Jujutsu Kaisen vol. 1 – Gege Akutami

4 out of 5

Whether it’s music, movies, books, comics, or manga, the amount I consume occasionally puts me in ruts where a lot of it seems, y’know, good, but not especially moving in either direction – that something hits me as outright bad, or is really grabbing. I start to wonder if I’ve muddied my ability to form an opinion; like, if sensory overload has just made everything seem middle-of-the-road. But then you come across something that is bad, or – more positively, as with Jujutsu Kaisen – something that instantly stands out, and makes you want more, and stuff makes sense: yeah, of course the majority of things don’t amount to much, because the majority, kinda sorta by definition, are average. Even taking into account subjective tastes, unless you subjectively like everything, consuming more media does level the playing ground, but that means that the standouts really stand out.

In short: I loved Jujutsu Kaisen, and creator Gege Akutami proves that even the crowded manga market can have its more generic, spiky-haired visual styles energized with a frantic, passionate line; that a somewhat typical ghost-hunters setup can be given a shot in the arm of unique, rounded characters and well-defined world building.

High school upstart Yūji Itadori fits the “nice guy” hero mold, but he’s also something of an outcast, feigning the more typical roles his strengths might allow him to pal around in the hospital with his ailing grandfather, or the nerdy-types in an after school occult-study club. He fights the good fight, like all of our rogueish heroes, though Akutami grounds and deepens this immensely with just a few panels: a snippy, good-natured chat with his grandpa, right before the man passes away: a reminder to do the best he can. And the words are delivered so organically that they actually hit home within the book’s context, and certainly hit home for Itadori.

Meanwhile, we’re learning about a “cursed object” that’s been secreted away at Itadori’s school, and the sorcerer, Fushiguro, who’s been tasked with retrieving it, lest it spread its bad, cursy vibes. Cue a squabble with some interestingly depicted beasties, and Fushiguro is overpowered. Yūji arrives on the scene to help – to do the best he can – and ends up doing something that seems logical at the time: swallowing the cursed object, and thus binding with its curse.

…That’s Gege’s other masterful wrinkle: Itadori now works for Fushiguro’s sorcerer “school” as a trainee, and has the option of A. being executed as a curse right away, or B. hunting down the other cursed objects related to the one he imbibed and, like, being executed after he’s swallowed the whole set. Matched with Yūji’s pledge to keep doing the right thing – A. would be willfully allowing cursed objects to perpetuate – he goes with B, automatically giving the story structure, and also putting a fascinatingly dim finality on things.

There’s an incredible amount of personality throughout the volume, as Gege flips between a simplified style for comedic beats, a more traditional style for conversations, and loose, anarchic lines for battle sequences. That last bit takes a few chapters to find a rhythm, as the action beats feel a little off initially, making it hard to place choreography and sequences seeming mistimed. While these depictions in the book’s latter half are still rough, the flow feels very much tightened up. We are, after all, watching a relative newcomer sharpening his skills, but the fact that the storytelling and character animation are already so strong promises good things.

And Gege both expands on his lore and gets down to business right away, as sorcerer training is very much “on the job” and so Yūji and two other first-year sorcerer students (which includes Fushiguro) are pitted against a cleansing job with a top-grade curse bearer as a lead in to volume 2…