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A close up shot of Nobara from Jujutsu Kaisen. Image: MAPPA

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Jujutsu Kaisen keeps pushing the anime envelope

It’s changing how women are portrayed, and what they want in shonen stories

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Midway through season 1 of the currently unfolding anime series Jujutsu Kaisen, two high-school classmates, Nobara Kugisaki and Maki Zenin, walk together after Maki stops a fight between Nobara and a student from another school. As Nobara realizes Maki doesn’t have “cursed” powers like everyone else at their school for jujutsu sorcerers — which means fighting would be far more difficult for Maki — Nobara asks why she still wants to become a sorcerer. Maki says she’s doing it to spite her family for looking down on her for so many years. Nobara’s eyes sparkle, and she says, “I respect you, Maki-san.” In a sweet gesture, she rests her head on Maki’s shoulder.

This endearing scene of admiration is a snippet of what’s special about Jujutsu Kaisen. The series follows the journey of the high-spirited student Yuji Itadori, who gains cursed powers after eating the finger of a powerful demon named Sukuna, while trying to save a classmate from a monster. Yuji defeats the creature, but there’s one big drawback: He becomes a vessel for the demon, and the only way to vanquish it is to eat the rest of its fingers. So he enrolls at a school where students harness their “cursed energy,” the world’s equivalent of magic. Enter Maki and Nobara.

Nobara and Maki walking alongside each other. Image: MAPPA

Jujustu Kaisen is revolutionizing the shonen genre by pushing previously standard formulas forward for modern audiences. Its treatment of Itadori is one notable example of how it develops and subverts the genre. Itadori, unlike the protagonists of shonen’s past, does not possess the power to save the ones he loves. So he submits to the power of the demon inside him and lets the demon take control of his body. Typically in shonen shows, powerful heroes grow stronger and overcome challenges when put to the test. But Jujutsu Kaisen flips that expectation on its head by making Itadori confront his powerlessness.

The recent season 1 episode “Kyoto Sister School Exchange Event – Group Battle 3,” which debuted on Crunchyroll on Feb. 5, brilliantly highlighted yet another way Jujutsu Kaisen is deviating from clichés — not just with the male characters, but by evolving how the subgenre treats its women.

Many women have a complicated relationship with anime — particularly shonen series, which usually don’t treat their women well. Sexist tropes and fan service plague the genre. At the same time, shonen does often depict women with strong powers and personalities, and with cool powers.

For the longest time, female fans of shonen have had to skate by on the love of a few particularly great characters, like Yoruichi Shihouin from Bleach, or Maka Albarn from Soul Eater. But even those shows come with little caveats of discomfort. Yoruichi is poised, strong, and intelligent, but still grossly sexualized. And while Soul Eater treats Maka well, it certainly doesn’t do the same for its other female characters. Even in Hunter x Hunter, one of the most popular shows at the moment, some of the most powerful female characters’ powers are… let’s see. One woman wields an all-powerful vacuum cleaner. Another has magic hands for massage. And a third character’s power is sewing: she uses a magic thread and needle to heal others.

There was no reason to think Jujutsu Kaisen would be different, or that it would deviate from the “canonically strong female characters and fan service” model. But the show recently shattered that expectation. In “Kyoto Sister School Exchange Event – Group Battle 3,” Nobara and Maki are pitted against competitors from another school. Nobara fights Momo Nishimiya, a girl with witchy powers, and Maki fights her own little sister, Mai Zenin.

Momo comments on how for women, being a jujutsu sorcerer isn’t just about being strong, it’s also about being cute. “They don’t demand strength of female jujutsu sorcerers. They demand perfection,” she says. Momo continues to explain that for people like Maki and Mai, who are members of a patriarchal clan, the expectations are stacked even higher, since they have to overcome their people’s gender-based prejudices. As the show has already revealed, Maki has the strength of a sorcerer a rank above hers, but she hasn’t been promoted because her clan won’t allow it.

Maki from Jujutsu Kaisen fighting. Image: MAPPA

During this conversation, the two continue to spar. Nobara, whose power allows her to shoot floating nails imbued with her cursed energy, struggles to keep up with Momo, who flies around her on a broom. After some back-and-forth, Nobara manages to grab a straw from Momo’s broom, which is enough to let Nobara take control of it with her other cursed ability.

As she’s delivering the final blow to win the match, Nobara responds to Momo’s lecture, shouting, “What makes us obligated to meet such perfection or such absurd demands? I don’t give a damn about ‘men’ this and ‘women’ that! I love myself when I’m pretty and all dressed up! And I love myself when I’m strong!” It’s a poignant character moment, but the action sequence that goes along with it is stunning as well — and some of the best we’ve seen from the series so far.

The scene has staying power, because Jujutsu Kaisen goes a step further than avoiding gender tropes by presenting a variety of female perspectives. It’s not like there’s any right way for these young women to deal with the unique pressures they face. The story lets them disagree, and fight for their perspectives and their place.

Momo gets to voice her anger over the unrealistic expectations society puts on women. As a woman who is constantly trying to juggle everything, she has the right to make that point. As for Nobara, she loves herself fully, and that’s enough for her. She doesn’t care what other people think she should be, so she rejects society’s unrealistic expectations.

Seeing Nobara claim her confidence is affirming and uplifting. And this is the trick of Jujutsu Kaisen. As Chingy Nea noted in discussing the series’ habit of exceeding expectations, the show “feigns predictability with a simple setup before giving a complex genre aware punchline.” Except this time, instead of highlighting Itadori’s weakness, it gives its portrayals of gender a similar depth.

It’s clearly touched a nerve: fans have been pouring out words of praise for the episode on TikTok and Twitter, and they’re already cosplaying them and making them fancams, which makes this specific episode all the more special.

Onscreen, these women face seemingly insurmountable odds to make it as jujutsu sorcerers. Offscreen, they also face similar odds, as they take their places in the shonen canon. When Maki tells Nobara that she fights to spite her family, it feels like she isn’t just talking about the fictional world of the show, she’s talking about defying the entire shonen genre.

Jujutsu Kaisen is changing the way we see women in shonen, and that’s a good thing. It was also the number one most viewed anime series on Crunchyroll in 2020 in the United States. The show’s widespread success signals that audiences aren’t just ready for change, they’re actively craving it. Now, every other creator has the green light to write all kinds of women into their shows.

Jujutsu Kaisen is available to stream on Crunchyroll and HBO Max.