The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide Juni Taisen: Zodiac War
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Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
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How was the first episode?
When I was a kid, my primary means of discovering anime was perusing my local library's generously stocked DVD shelves, voraciously devouring as many titles as I could. Being in many ways a stereotypical young teenage boy, I tended to gravitate toward the dark, gritty, ultraviolent material, shows that satisfied my puberty-addled desire to fill my TV screen with as much gore and nudity as possible. (GANTZ and Elfen Lied were an early favorites of mine.) So imagine my joy when I watched the premiere of Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War and found myself reveling in a joyously trashy paean to the unabashed schlock that defined anime in my youth.
Bloody Battle Royale anime are already a guilty pleasure of mine, and Jūni Taisen makes it even easier to enjoy by being heavily stylized and lushly animated. Studio Graphinica and series director Naoto Hosoda are doing some excellent work, opting for a more rough-hewn, sketchy style that I think works really well with the over-the-top source material. You can definitely see Hosoda's background working on Future Diary here, though Jūni Taisen owns its mix of camp and grimdark seriousness in a way Future Diary never did. The character designs are appropriately bizarre, seeing as every warrior fighting in this tournament represents an animal from the Chinese Zodiac, though they manage not to be distracting or detrimental to the show's tone. The psychotic Rabbit already looks to be a fan favorite, and it's easy to see why - this kind of gleefully manic murderer is the perfect contrast to super serious killers like the Boar.
Speaking of our ostensible lead, her characterization is the only real sticking point I have with this premiere. Not the character herself, per se; the relentless psychological manipulation she used to break her younger sister was entertaining. Rather, my issues lie with how the Boar's voice ran over nearly every single scene in the episode. There were plenty of times where the dialogue or action alone would have served the story just fine, but the Boar constantly interrupts the action with her incessant quips and questioning. I'm not sure whether or not this is a holdover from Nisio Isin's original light novel, but by the end of the episode, I was quite sick of hearing the Boar's every thought detailed. Hopefully this is a bad habit the scripts drop in future episodes.
That one blemish isn't enough to ruin the overall fun factor of this episode, though. It's the most fun premiere I've seen this season, the one show so far that I'm looking forward to seeing more of. To paraphrase my wife's reaction after finishing the episode, this is what would happen if Fruits Basket and Future Diary had a baby that was raised on '90s OVAs. If that sounds as fun to you as it does to me, do yourself a favor and give Jūni Taisen a shot.
So now that that's out of the way, Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War has gotten off to a pretty decent start—if you like trash. That's an important caveat, because all of the compliments I can pay this episode outside of its wonderfully indulgent character designs and unusually strong animation are sorta backhanded. The ludicrous premise is somehow so lazy and blunt that it wraps around to feeling brilliant again. The way the plot plays out is so dumb, I had to actively stop my brain from asking questions like "how do you build one family legacy, let alone twelve, out of representing a zodiac animal in death games where only one survivor makes it out?" and "wait so resurrection magic—or magic, period!—exists in this equation and they're not going to explain how it works at all?" The absurdity of the series' foundation is played so straight, I almost felt like there was a prologue to all this nonsense I must have missed, just something to make it feel like it was taking place in a fleshed-out world, not just the first draft of some otaku's fever dream given life with surprisingly impressive production values.
So yeah, it seems like the only reason nobody had written a story this obvious yet is because it's impossible to take any of what's happening seriously. That suits me fine, because the most fun survival game anime are often impossible to take seriously, but at the same time, if this show has any designs on being thoughtful or tugging any heartstrings at its murder ball, it's pretty hard to imagine that happening. (Our initial perspective character, the Boar, is already just plain irredeemable.) It'd be nice to be surprised though! So if you like battle-royale-style gore n' smut, this is about as bald and beautiful an appeal to your trash-loving-lizard-brain as you can get.
The only thing holding it back from being more entertaining is the overbearing amount of internal monologue that weighs down the second half. It works fine for when the Boar is explaining her personality and motivations to the audience, something she obviously wouldn't just oink out to her fellow competitors in the room, but it starts getting really obnoxious when she's monologuing about things we can clearly see happening on screen, even in the middle of a fight scene. It seems like overwritten Isin prose that should have been adapted more cinematically, especially since they're not relying on these monologues to cover up animation limitations by any means. Combining great fight animation with overdone fight narration is too much redundant stimulus all at once, which kills some of the fun.
Anyway, I get the feeling this novel was meant to be more of an id-release for Isin than his more navel-gazey works. As a writer, he's notorious for a truly daunting number of fetishes, so if Zodiac War is just meant to splay all those out for us in a wild orgy locked inside the puzzlebox of a killing game, I'm willing to go along for the ride as long as it stays light and trashy.
If you're looking for nasty, brutish fun this season, then Zodiac Wars looks to be your ticket. Whether that means the series will actually be good remains to be seen, but early signs indicate that this could be above-average entertainment.
The basic premise here is familiar: a Highlander-style contest with a wish as the ultimate prize. This time around, the theme is the Chinese Zodiac, with each of the participants having distinct dress or physical characteristics in line with the animal they represent; Inushishi has boar tusk earrings and a hairdo modeled off boar's horns, for instance, while the girl representing the Chicken wears a feathered costume and carries a four-pronged spade as a weapon to represent claws. Each supposedly has his or her own special killing style, and naturally, one individual tries to be diplomatic even though all of them have swallowed slowly-dissolving poisons that will kill them after only twelve hours. And of course, there is a mysterious individual administering the contest.
So what separates this from fare like the Fate franchise or Magical Girl Raising Project? For one, there doesn't appear to be anyone coming into this contest as an innocent. Inushishi, who is the focal point character for the first episode, is a nasty piece of work by any standard. Yeah, she might have put up with a lot in the brutal training from her father, but the ruthlessness with which she's shown in flashbacks driving her little sister to be a psychotic murderer is full villain-grade material. The circumstances at the end of the episode suggest that we can expect the focus to shift around as it profiles different characters, though I suspect that the results shown at the end of the episode aren't as final as they appear to be. There are some nicely-detailed action scenes too, and an amount of graphic content reminiscent of director Naoto Hosoda's previous efforts on The Future Diary.
However, what really sets the series apart is the character that everyone is probably going to be talking about: Usagi, the young man who represents the Rabbit. I was incredulous when I heard that Rabbit was going to be a beefy guy instead of a girl, but damned if they don't make it work. He wears only briefs, suspenders, and a headband with bunny ears, with a ginormous fluffy bunny tail on his backside, two curved blades in his hands, and disconcertingly weird eyes, so he looks like a certifiable freak. He's going to be hard to beat for the most visually distinctive character of the season, and on top of that, the production team has managed to convincingly portray him as the last rabbit that you'd ever want to meet in a dark alley.
Between the action chops, bloody violence, and colorful characters we've seen so far, this series should succeed just fine as long as the pace doesn't bog down in the flashbacks. The first episode manages that balance pretty well, so hopefully this will set the standard for the rest of the series.
I'm generally not a big fan of shows that try to shock you with their violence or depravity. I tend to find most shows that do that are a little too proud of themselves - the violence is supposed to be inherently shocking, and you're supposed to be impressed just because transgressive things are happening. I feel similarly about intentionally grim aesthetics, and action for its own sake rarely excites me. In short, I really shouldn't be the target audience for Zodiac War.
Fortunately, this show has NisiOisin on its side. Also the author of Bakemonogatari and Katanagatari, Isin has a bulletproof understanding of tone, narrative, and genre. He understands precisely when a story needs to take itself seriously, when a moment of levity is strangely appropriate, and when it's time to just embrace your own trashy soul. And Zodiac War, a gory piece of exploitation fiction centered on Isin's own variation on the holy grail war, is easily the most gleefully trashy thing I've ever seen him create. Featuring buff bunny men in short shorts, genocidal sisters, and a frank suggestion to disembowel your opponents, Zodiac War is here to answer all your Battle Royale needs.
It certainly helps that this first episode is so smartly constructed. Zodiac War doesn't waste any time introducing its premise, and centers us on “boar” contestant Toshiko Ino's perspective in order to keep things focused. Sequences revealing Toshiko's brutal childhood and even more brutal nature are contrasted against the introduction to the Battle Royale proper, creating a strong balance of horrifying flashback setpieces and intriguing present-day reveals. By the end of this episode, I both loved and hated Toshiko, something I'm guessing will be true of many of this battle's contestants.
It also helps that this episode is consistently gorgeous. The sequences from Toshiko's childhood are a particular highlight, executed with a fluidity of action animation that almost feels out of place for a television production. The direction is nearly as strong, and the occasional use of campy multi-frame introductions is something I hope will continue throughout. The more this show leans into its own camp, the better—ultraviolence without a sense of fun is just drudgery, and Zodiac War seems to understand this. Zodiac War's final visual signature is its uniquely sketchy linework, almost certainly the result of photography director Yoshihiro Sekiya. He's used similar techniques on Occultic;Nine and Granblue Fantasy, to similarly mixed results. The effect certainly results in striking art, but the contrast between blurred character art and flat backgrounds can result in somewhat disjointed compositions.
Overall, the slight disconnect of its linework is pretty much my only complaint about this premiere. Toshiko is such a compellingly villainous person that by the end of the episode, I was sad to see her defeated. The show around her is tightly written and beautifully articulated, a marvelous, bloody, unabashedly trashy gem. The show's own narrative goal basically sums up its nature: a beautiful black stone, carved from the entrails of some unfortunate soul.
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