The Spring 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Joker Game ?
What is this?
The year is 1937. Lieutenant Sakuma has just been assigned to help oversee the Imperial Army's most secret spy training initiative, under the wizened old Lieutenant Colonel Yuuki. This "D Agency" operates under bizarre rules that make Sakuma very uncomfortable. First of all, they recruit civilians through a fairly academic testing process and then put them through military training and see if they make it, which is absolutely unheard of. The final eight agents who survive the rigorous program must undergo some kind of medical procedure that makes them seem more like monsters than soldiers to Sakuma, and their lack of patriotic conviction or camaraderie also gets under his skin. Soldiers of any stripe, even a lowly spy, should join the army because they believe in the cause, not just because they have nowhere else to go like these weirdos! When Sakuma asserts to the group that a spy should either kill the witness or commit suicide if he is discovered, even old Yuuki mocks him. "Don't die. Don't kill. Just get the job done."
The D Agency prefers to play what they call "The Joker Game," an elimination-style take on poker where the game is not about who has the best hand, but who can convince the most people around the table to cheat others out of the game, one after another, without saying a word. Being a spy isn't about war; it's about politics, and the sword you should fear most on the field is your own. When Sakuma realizes he was the first to fold in the group's card game, he begins to worry that this pack of jokers was assembled to betray each other in pursuit of their goal, and he'll be the first old maid to go. Joker Game is based on a novel series and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Tuesdays at 1:00 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I have a lot of reservations about this show, although I did enjoy this particular episode. As a point of reference, WWII is a very sensitive topic in my family, still very much “THE War,” and along with the burden of my own history, I share many of the reservations Jacob mentioned in his preview. (I won't repeat them, since he covered them already.) In terms of Joker Game's first episode as a single viewing experience, however, this not only looks very nice and pays great attention to the subtleties, but it also presents an intriguing storyline that, if removed from history, is easy to get hooked on.
Most interesting here is the treatment of the characters themselves. Our point of view character, Sakuma, is a thorough military man – he graduated from the Imperial Military's academy and he holds firm beliefs about what his duty is as a soldier and how soldiers ought to comport themselves. Because of this, he takes a dim view of spies; the very fact that their jobs involve deception and a form of dishonesty just rubs him the wrong way. To this end, he's not thrilled with D-Agency, the training school for civilians who have been tapped to become army spies, and he's highly suspicious of the spies themselves. Given that spy fiction in Western literature is an off-shoot of the action/adventure genre, this is already an interesting departure from the norm, especially because ostensibly Sakuma and the men of D-Agency are on the same side. “Ostensibly” is the important word here, however – through subtle quirks of the mouth and eyes, it becomes increasingly apparent to viewers (although not to Sakuma until it's too late) that the spies dislike and distrust him right back. Whether or not they're testing him or actively trying to get rid of him is up in the air right now, but it does make for a compelling cliff-hanger ending and certainly casts doubt on how the rest of the series is going to play out.
The episode's color scheme adds to the story in its use of almost exclusively muted colors and shades of brown. We tend to picture the past, especially the wartime past, as being devoid of bright colors, and this feeds right into that popular assumption, with the only vivid spots being the deck of cards used in the poker match. Even the suspected foreign spy's blond hair and light eyes are muddied, giving everything a grimly antique feel. Character designs feel deliberately creepy, with the men of D-Agency all having a snakelike look to them, untrustworthy and smarmily suspicious. All of this sets the mood really well and also contributes to this being thus far one of the best and most distinctive looking first episodes of the season.
Despite all of this, I can't shake my inherent distrust of where the story will ultimately go. To call the subject matter uncomfortable in the context of history might be a decent explanation, but it could also be my own associations with the period. Regardless, this is a good episode in itself; if the context doesn't bother you, it will probably be worth following.
Production I.G's spy-thriller set on the verge of World War II is sure to cause its fair share of conversations around the water cooler. Even in 2016, Japan is still reluctant to fully own up to the war crimes perpetuated against their Chinese and Korean neighbors under the Imperial regime. The current Abe Administration is no exception to this, and certain nationalistic philosophies have reared their head in anime entertainment as of late.
This can make anime like Joker Game uncomfortable. The 2nd Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, when this show begins, and it would lead to the deaths of 300,000 civilians and surrendered soldiers by the end of the year. There are factions today that insist the Nanking Massacre didn't even happen. When patriotic lead Lt. Sakuma says “orders are orders” at the end of the episode, you can't help but wonder if he'd have participated in Nanking if he wasn't begrudgingly stuck as a military liaison for a spy school.
So is Joker Game an escapist fantasy for nationalists or a reflective historical piece? It's hard to say yet, but I'm leaning towards the latter. The writing hints that its lead's philosophy is childishly simplistic. Sakuma has bought into the kamikaze spirit, that death is a honorable end and dying with your comrades for your country is fitting for a soldier. Everything should be taken at face value, and people who disrupt that by being underhanded are monsters. If these countries were flipped, Sakuma would be a “good ol' boy,” and we wouldn't need the historical preamble at the top of this review because he'd just so happen to be on the right side of history. But he isn't, so the weight of his words show a soldier who never questions the motives of his superiors. The spies themselves find all of this laughably naïve, and while their approach initially comes off as nihilistic, it's also a much more complete view of the world than Sakuma's.
The writing in the show is incredibly tight, with each confrontation and conversation deftly establishing the characters. Lt. Col. Yuuki's introduction quickly establishes him as a man with disdain toward traditional Japanese formality when the country has apparently abandoned it. The discussion over poker sets the stage for the episode's cliffhanger, as Sakuma's opinion on honorable death might come back to bite him in the ass. The writing is wrapped up in a moody animation palette of browns and blues, with down-to-Earth character designs. There's no outrageous hairstyles here.
There are warranted reservations about this show, but I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and hope that ERASED's Taku Kishimoto can give me another solid adaptation that hooks me into each episode. I don't think the show should be avoided simply because of its subject matter, but it'll take more episodes to see what kind of undercurrent is running beneath this story.
Jacob Hope Chapman
If I had to give you a pure lizard brain response to whether or not I liked or recommended "Joker Game," then I would definitely say yes. It's an immaculately produced, fluidly animated show with sharp writing, smooth pacing, and a genuinely fresh take on "spy vs. spy" where enemy spies are all ostensibly on the same side. The only thing it's missing right now is compelling characterization, but we might have gotten a slow start on that one because the character we thought was our protagonist might be the first Joker to get expelled from the game. (I don't think he's dead meat yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if he gets forced into some medical modification that puts him back in the program on a very different side. It's just "audience-proxy character falls into the den of freaks" stuff with a slightly slower build-up.) Then again, I could be wrong, because the intrigue tangle that Joker Game set up so well in this first episode could go any number of different ways. So yeah, I want to like this show a lot!
But when I saw "the year is 1937" pop up onscreen, that rating above is the precise noise that squiggled out of my throat, and because of the complicated reasons behind this noise, I can't give this show a specific number, much less a casual thumbs up or thumbs down. (If you don't want to read a wikipedia article, you can get a pretty good idea of what's going on in Joker Game's period setting by watching this video from 7:01 to 7:35, literally 30 seconds that will take you from "huh?" to "oh...") Unfortunately, Joker Game is playing around with very sensitive real-world history, so I felt compelled to explore my feelings with words alone, since any number I settle on could turn into "nope nope nope" very quickly within a few episodes.
Unlike noitamina's less-than-successful Night Raid 1931, Joker Game doesn't immediately shy away from its historical context. The first scene after the opening theme is people cheering in the streets that Japan has successfully landed at Qingdao (which means all this mess is about to happen). The show is neither celebratory or condemning of this, it just shifts casually over to the unassuming building where Yuuki watches wordlessly. After that, the story trips a pretty apolitical line by contrasting our "foolish hero," a true believer nationalist who's completely on board with the coming war, with the more crafty and nihilistic spies who don't even seem to be concerned with the presence of an American spy within their borders, except as an opportunity to get rid of our hero. (The Joker Game itself actually comes from Yuuki's observation of how Japan was tricked during a disarmament summit in Washington.) So what's really going on here? Joker Game is definitely playing the mystery angle above all else, which means its ideology is still a giant question mark. Will the D Agency support Japan's imperialistic expansion, subvert it, or pursue an alternate goal altogether?
The answer means everything to whether Joker Game becomes a contemplative work of political fiction or just another puffed-up right-wing propaganda adventure with some extra twists thrown in. For now, I'm definitely impressed enough by Joker Game's conflicted perspective to keep watching, but I'll have one hand on the escape rope if the story gets too gross to be fun anymore.
Joker Game's premise is pretty inherently charged. It's a story about Japanese spies in the years immediately preceding World War II, after all, a time when Japan was committing some of the worst war atrocities of the twentieth century. Even today, the idea of a show directly acknowledging and engaging with the reality of the Second Sino-Japanese War seems pretty unlikely, especially with an emergent right wing looking to sweep away the martial violence of the past. A show that meaningfully engaged with questions of a soldier's duty and nationalism within that time period would be a surprising and valuable thing.
So far, Joker Game does not appear to be that show. Its squadron of spies seem to express disdain for the very idea of nationalism, hewing instead to what their one military academy companion describes as pure narcissism. Spies are above nations in Joker Game. Spies just want to prove the limits of their own abilities, and see faith in Japan as one more false religion. While the military man expresses occasional shock at the disloyalty of his companions, any awakening he is to experience seems likely just to lead to “trust no one” more than a direct reflection on his specific government.
But even if Joker Game seems somewhat awkwardly noncommittal as a political artifact, that's clearly not related to its goal. What Joker Game wants to be is a smooth, spy-happy thriller, and at that, this first episode mostly succeeds. There's a great sense of style to the show, from its engaging music and subdued color palette to the straight-laced designs of its characters. And though this episode is a bit on-the-nose in the way it introduces both its spy academy and the philosophy of the “joker game” itself, it eventually moves towards a compelling cliffhanger that implies the show will just get more fun as its cast of “monsters” get to strut their stuff. Joker Game may not have all that much to say about the atrocities of its era, but it's stylish and engaging and a generally enjoyable time so far.
Review: Nearly every season seems to have at least one specifically adult-oriented title, and this award-winning novel (not light novel) adaptation seems to be the one for this season. The source material has already inspired a live action movie version, so now we get to see how director Kazuya Nomura (fresh off of Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie) and his Production I.G. team handle the topic.
So far, it looks pretty good. The decision to focus on Lieutenant Sakuma – a dyed-in-the-wool military fanatic – as the fish out of water in a spy training facility is a great call, as it sets up all sorts of sharp, interesting contrasts between the mindset of the military and mindset of the spy, which is really where the juice of this first episode lies. Sakuma just cannot fathom how spies have to look at things and finds their tactics cowardly, though I have to wonder if that's as much because he feels vulnerable to them as because he sees them as lacking in honor and pride. The poker game being used as both spy training and a metaphor for action on the international political scene helps set up that this is much more a thinking man's anime than an action series, unlike the series’ closest anime cousin: Night Raid 1931. In fact, the only real “action” here is the tense moments towards the end where Sakuma is leading the investigation into a suspected spy's house and gradually starts to realize that he may be part of a set-up which leaves his own life at stake. I suspect that this is actually more of a mean object lesson for Sakuma and the spies actually do have his back, but if so then it's one that he needs.
The technical merits are about what you'd expect from a Production I.G. job: well-animated and great-looking, with a subdued but still distinct color scheme and smoky rooms used to promote the shadiness of the business and the period in which the series is set. For the ladies it has no shortage of appealing male character designs, though not a single female character of even slight significance appears in the first episode. The jazz-heavy musical score positively kills, too.
As a history buff I may be a little biased here, as I am very curious how this is going to play out given the unusual choice of time period in which it is set. Still, this looks so far like it has more potential than any other title to date this season.
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