Movie Review: “Jujutsu Kaisen 0., the Movie”

A critic-friend I’ve sat on several film festival panels with over the years once explained to a questioner from the audience the difference between critics and filmgoers.

Most movie fans only go to films that interest them, genres, franchises, etc. that they have an investment in. If video game, comic book, horror or manga adaptations are your thing, you’re predisposed to like what you decide to go see.

Critics, on the other hand, “see everything,” he said.

It’s in that spirit that I approach a film like “Jujutsu Kaisen 0.,” a Japanese anime blockbuster that opened to very good business in North America last weekend. One wants to see what all the fuss is about, and see if all the Rotten Tomatoes reviews were merely fanboy endorsements, as even the ones that seem of mixed feelings or negative appear to be labeled “fresh.”

Fans, some of them critics, were presold on it. But is it for anybody else?

While I like some anime, I’ve seen enough of it to form an opinion of what has merit and what is pandering piffle, with “story” and “artistic ambition” being the big difference between winners and losers. And as a lover of Japanese cinema, I thought I’d sit in with the faithful to catch a subtitled (not dubbed) version of “Jujutsu.”

TV anime veteran Sunghoo Park’s “Jujutsu Kaisen O.” has a whiff of “Into the Spiderverse” about it. It’s literally like a manga come to animated life. Park uses manga-style intertitles and interstitials to introduce characters, treats us to manga-mimicking extreme action, extreme violence and exaggerated facial expressions in extreme close-up.

The animation, while still anime-jerky (under-animated) is CGI-assisted and more striking and luridly colored, “darker” than the water colorish hand-painted pastels of the classics of Hiyao Miyazaki and others. It’s a bit eye-popping.

But the story isn’t all that. It’s about a shy, bullied teen — Yuta Okkotsu — who is haunted by and protected by a curse, the vengeful spirit of a little girl he professed lifelong devotion to as a child. She was run over by a car and lives on as Rita, the curse that avenges him on others who treat him badly. In an opening scene, we see the pool of blood and the gruesome closet stuffed with mangled bodies, the aftermath of Yuta’s last “incident” at his last high school.

In the spirit of “No Child Left Behind,” Yuta isn’t executed, but summoned to a special school for special people like him. His enthusiastic teacher, Satoru Gojo, dons a blindfold each day before addressing the class. And with standoffish, gifted, curse-mastering/curse-battling classmates Maki Zenin, Toge Inumaki, and Panda, Yuta will be trained to control, fight and dispense with curses of all types, of course leading up to facing his biggest demon, the enormous, powerful and still-jealous-after-death Rita.

What an outsider sees is a sort of “Wizarding World” setting, Jujutsu High, with rules (“Only curses can affect other curses.”), students with magical powers and creatures/curses that range in appearance from “Ghost Busters” cuddly apparitions to “Alien” inspired monsters.

The students instruct each other as their sensei, aka “the dumb blindfolded guy,” “looks” on and provides guidance.

Yuta’s “normal” teen concerns, that “I want to be needed by someone,” are hindered by the burden of his childhood, a curse bound by a ring that Rita once gave him, because as his teacher intones, “There is no curse more twisted than love.” But the big question might be, “Who cursed whom?”

As an immersive experience, this adapted prequel to a best-selling manga series isn’t so much hard to follow as ornately detailed to cover what thin storytelling it actually is. One of the great things about Japanese cinema and TV is the sense that more than perhaps any other culture in the world, when we dip into it the instant feeling of “alien” comes through. I find the ingrained mythos, the legends, the cultural differences that turn up in everything from romances and gangster tales to horror movies, ghost stories, workplace and family dramas endlessly fascinating.

Hell, even “Iron Chef,” which helped introduce the “foodie” fad to North America, was a culturally illuminating hoot.

But as a medium for storytelling, anime is seriously miss-or-hit with me. There’s a world of difference between “The Wind is Rising” or “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Ponyo” or “My Neighbor Totoro” and the average “Dragon Ball” franchise installment, and as pretty and vivid and violent as it sometimes is, “Jujutsu Kaisen O.” falls on the wrong end of that spectrum. It has all the virtues and failings of many a comic book adaptation — impressive visuals, generic supernatural action, thinly-developed characters and a “story” that barely fulfills the obligations of that label.

The jokes — many of them mouthed by the manic and not-at-all-mellow Panda — and the sight gags lean towards simply goofy or low-hanging fruit. The plot is convoluted, not the least bit inviting or deep and frankly puerile, with PG-13 violence and “darkness” draped over it.

Perhaps there’s more on the written/drawn manga page, and it’s understandable that fans would cherish the chance to see how a favorite manga is animated into motion. You made it a hit, and plenty of critic-fans have endorsed it. Cosplay away.

But does it ever really come to life? Not for me.

Rating: PG-13 for violent content, bloody images, language, thematic material and some suggestive references

Cast: The voices of Megumi Ogata, Mikako Komatsu, Kōki Uchiyama, Tomokazu Seki, Yûichi Nakamura, Subaru Kimura and Kana Hanazawa

Credits: Directed by Sunghoo Park, scripted by Hiroshi Seko and based on the Gege Akutami manga. A TOHO Animation film, a Crunchyroll release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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