Jujutsu Kaisen: The Shonen For Non-Japanese Fans

It’s big in Japan for sure, but it seems like the West enjoys it far more. At least compared to Demon Slayer.

You know, when I ended up really enjoying Demon Slayer around the time it first aired, I was so glad when it exploded in popularity and became this international sensation. Was it the greatest anime of all-time? Obviously I don’t think so, but it had a lot of things that drew me in like no other recent series from Shonen Jump could accomplish even at their peak.

It had a protagonist who had realistic growth while still never giving up on his kind nature. It had a unique way of doing action in regards to how all of the flashy moves were all in the characters’ heads and they’re really just doing advanced martial arts with no real power system to it. And for something that belonged in Shonen Jump, it had so many visual metaphors. It wasn’t just that the animation was great. It was how you could see the story and the lore and the characterization and such in the visuals alone that made me go “this is why I like anime”.

I’m bringing this up because if I liked Demon Slayer, surely I should like Jujutsu Kaisen as well, right? “It’s like Demon Slayer, but better in every single way”, according to the fandom who I’m starting to resent because of how they just won’t shut up about how I “have” to watch this popular anime. Honestly, the entirety of the Winter 2021 anime season alone should make it clear that I don’t value what the overall fandom values. One of the best seasons in years because of the numerous amounts of good shows that came out, and it’s true that a lot of them were watchable. But not a single one of them gave me as much excitement as watching Invincible, that new superhero cartoon on Amazon.

When I’d rather watch a Western cartoon whose animation honestly isn’t all that great over even Attack on Titan: Final Season, let alone any other anime from the Winter, does the number of anime I liked actually matter? In my opinion, no, because I’m more of a quality over quantity kind of guy. And just for the record, even without the comparison, I only found most of the anime I finished from that season to be okay at best. Including Jujutsu Kaisen.

But back to the subject in question, I’ve heard this anime described as basically a shonen action series if it was made more for the Western audience, as opposed to how Demon Slayer is for a more Japanese one, which is probably why people are more open to liking this show without the intense backlash that liking Demon Slayer can get now. MoistCritikal described it in his review as a shonen where every episode is like the famous 19th episode of Demon Slayer. Apparently that’s supposed to be a positive, but in practice that just means none of the episodes are actually special and the action won’t stand out.

Jujutsu Kaisen may not have many obvious flaws like Zenitsu in Demon Slayer for a lot of people, but it just doesn’t have anything exciting about it to compensate. Although I will say that I really hated that bully victim in the second arc. His characterization was nothing more than every bully victim stereotype ever, I knew he and his mother were going to die the instant he made contact with the main bad guy (no, I did not believe his placement in the opening for a second), his friendship with the main character got so little screentime, and his bullies were Korean drama-levels of artificial that I could not take them seriously. He single-handedly ruined that arc honestly. Why is Asia so in love with these over-the-top bullies who act like wannabe criminals towards these loser victims that are so stupid and were created specifically to get a cheap reaction?

But aside from that, I will agree that the anime is made for more of a Western audience in that it comes off like an anime version of a western AAA video game. And personally, I can’t think of a genre of gaming more boring and lacking in excitement than the western AAA scene. I’m willing to wait for the later arcs to blow my mind because every shonen takes forever to get good now don’t they? But the reason why I’m fine with criticizing Jujutsu Kaisen now is because so many people like it to the point that it’s considered one of the best anime in recent times with just the first season alone. And it’s easy to see why people like it, but the problem is that the reasons they give are just so boring and nothing I value all that much.

They say it has great characters because they act so naturalistic and the women get to be strong too. Neat. However, it comes at the expense of of personal flaws that actually matter to the plot. Yuuji’s character arc is supposed to be that for all his bravado, he can’t save everyone. But none of the people he failed to save were interesting, and that aspect of the plot is put on the back burner in the second half in favor of making him strong. Tanjiro’s family could out-character the throwaway victims in this show and they only had like three minutes of screentime.

The other characters don’t really have much to them besides a throwaway backstory and wanting to get stronger to overcome their weaknesses. And that’s not the kind of characterization I enjoy. Now it’s true that in Demon Slayer’s first season, only a few characters had interesting backstories that made you understand their reasons while everyone else has yet to be properly developed. But because one of the people who was developed was the main character, he could carry the show until we got to know them properly.

Due to my problems with Yuuji that I described in the last paragraph, he can’t carry Megumi or Nobata or anyone else until the story allows us to really know them. And when we do get to learn about Megumi, all his backstory amounts to is that he used to be a punk and some other stuff that really does not factor much into the main plot at all. It’s nice, but it just boils down to him wanting to get stronger to protect those he cares about with nothing all that interesting to spice it up. The arc we learn about him was mostly a coda-style arc with no real importance other than fleshing out the characters to begin with.

As for the action, it’s very beautiful and well-choreographed, as expected from the guys who made the God of Highschool anime. There’s certainly a lot of it in this show for sure. But it comes at the expense of a lot of them being one-sided or relying too much on that shonen trope of everyone pulling out a new counter strategy when it’s convenient for them. I already said that I loved how Demon Slayer’s action is just advanced swordplay and martial arts with the core elemental attacks actually just being for visual artistry, and Jujutsu Kaisen has that domain thing which honestly just translates to attaching superpowers to your martial arts in an overcomplicated way, so it’s already disadvantaged from the get-go. It could have been interesting if there were some unique mechanics to it like Hunter x Hunter’s Nen system, but I don’t recall anything that standout about it.

But additionally, I also enjoyed how in almost every fight scene in Demon Slayer, no side had a real advantage over the other. They did get a little one-sided when the Hashira came, but otherwise they were fairly equal, and even Shinobu’s fight against the spider lady had some tension to it. In Jujutsu Kaisen, I think around half the fight scenes are good when they weren’t doing that shonen thing of talking over the action to drag the episode out. The others are mostly just slaughters or just an excuse to show off cool moves with ridiculous names.

Gojo is clearly stronger than everyone else, yet his fight scenes go on for a long time with none of the bad guys ever being able to touch him. Yeah the man is cool, but it’s not fun to watch this guy actually take down monsters that are so far beneath him. And just to put the cherry on top, I think all of his victims survive their encounters with him. Obviously the fights being mostly non-lethal is because of how the fighting system works in JJK in addition to wanting to save the bad guys for later down the road. It would be near impossible for Demon Slayer to have non-lethal fights because they’re just regular humans with lethal weapons. 

That’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t get into Naruto in high school for the record. I hate when bad guys have so much of an advantage over the protagonist to the point that it’s not fair, and when they do fight on equal levels, it involves way too many cool moves to counter those other cool moves. Also, characters going way into detail about their actions the same way how in hentai, the people fucking have to narrate everything they’re feeling in excruciating detail. I know it’s shonen and that the action is meant to be ridiculous, but my argument to that is that there are ways to tone that shit down. For example, just use a max of two cool moves per fight.

I could go on about what else the show doesn’t quite do right, but let’s be honest, there’s nothing else for Jujutsu Kaisen to stand on besides its characters and action. Without those, you’re just left with a story whose main selling point of “the powerful bad guy living inside the main character” is only in a handful of episodes with the rest just being setup for the future in regards to these teenagers fighting monsters who don’t really symbolize much. The animation is clean and crisp, but most of it is just in service of making the superpowers look cool. The actual story in the visuals mainly boil down to “this one character fights aggressively” or “this one character fights calmly”. I never got the sense that there was anything actually complex being told in the background through the animation, although you’re free to point out how wrong I am in the comments.

Demon Slayer gets a lot of stick for not bringing anything new to the table to justify its popularity, but I argue that it being an incredibly refined shonen that supersedes the manga because of all the visual storytelling added to the anime adaptation is enough to make me and so many other people feel things. Jujutsu Kaisen though? I would rather watch Brand New Animal again.

If you paid attention to my “top five anime lists” in my header, you’d know I originally had Jujutsu Kaisen in fifth place, but I switched it out for Trigger’s flawed and also kind of derivative Netflix series because despite its problems, its charming main character and its take on racism is something that still sticks in my mind after so many months. On the other hand, I’m going to forget about Shonen Jump’s big new hit so fast aside from all the hype it gets due to its current blockbuster-like status. I only remember a good chunk of the first half because the bully arc annoyed me so much that I remember what I disliked about it in detail. And as for the rest of the show, I remember the fight scenes, but I forgot all the narrative surrounding them.

It should be obvious by now, but this kind of mass-appeal comfort food show is not my jam. If it’s not doing something incredibly new or if it’s not refining old experiences so that it feels new, it’s not going to get a high score from me. Jujutsu Kaisen’s individual elements are refined in theory, but when it all comes together, it’s not the least bit refined at all. It’s just a bunch of shonen tropes that people like thrown into a blender without anything all that strong tying it together, which is why all the praise I hear for it is generic reasoning you can apply to any product. If your only praise for the women in this show is that they’re all capable fighters and you don’t talk about how they actually serve the narrative, then I’m not interested.

Unlike some people, I really respect Shonen Jump’s ruthless policies of cutting out manga that don’t bring in results. It’s a high-risk, but high-reward system that has enabled that magazine to have so many iconic entries that other magazines can’t compare with. But unfortunately, sometimes things are popular because they’re stale. And if they’re not stale, the popularity of the product will make it stale over time. It’s a pretty vicious cycle that rarely rewards creativity, which is why despite how much I respect Shonen Jump and pay attention to them and all, none of their anime are amongst my personal favorites.

But I’m sure you’ve heard the complaints about how this current generation is so heavily obsessed with big shonen and isekai and shipping and moe and all that before, so I’m not going to bother bringing it up again. Instead, I recommend watching Invincible if you have the ability to do so. It could get worse later on since not many episodes are out, but the ones that exists so far are straight up fire.

2 responses to “Jujutsu Kaisen: The Shonen For Non-Japanese Fans

  1. Great review! I’m glad I dropped this show after two episodes now. I don’t think I liked Demon Slayer quite as much as you did (I thought it would be about Tanjirou and his kick-ass demon sister Nezuko trying to find a way to turn her back into a human, instead, Nezuko hardly got any scenes or character development. 😦 ) but it was definitely a fun series.

    I wonder if these types of anime series made to appeal to non-japanese people will become more prevalent, especially since Netflix has been financing a lot of new anime series lately.

    “They say it has great characters because they act so naturalistic and the women get to be strong too. Neat. However, it comes at the expense of of personal flaws that actually matter to the plot.”
    Ugh, I hate characters like that. I really like strong female characters, but only if they become strong *despite* their flaws. If they’re too perfect to begin with it becomes super boring to watch.

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