s barely in this volume.
So, okay, Jujutsu Kaisen‘s themes are beginning to coalesce together — can this salvage its deficiencies? Again, I ain’t a fan of Akutami’s art — the more grotesque demons exhibit some wicked body horror, yet the humans are too bland for my tastes — but I ain’t about to beat a dead horse on something that’s likely not to evolve anytime soon, so I can write that off as personal taste if the storytelling begins to grab my attention; if anything, such advances only render its strengths all the more rewarding; namely, another kooky instructor in Kento Nanami — a Jujutsu sorcerer who, despite his high standards, views his demon-eradicting profession as just another job, simply wanting to punch out the clock when dueling with sentient curses so he can go back to celebrating the mundane. (“Your local store no longer carries your favorite bread…experiencing these little losses is what makes people grow into adults”; oh, the horror for a fellow bread aficionado) A detached teacher figure who’s already implied to have something of a past, characters like these are fun in that we get to pick apart what makes them tick and their relationship in cultivating our hero; in this case, can we truly believe he truly sees nothing in Itadori, or might our plucky protagonist remind Nanami of an earlier life? I only wish our trio of teen protagonists were as interesting, but at least Akutami’s gotten a fun handle on his side characters.
In this volume’s bonus pages, Akutami claims he’s not concerned if readers find his manga boring; rather, he’s only worried readers may emulate the harsh rhetoric of Jujutsu Kaisen’s teenage cast. (Given how he further elaborates on the series’ innate violence, I imagine the oft-challenged phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” doesn’t sit with him — or at least any potential Japanese counterparts, anyway) As a critic, there’s some guilt lessened off my burden, yet as much he says I shouldn’t think about it, I can’t help but wonder if his insistence in championing compassion rather than highlighting its ingrained cynicism may be what’s ultimately wearing me down. Jujutsu Kaisen is still finding itself in its well-meaning quest — can it break free of rote shonen manga themes and evolve into something truly profound? Only time will tell.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Full Disclosure: This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.