Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 10 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
If it seems like I've been especially harsh on Juni Taisen for the past six weeks or so, it's because the series is so rife with potential, but so rarely does it even come close to living up to that potential. Having a wacky, violent battle royale between a bunch of ridiculously costumed analogues for the Chinese Zodiac animals is a concept that begs to be brought to life, and the often hyper-stylized medium of anime would seem to be a natural fit. Unfortunately, Juni Taisen wants to be so much more than that, and it often attempts to be as much a character study and a parable on the horrors of warfare as a pulpy parade of action spectacle. Normally, this is the kind of thematic ambition that I would cheer on, but Juni Taisen has proven to be an underwhelming battle royale story, and it is even less equipped to cogently argue its juvenile ideas about warfare. As a character study, it's been somewhat more successful, at least when it focuses on the half of its cast that's any good. Episode 10 of Juni Taisen is a perfect demonstration of how this show can come so close to telling an emotionally affecting story, only to be held back from success by the series' usual shortcomings.
This episode belongs to Tiger again, and it has many of the same strengths and weaknesses as last week's episode. The show immediately benefits from Tiger's inherent likability. The combination of her tragic backstory, the charismatic way she's often animated, and Hiromi Igarashi's prickly-sweet performance makes Tiger one of the series' best protagonists. Her flashbacks detail how her alcohol-and-war-trauma-induced fugue state was actually mollified by an encounter on the battlefield with Ox, who gets more to say now than in all previous nine episodes combined. His ceaseless, almost inhuman pursuit of victory in the tournament is reframed as being part of his archetypal warrior-philosopher personality, a wandering swordsman of sorts with a moral code that fits so perfectly with his natural state of being that he can barely even put it into words. “First, I try to do the right thing,” he says, in an effort to explain his steadfast resolve to the starry-eyed young Tiger, “Then, I do the right thing”. The episode uses Tiger's incredulity to laugh this conspicuously simplistic mindset off, which helps it land as corny in a mostly positive way.
More problematic is the decision to reframe Tiger's entire journey to the Juni Taisen as pursuing a misguided crush on the mysterious older man who saved her with the power of his mighty resolve. On the one hand, it's pretty lousy writing to have Tiger go from “barely functional killing machine who's been stripped of her humanity” to “girl who just wants Battle-senpai to notice her”. If anything, this is further proof of Juni Taisen's inability to handle the more complex themes of war – it wants to depict the inhuman brutality of battle that can literally reshape a person into something barely resembling a person, but it also wants to undo a lot of that damage through the power of sophomoric philosophy combined with masculine sex appeal, all in the span of about twenty minutes. It's hackneyed storytelling, and it undercuts a lot of the goodwill Tiger's first episode earned by stripping the character of what made her interesting in a dubious attempt to make her more sympathetic.
On the other hand, having Ox and Tiger develop some kind of meaningful relationship, no matter how ephemeral it may have been, is the kind of character development this show has been needing for weeks now. From the beginning, Juni Taisen has been operating under the misguided assumption that simply giving a character a sad backstory and then immediately killing them will somehow provide the show with resonance, while neglecting to provide the present-day Juni Taisen tournament with the stakes or emotional context that's actually needed for it to stand out. Simply put, it doesn't matter how sad and tragic these characters' lives have been, because they all die before we get to see them be anything other than a broken sympathy sponge.
The final minutes of this episode are just as clumsily written and drearily animated as the rest of it, but they do manage to draw out some genuine empathy from Tiger's situation by giving her an interaction with Ox that informs them more as characters. Having Ox rush to Tiger's aid because he's “never been saved before”, watching Tiger finally come to terms with Ox not remembering her, even that shabby final shot of Ox putting Tiger out of her misery – these are all moments that work emotionally because they give Ox and Tiger the opportunity to behave like real characters.
If the rest of Juni Taisen was as thoughtfully constructed as the final scenes of this episode, it might not be such a crushing disappointment to sit through every week. Unfortunately, a string of “almost good” episodes cannot repair the series' fundamental missteps. It remains a sloppily written and thematically muddled quagmire, and the visuals suffer more and more with each new episode. I once thought Juni Taisen was going to be the show I couldn't wait to come back to week after week. It's a shame to think that being perfectly mediocre is a standard I'm relieved to see the show hit, if only for a couple of weeks.
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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