Mai Zen’in. We meet the aggressive-for-no-reason half of the Zen’in twins before the school exchange event along with Todo. While Todo quickly became one of our favorites, we can’t really say that for Mai. Even though she shares the “Zen’in-senpai” title with Maki, she is the haughty unlikeable opposite of her twin.
Okay, now hear me out. I share my feelings with Nobara about how much we both love Maki. But Mai? Mai is an uncool and uninteresting character, put in short. So what if she has a sad little past? Nearly all characters in Jujutsu Kaisen suffer from anguish and pain. Does that define a character enough?
This point is probably where the editor should put that one disclaimer, no? The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer…yada yada. :p Well, YEAH. This right here is my opinion on why we must see Mai for what she truly is, not romanticize every little thing we see. So if you’re still here with me, don’t start cursing me just yet. Instead, let me tell you why Mai is the uncool Zen’in twin and will be that with my reasons. And at some point, yours too.
Mai Zen’in was never a shaman
In a story about shamans, would a non-shaman hold any importance? Probably not, unless you are Riko Amanai or a specific shaman killer. We have seen how bold and brave these shamans are, as they risk everything – family to life – for their duty. The shamans also have to make painful decisions sometimes, some of which are selfish and always desire to grow. They deserve to be the heroes and stars of Jujutsu Kaisen, alright.
But let me ask you a simple question. What exactly defines a shaman? A person with cursed techniques, yes? That is correct, but only partially. In the jujutsu world, shamans are so much more than that. Their decisions in life as shamans differ from normal humans. Mai Zen’in told us the difference between a proper shaman and a shaman in pretense.
Before you attack me, Mai might have been a shaman in theory, but she was not one when it came to practice. Yes, she was born in a family of shamans (one of the biggest three, in fact) and had a technique. But, I still emphasize that she was not a shaman throughout her life. Mai’s interaction with Maki at the school event was the first testimony of this notion and a crucial one that set the tone for further development.
Mai was not shaman material because of a plethora of reasons (which we will discuss soon enough). Maki was the sole cause of Mai’s decision even to take a step in this harsh direction. Hold on to your question of “but why?!” for now as we analyze this intriguing relation first, which shows us the brutal difference between a shaman and a non-shaman.
Mai and Maki
Mai and Maki were twins, but I think that was the only common ground they shared. While I cannot call them the polar opposites, they are still worlds apart. A critical point of difference between them was where they placed value. The twins’ decisions on where to place their value would also later define them and their personality. The story did not offer us an insight into young Maki yet but, Mai set her value in Maki from early childhood.
We only have one instance of Mai’s childhood, but it makes that instance all the more pivotal. The sister made a promise between them; Maki will not leave Mai alone because they are sisters. This promise might have been a fleeting childhood happenstance for Maki, but for Mai, it held much more meaning. The words they spoke that day meant staying on the safe side of being non-shamans for Mai.
From Mai’s point of view, both of them were weak, but Mai was shamefully inadequate. Mai could at least see the curses that Maki couldn’t, but that meant that it was all the worse for her. Even after having that ability, she had a disappointing cursed technique and a fragile mindset. Both of these factors were daunting flaws from the get-go to be a shaman at all. As she grew older, the nearly comedic lack of any solid factor would have only drawn worse taunts towards her.
The chasm between the twins grew when both of them had different reactions to their inherent weakness. Maki did not reciprocate the value Mai placed in her and chose not to remain weak. Instead, she chose to become a shaman, breaking what the promise entailed and effectively abandoning Mai. It is necessary to keep in mind that Mai only had Maki to depend on to be not judged for her weakness until now. She was the only person who never expected Mai to be strong despite being born as a “shaman.”
Maki was always free to let go of that tag, but Mai had the cursed technique she did not even want. But the person who was free to leave shamanism behind was relentlessly pursuing it. So, maybe to not lose sight of her sister and make Maki pay attention to her, Mai decided to walk this treacherous path too. She began calling Maki names so that she might pay attention to her.
This act was the worst first step to become a shaman because she was never selfish even while she wasn’t a shaman. Mai Zen’in did not care enough about herself to want better things like strength. She only wanted to stick with her sister, who was running, running so fast towards a future Mai couldn’t even see or care less about. In this pretense of being a “shaman” for her sister, she took some more decisions that would further prove she was not a hero at all. Instead, she was flailing and weak, putting on a strong front.
Mai’s relation with Maki took up a lot of her existence, so it was only fair to talk about that. This relation perhaps set the base for which Mai would make her further decisions that would only lead her away from the path of shamanism. Even though she took up this job, it was all a farce. She was not one bit of a hero and her choices throughout life reflect that fact. If you don’t believe me, keep reading and decide for yourself!
Mai made a series of choices that I don’t necessarily box as bad, but more on that later. A sorcerer like Nanami, who had a clear-cut ideology of what precisely a shaman is and represents, probably would, though. The majority of her choices contradicted her status as a shaman. By analyzing her ways, we realize how and why Mai’s choices were cowardly and why we can’t applaud them. Well, we shall also discuss why I don’t want to slander them later. But these choices are strikingly different from what a shaman would make.
As we talked about earlier, let’s begin with her first choice, choosing the Zen’in clan over her own self.
She was born a Zen’in woman and had her fate decided the moment she was. While Maki’s future was set in stone, as we see in Mai’s flashback, Mai’s technique was barely the saving grace. But, of course, later on, her technique turned out to be a disgrace, so she followed the same destiny. In fact, she was even the “better” twin in the eyes of the Zen’ins. Read: Naoya’s comments on Mai in chapter 138. But she was okay with it. Rather than facing horrific things like curses, she would rather fall down the hole.
Her decision to fall down the hole assigned to her was a comfortable one. See, she could have fought against the Zen’ins as Maki, Toji, and Megumi did. But, maybe because she didn’t have the will to, she accepted her fate as is. Even after Maki left her alone and Naobito made her life harder, she did not change her decision. Maki chose strength, and Mai chose family. No matter how evil they were towards her, they were still familiar evil to her.
Someone who desires to be a shaman (Maki) would rather fight until their bones crack than fall down a hole. The wish to find and establish one’s value is an unarguably crucial aspect of a shaman’s attitude. Mai’s passiveness and acceptance were just proof that she never had that shaman attitude.
Ironically, Mai was the first to realize why twins are a bad omen, according to jujutsu. We did see how her cursed energy hindered Maki’s growth, but it also works the other way round, right? Maki’s Heavenly Restriction was an unthinkable handicap for her technique too. But, unfortunately, she never used this information to her (or her sister’s, until very late) benefit. Even if she realized it, as she admitted later, she never wished to become strong.
So while her first choice was a matter of destiny, later, she had no wish in the first place to become strong. As we have seen, shamans shouldn’t shun a chance of growth. A shaman’s growth doesn’t come easy, but it is all the more vital. But for Mai, even whilst countless suffering was piled upon her, it was better than picking the path of shamanism.
Mai Zen’in never made a decision that would make her stand out. She never wanted to; all she wanted was to have an easy life with her sister by her side. To be honest, Mai was a very passive person to an extent. She let decisions taken on her behalf, other than the one we are going to discuss ahead. I believe that her very rational fear of having to prove herself if Maki grew stronger was a root cause for it.
So for the dessert, let’s address her last decision. The gigantic apparently character-defining moment for Mai Zen’in that the community celebrated. Mai’s death sent waves across the fandom and brought out tears from each one of us. Albeit the reaction to her death was exactly what Gege had intended and befitting Mai, there was something that irked me to no end.
It is so infuriating that we saw her death as redemption or compensation when it was not. Yes, it was as if most of us never understood Mai (well, it made me write this article). See, Mai was a coward until the end, even if she chose to sacrifice herself. Or rather, I would say picking sacrifice is exactly why her death was not a moment of redemption.
She did not have a choice; I will give her that. But her death was just an addition to the series of reasons why she is mundane. Her death was an uncool and not-shaman-like choice she made as her last one. Do you remember how Gojo chided Megumi for running away to sacrifice himself to win? Well, that is what Maki did too!
The above conversation from chapter 58 truly resonates with Mai’s attitude. Yes, I don’t know what else she could have done when she saw death as the path forward. But what I do know is that Jujutsu Kaisen has told multiple times that a shaman should not pick death. So, yeah! Mai’s death was not the “wow” moment we make it out to be. In fact, she chose death with a purpose, in my opinion.
A part of her purpose was, of course, to finally free Maki of her inhibition. But, I don’t know whether consciously or subconsciously, she had another purpose too. She gave a curse to Maki in exchange for her life so that Maki could progress ahead while her presence always looms. We already know the weight of people’s last words in Jujutsu Kaisen. Thus, this curse was Mai’s way to FINALLY pull Maki down the hole.
So, you see, Mai’s decisions never deserved any praise because they were completely out of character for her as a shaman. She was ordinary in the true sense, making Maki more of a shaman than Mai. BUT even if we established that she was not a shaman, let’s look at this thing from a different perspective.
COULD Mai ever be a shaman?
I don’t have a long answer short to this question for you. So I think all I (and so, we) can do is gather what we know about Mai and try to have a what-if answer to this. For starters, I believe she could not.
Mai couldn’t face life head-on as a shaman must as a prerequisite. Before even beginning to discover herself, she had given in to her fate at the hand of the Zen’in clan. As I wrote before, her mindset was completely different than that of a shaman.
If you remember Nishimiya’s rant at Nobara in the team fight, you will know where I am headed with this. Mai was a woman who needed to be perfect. In her mind, she was drilled with the concept of what a shaman should be like. They should be talented beyond par which was reflected by how Naoya almost pitied Toji in the recent chapter 151. Mai was nowhere close to perfect, instead she had almost become a not-Maki in her life.
She always looked up to her sister and respected her strength, which is probably also why she could never try to reach there. I think it is a case opposite to that of Rem from Re:Zero. Rem’s sister was incredibly talented that she relentlessly worked to fulfill that image. She HAD to, for Ram had lost everything because of her. I touched upon this topic before but let’s look into in detail.
Maki was devoid of anything to lose; she was a plain woman free of the curse of seeing curses. Yet, when she took the huge decision of leaving home and wanting to be clan head, it overturned things for Mai. But Mai had a technique, even if it was pathetic. So, whatever Maki did, it came back to her doubled – why couldn’t she touch the apex Maki can? This point is where Mai realized that she didn’t have what Maki does: the Heavenly Restriction.
I also think when she realized that, she immediately grasped why Maki couldn’t grow. And it is no big-brainer to relate Maki’s condition to that of Toji’s. Toji completely shook the ground upon which the Zen’ins stood. So, what was stopping Maki from reaching that? Mai. She probably realized that no matter how fast she runs, she won’t be able to catch up (completely ignoring that she never wanted to).
Mai could not become an able shaman because her mindset on top of Maki’s Heavenly Restriction weighing her down led to her decision not to grow. Not to mention that she was not as strong as Maki mentally to take the kind of hindrances the Zen’ins did to interfere in Maki’s career. I do not in any way mean that Mai did not suffer at her home already, but she was not cut out to suffer as a shaman.
So, I think that Mai was never shaman material, there is no rosy way to put this. But, I will leave the rest to your imagination to proceed to what actually defined Mai’s character for me.
Were Mai’s choices wrong?
No. End of section.
Okay, maybe not, teehee. Mai’s choices were not wrong, and it takes a deeper realization to arrive at that conclusion. We are so used to superheroes who go plus ultra and amazing shamans and people who surpass their limits that we don’t like normalcy anymore. All of us have attached ourselves to such characters at some point or the other. But Mai was thoroughly simple and average and very human.
It wasn’t her fault she was defective, but that also did not entail that she had to stay the same.
It wasn’t her fault she was defective, but that also did not entail she had to fight it.
Maki chose to fight and fight until she proves herself, but is it necessary to have such huge ambitions? So what if she wanted to run away from pain and suffering from the outside world. It wasn’t wrong. Is our worth as humans only defined by what we keep chasing and not by what we choose to stay with? I surely commend Maki’s choices full of bravery and valor, but I don’t think Mai was wrong either. I, in fact, deeply respect her choices.
In my opinion, where Jujutsu Kaisen stands, it was vital to see someone not choosing the bold step for once. As Nanami said, being a child is not a bad thing. Sometimes we tend to forget that all of these people, Yuji, Megumi, Yuta, Maki, Mai…all of them are children. They live a life that forced terribly haunting choices upon them. However, these children CAN choose to rely on other people when it gets too harsh. Nanami understood this fact too well enough; honestly, that man was a gem.
When Mai decided to close her eyes and lean on her sister to save her, she wasn’t wrong. She was weak, and she needed support to go on in life. It is so hard to admit this, but Mai embraced it regardless. Actually, I think all of us knew this somewhere in our heads. But we chose to look away.
We romanticized Mai’s death because she can’t stand to accept her life choices. She was a coward and a defeatist. Despite her sister earning accolades for standing tall even without seeing curses, Mai was not one to follow. In a world where everyone wanted to be powerful, she was perfectly complacent with her position.
The truly human and uncool choices that Mai Zen’in picked make us so uncomfortable that we chose to ignore how they resonate with us. It irks us to see part of our true self reflecting in a setting where everyone is brave.
Last words on Mai Zen’in
If you’re here right after the introduction, I would humbly request you to read the article in its entirety. This section is not the conclusion or TL;DR you’re looking for.
If you’re here after the article, here is how I sum up Mai Zen’in and her story. She is uncool. She is very uncool but by shaman standards. Living and dying all for the sake of something unattainable, for not so-selfish reasons, is not what a shaman is. A shaman has to be a little selfish and a little crazy, but Mai was never a shaman. Yes, that is it. If someone asked me to define Mai in 3 words, I would say “not a shaman.”
Mai was HUMAN like you and me. She was always a mere human with that cursed energy thing she didn’t really want. She was afraid of curses and scary things that lie on the road of shamanism. Was it really that wrong not to walk that path of misery? Even though she might have fallen into that hole the Zen’ins had dug up right from her birth, at least it was not scary.
At multiple points, Jujutsu Kaisen has emphasized how treacherous and draining this path is. Yet, when we see someone stepping from it, we immediately look away. “Not this character; I cannot identify myself with this character.” Mai Zen’in is a lesson in a pathetic human that all of us are regularly.
She is average, and she is not cool like your favorite characters. She exists to remind us readers who we are even if we desperately attach ourselves to stronger, better, braver, funnier characters. Because that is what she did too, no? That is what she is.
Maki Zen’in is incredible, and we love her. And Mai Zen’in might be uncool, but she was also very cool by human standards. So, let’s not make the other Zen’in twin a hero out of her mundane self and for once SEE her for what she is. Without romanticizing, without discomfort.