Jujutsu Kaisen 0 Review: This Anime Franchise Prequel Is A Heartwarming Spectacle

Everybody loves a compelling story about an underdog. The overwhelming success of the "Naruto" franchise over the years and the recent, record-breaking "Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba" is testimony to this sentiment. In a story about curses, jujutsu sorcerers, and friendship, "Jujutsu Kaisen 0," the prequel to the popular "Jujutsu Kaisen" anime series (both based on Gege Akutami's manga series), recognizes the appeal of the underdog. There's a reason why "Jujutsu Kaisen 0" broke Japanese box-office history on its release. The prequel manages to tell a gripping standalone story that acts as an entry point for franchise newcomers while also being foundational and relevant for longtime fans of the anime.

Director Sunghoo Park, who also spearheaded season one of the "Jujutsu Kaisen" anime series, situates the film's protagonist, Yuta Okkotsu, as a kid haunted by his past. In a world where intense, negative human emotions manifest into Cursed Spirits, and trained professionals known as jujutsu sorcerers are required to exorcise Curses, Yuta exists as an anomaly. After the tragic death of his childhood friend Rika, Yuta carries Rika around as a Curse, as the poor girl has now transformed into a massive, terrifying Cursed Spirit who clings to Yuta at all times. Breaking Rika's curse would mean confronting inner demons and battling real Curses, and Yuji embarks on this impossible quest in "Jujutsu Kaisen 0."

'There's no curse more twisted than love'

Before Gojo Satoru enrolls Yuta in Tokyo Prefectural Jujutsu High, the kid is mercilessly bullied, due to which Rika manifests and ends up hurting whoever traumatizes Yuta. Fans of the anime will immediately recognize the mirrored comparisons between Yuta and Yuji Itadori (the protagonist of the "Jujutsu Kaisen" series) — both of them are afflicted by a dangerous curse and must enroll at Jujutsu High to achieve a certain goal. Gojo acts as a guide and mediator in both scenarios, using his unstated humor and measured, laidback nature to help a traumatized child feel accepted and comfortable.

Unlike Yuji, Yuta is melancholic and withdrawn, and his persistent anxiety prevents him from recognizing his true potential. There's a considerable amount of unprocessed trauma and guilt that haunts Yuta, most of which is connected to the pure love he and Rika shared as childhood friends. With the help of jujutsu sorcerers Maki, Panda, and Inumaki (who franchise fans already know and love), Yuta learns to imbue Rika's curse into weapons to fight nefarious Cursed Spirits during high-stakes missions. Yuta's transformation is gradual and filled with learning curves; "Jujutsu Kaisen 0" takes its time to infuse his character with depth and complexity, fleshing out bonds in an organic fashion.

Although it might be tempting to chalk up the prequel's thematic success to the "power of friendship" trope, "Jujutsu Kaisen 0" utilizes it to explore emotional layers unique to every character. The kids at Jujutsu High aren't friends just for the sake of it — they push each other to greatness while making brash jokes, their actions genuinely driven by kindness. They understand their duties as budding jujutsu sorcerers and the ever-present reality of having to put their lives on the line is neither celebrated as heroic nor sugar-coated as a selfless act of sacrifice. Yuta, who is new to exorcising curses, doesn't truly understand why someone like Geto would covet Rika's curse but does everything in his power to protect his friends and defeat the enemy, as it is his job to do so.

Breaking the prequel curse

Prequels often fail to navigate the trappings of an established franchise that sports thrilling, in-depth worldbuilding and characters worth rooting for. This either leads to regurgitated tropes or an inaccessible, dense entryway for fresh audiences. "Jujutsu Kaisen 0" manages to avoid both, as it is no mere fanservice filler and offers a solid reason for newcomers to dig into the beloved anime series. Character and plot-driven mysteries are created and unfurled in the same breath, and the mechanics of the world are effortlessly translated onto the big screen.

Perhaps the core appeal of the film is its action-heavy fight sequences that are spectacular in scope and execution, wherein weapons throbbing with Cursed energy are used to slash through blobby, eldritch creatures, both gigantic and small. Although I would wholeheartedly recommend "Jujutsu Kaisen 0" to those unacquainted with the franchise, the film is a real treat for longtime fans, as it is both a love letter to Akutami's work and a meaningful expansion of the anime's world. The appearance of several characters, including Nanami, who uses four consecutive Black Flashes during The Night Parade of a Hundred Demons, will definitely hold special significance for fans who understand why this moment is so special.

However, there are plenty of treats for first-time viewers willing to invest themselves in the franchise. Megumi Ogata, who voices Yuta in the Japanese dub, is a clear standout, as she imbues the character with quiet, empathetic strength. Also, the juxtaposition of Rika's childlike voice with her often possessive, borderline-murderous attitude and visage is used to terrifying ends, which shines through in her interactions with Yuta. These scenes come together with the aid of the unpredictable, difficult-to-parse Geto, who shares a history with Gojo, and the former emerges as an antagonist with infinite layers. Even after the action is over, the thrill of unmasking true intentions (which constantly evolve) never ends.

"Jujutsu Kaisen 0" is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10