Self-Awareness and Representation in Hit Anime

Jujutsu Kaisen Episode 17 features a shonen anime staple: the mid-fight debate. Taking place during the Kyoto School Friendship arc, the characters are Momo Nishimiya and Nobara Kugisaki; while the initial topic of their debate was Mei Zenin, the argument quickly derailed into a larger gender debate. Momo argued that the demands placed on female witches in jujutsu contradict each other, and Mei’s resulting wary and combative worldview reflects the price of living through this contradiction. It wasn’t an original pitch, but its delivery suggests it’s meant to resonate far beyond the dimensions of the anime.

Jujutsu Kaisen is far from the first shonen to tackle these real-world issues, but the series confronts this paradox of gendered protagonism in an interesting way. Nobara doesn’t try to refute Momo’s arguments, but rather rejected the premise completely. Rather, she said that the extent of her own self-esteem, in whatever form or posture, makes others’ expectations of her simply irrelevant. It’s a powerful moment in the series, but one that stems directly from the self-awareness that underpins its tone and themes.

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“I am the girl”

The genesis of this moment dates back to Episode 3, in which Yuji and Megumi Nobara said, “You guys should be honored. I’m your bandmate. It’s a fun moment, but like other moments of seeming levity in Jujutsu Kaisen, alludes to many. Specifically, while on the one hand this is a statement of Nobara’s lovable narcissism, her self-awareness of the shonen trope means she already identifies and anticipates the scripts she might be seen in.

It is not the first time Jujutsu kaisen referenced an anime or manga. Earlier in the series, Yuji cited the manga in his motivation to be a jujutsu wizard and later lamented not being able to “succeed a Kamehameha or a Rasengan” in Gojo. This type of self-awareness is of great importance to Yuji’s character development, but the distinction between his moment of self-awareness and Nobara’s is key. Yuji considered what he can and can’t do, while Nobara’s concerns are about the generic functions her gender prescribes while ironically hinting at how she will end up flouting those expectations. As illustrated by his battle with Momo in Episode 17, Jujutsu Kaisen uses her conscious mood to illuminate and break down this paradox of female protagonism.

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The curse of the gendered protagonist

Momo and Nobara are then less on different sides of an argument, but on stages of a process. Momo was immediately frustrated by the unfairness of the proposals, after seeing how far Mei was pushed to try to make them happen. Conversely, Nobara no longer attempted to reconcile these conflicting external demands. Instead, by declaring that she loves herself in any way, she places herself outside the trap of toxic self-objectification that limits other female characters. Nobara’s frustration with Momo is that, given the opportunity, Momo obligingly agreed to play this losing game of self-objectification instead of refusing out of self-love.

Again, while representation issues aren’t far from the anime, the way Jujutsu Kaisen grounds these issues in self-awareness makes these issues more poignant and its own characters more relatable. As Nobara and Momo show, his characters not only reflect pertinently on their own stories and worldviews, but also go deep in their self-awareness to dismiss debate. This focus on self-awareness, while humorous, nevertheless has important implications for the unique setting and premises of Jujutsu Kaisen. Specifically, the concept of cursed energy in Jujutsu Kaisen, derives its form and power in part from how its users “see” themselves in the world, adding and subtracting powers accordingly. This means that even beyond the episodes of the Kyoto Goodwill Event arc and into the anime’s second season, the self-aware neurotic mood will have significant consequences going forward. In the meantime, however, as Nobara Kugisaki demonstrates, the conscious tone of Jujutsu Kaisen allows for a special mode in which Discourse can bubble up organically and be handled authentically – – that is, with self-love and a grinding hammer.

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