When Naoya Zen’in made his appearance in the story, it became the quickest rollercoaster of emotions the fandom experienced. He looked decent enough, but as soon as he spoke, our every delusion shattered into pieces. Even calling this aspiring clan leader trash was like giving him more respect than he deserved from us.
Naoya is the epitome of misogyny, the poster boy of the oh-so-glorious Zen’in clan’s underbelly. And I mean it when I say he wasn’t the only rotten apple in the bunch; there were no good ones to begin with. There are probably too many vices we can list, but Naoya was irredeemably crass and power-hungry. He was also so ruthless in the pursuit of his happiness that ending one or two of his blood relatives wasn’t a big deal.
Long story short, we collectively wanted to see Maki and Mai wipe the floor with him and his co-conspirators. But, Mai’s demise came earlier than we expected, albeit not without consequences. The curse she entrusted Maki pulverized one of the three big clans and our good ol’ Naoya with it.
Wait a second? Naoya is dead? Chapter 152 completely whizzed past us in our sadness, taking a major antagonist with it. And that too within a couple of panels. Naoya’s death was a bombshell that truly happened in a jiffy. I was too shocked to have thoughts on this miraculous occurrence then, but I do now.
Naoya’s death was premature and disappointing
The first thing I realized was, “Oh crap, what just happened?” Then I proceeded to grieve. Naoya definitely deserved to die; that was a matter of course ever since he made his existence known. But, hear me out. Naoya’s death was so incredibly underwhelming that it made me question the plot (and Akutami for a hot second). And “underwhelming” is where lies the problem.
For starters, the emphasis on him after the Shibuya arc led us to believe he might be a potentially difficult hurdle to handle. This shaman was not just the flagbearer of arrogance, greed, and misogyny. He was also in line to be the next Zen’in clan leader, undisputed in strength (he was also the leader of the Hei squad).
Unlike Ougi and Jinichi, Naoya was the center of focus for revenge at the hand of major characters. In all honesty, with that kind of attention to him, all of us expected a more gruesome and satisfying end to his life. At the very least, we were expecting a fight that would live up to his reputation as the clan leader candidate.
As a villain possessing fantastic buildup AND belonging to the creamy layer of the Zen’ins, Naoya sure died an easy death. More than an opponent, Naoya was a character I had great expectations from. He is undeniably the kind of villain you hate to the bones but still want to keep seeing for the potential they hold. Okay, he died; I can maybe cope with that (I can’t). But he died at the hands of a wild card we never saw coming, Maki’s mother.
I get the poetic side; I truly do. Naoya’s directed his introductory words of derogation to Maki and Mai’s mother in chapter 138. In fact, they probably landed where it hurt for her more than it did for us. We don’t know for how long she had faced the brunt of insults along with her daughters. It was natural for her to feel resentment towards Naoya and the other Zen’ins. All this is totally acceptable.
However, she was also a character who had never displayed any affection towards her daughters. Her short encounter with Maki was laced with disappointment. The words she said to Maki were perhaps the worst one could hear from their parent, especially when the other was lying in wait to kill them.
And then, out of nowhere, the urge to avenge her daughter in her last moments? It simply did not make sense. What was this sudden change of heart? Moreover, we never saw Maki’s mother in Mai’s flashback either. If the motherhood banner claims this action, where was she until now? All this time, while the sisters were suffering, it seemed like their mother did not attempt to understand them either. What a letdown.
I detest putting this across but even Shigemo’s death seemed more justified than Naoya’s death. And this disappointment arises because I saw great potential in Naoya as a character.
What exactly made Naoya a great villain?
The short tale that Jujutsu Kaisen created with Naoya’s presence is incredibly poetic. As I said before, Naoya was an antagonist I expected a lot from, if that makes any sense. His very presence made the plot very intriguing. In fact, he oddly reminded me a lot of Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter to some extent.
Naoya stood for the conservative and flawed ideals of not just the Zen’in clan but also the jujutsu society in general. He was the peak of the worst of all vices – arrogant, misogynistic, and power-mad. Adding to that, he was also the sort of internal enemy Yuji and the others couldn’t afford at this moment. If that does not qualify as good antagonist material for Jujutsu Kaisen, I don’t know what does.
If I had to point out one thing that made Naoya stand out from other “villains” in the Zen’in clan, it was strength. Akutami took pains to introduce us to the concept and scale of Projection Technique that made Naoya a powerful shaman. His father was the fastest shaman alive, and there was no way Naoya didn’t have the ability to surpass him. But, Naoya’s strength didn’t just lie in his technique.
His strength as a character truly lay in his attitude. He did not budge from himself; he was haughty and chauvinistic even in his death. But, even in his life his attitude (and response towards things) was quite interesting. As a child, he experienced the exceptional strength of Toji and Gojo. As a witness of such an explosive phenomenon, Naoya revered them as the true apex of power.
For someone who blindly began chasing after these bearers of strength, he was in for another shock. Here were suddenly two people who had never witnessed what he had, running at par with him. And were close to surpassing him if he blinked for a second. Maki and Megumi were “fakes” who threatened all that Naoya had built over the years and all that he had to build. As much as he admired Toji and Gojo, ironically, he hated Maki and Megumi that much.
The number of possibilities that Naoya held as an antagonist was mind-blowing. His story arc could have been a path of hindrances to Team Yuji or that of redemption. With the Culling Game lined up, Naoya’s presence would have been a huge detriment if he opposed Yuji and Co. However, on the flip side, if he had realized that he had to accept Maki’s strength, his reluctant cooperation would have been interesting as well.
Either way, Naoya’s death sabotaged any of these possibilities, wasting a bulk of narrative potential. When we talk of potential, we cannot not talk of the Zen’in arc as a whole.
Let’s talk about Naoya’s death as part of the Zen’in arc
Jujutsu Kaisen’s cutthroat and raw pace is its characteristic now. Akutami does not spend time on connectors or slice of life moments; everything builds up fast and falls down faster.
Continuing the same line of work, the Zen’in clan was not a surprise either. Jujutsu Kaisen is based on the concept of “death” and it was inevitable to see a corrupt clan fall. However, this arc still felt more rushed than usual, especially the last couple of chapters. I have said this before but we jumped from a reunion, to a death match, to sacrifice, to annihilation, and to an artless murder. That too within four chapters.
Undoubtedly, I commend Akutami’s manner of saying more with less words; he is nothing short of a genius when it comes to that. But sometimes, more than reading between the lines for ourselves, this characteristic leaves us in confusion. The fall of Zen’in clan was bound to happen, we all knew that. Naoya’s death was the final nail in the coffin to mark the end for the Zen’ins. But, why was it so anticlimactic?
After hinting at the clear division of the clan members over Megumi, there was surely politics brewing within. It was a good chance for us to see the true colors of the respectable Zen’in clan with two inherited cursed techniques. But, Akutami’s quick disposal of what could have been a great addition to the elements in Jujutsu Kaisen was lowkey disappointing.
With the Zen’in clan and Naoya’s death, it seems as if Akutami is reluctant to handle multiple variables simultaneously. Of course, I don’t doubt that the Culling Game will be anything short of amazing. We have seen the prowess Akutami possesses when it comes to handling big arcs. So, maybe this short arc just shows how crucial the next one is for us as readers as well.
As I said before, Naoya’s death is the official close to the Zen’ins’ chapter, and that we won’t see any more of and from them. But there are a few other situations we can consider after chapter 152.
A look from the other side
Naoya’s death was too clean and too perfect to be believable. So far, every death in Jujutsu Kaisen has left a noticeable impact on the story. It is also true, however, that most of these deaths have left us wanting more from the character. The precedents of JJK deaths – Junpei, Riko, Suguru, and Nanami – all broke our hearts precisely because we wanted more.
All of those deaths were similar in that they were likable characters from the get-go. On the other hand, this instance is the first involving an antagonist’s death. Following this ideology, some fans find Naoya’s death justified and believable. The fact that Maki’s mother was the one to drive a knife through him holds more poetic value than it being anyone else. Accordingly, if we look in hindsight, there were death flags around Naoya from his introductory scene.
But is that our confirmation bias at work? Whether or not it is a bias, we can agree to appreciate Akutami’s boldness though. If Naoya really is dead (and we have to accept that), we have to once again commend how the mangaka does not prolong character stories. He only stretches it as far to draw us in and then keep us stuck there.
Well. I agree with this side of the thought process a little bit, but I still think there could have been more buildup in this arc, especially leading to Naoya’s demise. But, now that Naoya met with his end, is it all truly over? Call it absurd, but I still think Naoya’s death is not set in stone yet. Let me tell you why.
Where do we go from here?
Naoya is a GREAT character with GREAT potential. Yes, I know I said it before, more than you’d like to hear, probably. But, what is surprising is that he has amazing potential even after his death. I have two visions for where Jujutsu Kaisen will lead from the perspective of Naoya’s death.
One, Naoya is dead for realsies and the entire Zen’in clan is done with. It would hurt me, but there is another facet to his death. Remember how the Kamo and Gojo clans responded to Naoya’s death at lightning speed? It shows how they salvaged an opportunity out of a massacre – and the madness of power doesn’t stop with the Zen’ins. Even if Akutami kissed the in-family politics goodbye, there is a chance for a different angle.
Maybe here on out, we can see the power struggle and politics amongst the three (now two?) jujutsu families instead. For a clan whose head is trapped in a puny box, the Gojo clan was surely eager to dispose the Zen’ins. And the Kamo clan is not pure as driven snow either. From the old Noritoshi Kamo to the young one, this clan also seems to be a place for rotten apples.
Despite having bigger problems at hand, they sent in a proposal to the jujutsu society. We still don’t know how or why this proposal benefitted either (or both) of these clans. But, the real question is, why exactly did the jujutsu society keep this proposal on hold? Naoya’s death might have set events into motion that will finally show us more of the jujutsu higher-ups.
Now, onto my second line of thought! Naoya IS dead, but just for the moment. Jujutsu Kaisen rarely introduces us to concepts without applying them somewhere. A good example of this would be how Suguru explained Tengen’s evolution in Hidden Inventory to Gojo (and us, of course). And later, after the Shibuya arc, we see that Tengen actually turned into a target of Cursed Spirit Manipulation.
Similarly, the story acquainted us with vengeful spirits and how shamans can turn into them after their death. That was indeed long ago, but this is the perfect time for this enigmatic concept to come to fruition. This Reddit post is exactly what I thought of after I came to terms with chapter 152. Naoya’s death is the ideal chance for us to witness vengeful spirits. His death meets all the conditions of turning into a vengeful spirit:
- He is a shaman – check
- He possesses resentment – check
- His death wasn’t due to cursed energy – check
- He is strong – check
This small checklist gave me big hope. Until now, vengeful spirits were a question mark for all of us. Naoya is the aptest candidate for us to know this concept, but not without consequences. I am afraid if it’s not now, it never will be. We’d probably know the concept as a monologue from another character, but seeing it in action would be psych. More so because THEN Naoya would be a huge hindrance in Team Yuji’s mission.
This occurence would also be the repurcussion of Maki’s actions – because Jujutsu Kaisen has focused on “karma” a lot. Naoya will return, worse than before, once again as the symbol of evil. That, in my opinion, would be true poetry in motion. Will Maki die fighting the consequence of her own action? I don’t know yet. I hope she doesn’t. But I have immense hopes even now from this antagonist I hate so much.
Before I end this article, I will address the Culling Game once again. Kenjaku’s game is beginning and the entirety of Japan is at stake. In such a crucial situation, the jujutsu society lost the Zen’in clan. Without a doubt, this is a huge dent in the number and power of shamans’ side. Most of the Zen’in clan members were Grade 1 shamans who could have held weight in this outright war.
As always, this story tells us how much the jujutsu society, aka the system, is riddled with flaws. The system would rather run behind inner conflicts than focus on bigger things, making it possible for the current scenario to exist in the first place. The Zen’ins are just the representatives of wrong priorities; they picked fighting with their internal enemy before looking to eliminate the external threat. If all of these clans are so power-hungry, do they possess any righteousness at all? Food for thought!
What did you think of Naoya’s death? Was it justified? And do you think he will come back? Let us know in the comments!