The Fall 2018 Manga Guide
What's It About?Juni Taisen: Zodiac War is a franchise that focuses on a twelve warriors representing animals of the zodiac killing each other to have one wish granted - it's a light novel and an anime series by Nisioisin of Monogatari fame.
As twelve warriors meet to fight to the death, trouble is already brewing. Before the battle begins, front-runner Rabbit misbehaves and takes a life. Quickly, the other contestants must fight for their life, their clan, and their wish. The one thought on all of their minds? "I must be the winner."
Licensed under Viz, the first two volumes of the manga adaptation of the original light novel will be available during this fall season. (Volume 1 already out, volume 2 out in December.) Paperback copies are available for $9.99, or as a digital version for $6.99. Juni Taisen: Zodiac War is available through Amazon, Comixology, and the Viz site (in single chapter format), as well as its light novel counterpart.
Is It Worth Reading?
Juni Taisen is based on a light novel by Nisioisin, the Monogatari guy. I had assumptions based on that pedigree, but I wasn't expecting something this silly, dumb and gory. I had a lot of genuine fun with Juni Taisen, but for the life of me I cannot figure out why it was written, especially by an author with as specific a voice as Nisioisin.
My main problem is that I can't pin down a clear thematic throughline. Monogatari is a series famous for marrying trashy light novel trappings with deep personal angst and a literary edge, but this just appears to be a straight genre exercise. Juni Taisen is an especially outlandish and extremely derivative (the premise is Fate but with the Zodiac animals, it's got the tonality of a Battle Royale-alike) work without much in the way of novel story inspiration or character writing that serves much of a purpose. The psychologies and backstories of all the fighters in the Zodiac War are clearly outlined, but I cannot figure out any significance or commentary being conveyed through that characterization. We get to know why they fight in the Zodiac War, the tactics they are using, and before the reader has any time to internalize that information, the character is dead and so too is any meaning conveyed through their story. And since Juni Taisen has an absolutely tension-killing habit of telegraphing who is to die next by entering the characters' headspace, it's hard to care about on any emotional level.
That said, the amount of entertainment I got here cannot be denied. This is a manga where a knife-wielding playboy bunny high-fives a zombified corpse; where a girl dolled up like a sexy chicken proclaims “I kill in pecks!”. But this is brought down by veering too far into issues of actual gravity. References to intense abuse and child trafficking put a damper on the manga's spirit of fun trash, especially since they're mostly small character-related asides that don't seem to have much bearing on the plot at large.
Juni Taisen is ridiculous. It's a lot of schlocky fun, but its extremely played-out content without the backing of real thematic grounding is a bit puzzling considering the type of author Nisioisin is. If you're looking for a bloody fun time, though, you could do a lot worse. The art is really good too.
Juni Taisen dumps the reader right at the start of the action, relying on no world building or build-up of tension, throwing a dozen colorful characters at the audience in the midst of a brutal death game. As the game progresses, snippets of some of the characters' histories make their way to the surface, but they're brief and shallow, painting these bloodthirsty people in the lightest of brush strokes. A jaunt into a character's backstory is also too predictably often a sign of their imminent demise, which telegraphs some of what's to come in a series that banks so hard on its twists and turns actually surprising the reader. While the character designs—reflecting the Chinese zodiac—are stellar and pop on the page, that's all the characters are thus far: vicious and paper-thin. That said, there is something about the brutal death game that entices as we get to see a shockingly strong character vanquished quickly and another character who thinks they're outsmarting someone get played themselves. However, there's no substance to the game thus far, no particular villain or antihero to root for.
Akatsuki brings Nakamura's character designs to life in expertly choreographed action that rarely lets up. In some ways, the designs are too cartoony to be taken seriously in a bloody death match, but in nonetheless, they work to differentiate a large set of characters quickly. Backgrounds thus far are limited to a crowded, run-of-the-mill cityscape with nothing that particularly stands out, but the art is never lacking in details, which helps bring home the damage the characters' attacks cause. The gore is relatively mild—which isn't to say there isn't a lot of blood on the page. However, it's more self-censoring than some far more grotesque manga in the genre.
Juni Taisen bets on its death match—with a generic, vague “win and receive a wish” reward—as being enough to sell the story without worrying about characterization and emotional tension and payoff. This fast-paced reads is never dull, but it lacks depth.
If you're looking for violence for its own sake and a minimal plot that doesn't need a reason to exist besides “violence,” look no further than Juni Taisen. Gratuitous in both its use of gore and character designs, this feels like a series that's trying so hard to be “edgy” that it missed the point of why those stories are good. We have zero explanation of why there needs to be a “Zodiac War” every twelve years (the number itself is self-explanatory, fortunately), and the conscious way everyone feels the need to introduce not only themselves, but their specially tailored catchphrase (“I kill by bits!” “I kill by pecks!”) feels like the sort of so-called gritty fare written by someone trying desperately to gain entry into the genre.
It is, of course, possible that this is all some grand design intended to lull the reader into accepting the story as nothing more than a gore-fest populated by ludicrous characters. But that in itself would be the sort of self-conscious storytelling that tries just a bit too hard. As it stands, this feels more like a shell than a story, with characters attempting to outwit each other and the reader as they plot each other's dooms. The fact that the art is incredibly busy doesn't help either – pages are heavily inked and toned, at times to the detriment of the action. The anatomical implausibility of both genders isn't outside the pulp purview of the genre, but it is at times distracting, particularly when considering the Chicken's costume, which even one of the other characters comments is absurd. (Where do those wings attach so that they only cover her groin??) The pacing is also such that it's impossible to get a read on any of the players, including our hapless narrator/reporter, who honestly just feels thrown in to offer some explanation for what's going on.
If mindless gore is your thing – and that's perfectly fine! – this may be worth checking out. But there are better horror/action manga out there that I'd look into before picking up this particular mess.
If you had the ability to have one wish be granted, would you fight to the death? Juni Taisen: Zodiac War is a battle royale type manga, based on the light novel with the same name.
Members of twelve clans are picked to fight to the death for glory under the aliases of zodiac animal names. Each warrior is well versed in combat and feared on the battlefield. Though killing your enemies is sweet, the chance to have any wish granted is even sweeter.
Within the first two volumes, several people have been killed off and I can't help but wonder who the winner will be, as well as how quick will this be over. Inside of each participant is a jewel that will melt into poison after twelve hours of being in their stomach. When volume two ends, only three hours have passed. I'm chomping at to bit to know how those last nine hours will go since this went so quickly!
A typical fight to the death type manga, Juni Taisen is a quick and exciting read, but painfully predictable. The unsuspecting characters are the most deadly while the menacing seasoned war veterans are the ones who go down first. I was able to call most of the alliance twists with ease, and truthfully it left a lot to be desired. That being said, the character design is incredibly fun, with each fighter looking like a human representation of their related animal. (Think the Zodiac Council in Hunter x Hunter.) Though the story isn't ground breaking and captivating, it's sure nice to look at and mindless, violent fun!
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