Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
This week, for just a few minutes, Juni Taisen finally delivered on the heightened insanity it's been promising and failing to deliver for weeks now. Rabbit, having somehow used his necromancy to possess the disparate chunks of his own corpse has become a shambling monstrosity, quickly bearing down on Ox. The soldier does his best to fend the abomination off, and the reliance on CG animation actually helps make this battle feel more kinetic. Then, in a gambit that even the genius Ox failed to predict, the possessed body of Monkey jumps out of Rabbit's mangled form to subdue the proud warrior, effectively dooming him. To reiterate, Episode 11 of Juni Taisen: Zodiac War gave us a scene where a man dressed as both a bullfighter and a bull did battle with the self-possessed carcass of a gender-bent Playboy Bunny from Hell, only to have another zombie explode out from the first zombie's insides. It's the single most entertaining thing this show has produced and almost makes up for all of the other frustrating decisions that have been bringing this series down.
Of course, the rest of the episode deflates the excitement of this scene with its lame script, but that's just par for the course at this point. While those five minutes of battle are indeed glorious, they're sandwiched between another ten minutes of Ox's incessant narration, where he describes his thoughts and what's happening on screen in excruciating detail. I can only imagine that this chapter was told from Ox's perspective in the book, and therefore all of the action had to be communicated via narration. This makes sense, but just slapping all that endless pontificating up on the screen demonstrates that the prose of a compelling read doesn't necessarily translate to compelling television. Watching a soldier be slowly overtaken by a nightmarish zombie monster is a lot less exciting when accompanied by his constant monotone breakdown of his opponent's battle strategy. It takes away from the sense of urgency the character feels in the moment, and it denies the art, sound design, and music the room they need to actually create a strong atmosphere.
The counter-argument to these criticisms would be that Juni Taisen has never really tried to be a battle-royale story, that NisiOisin and the anime's production crew simply used the stock genre format to whip up a cast of archetypes whose place in the tournament doesn't matter so much as their opportunity to spout vague philosophical musings about the cold apathy of war, the all-consuming machine of political conflict, the disregarded life of a soldier, et cetera. Unfortunately, Juni Taisen has never been very good at that either, because its cast feels like little more than props to be thrown around as part of the show's experimentation in storytelling.
Take Rat's victory for example, which is less the result of a compelling series of character decisions or consequences, and more just the result of Juni Taisen trying to impress the audience with lackluster cleverness. It became clear extremely early on in the season that the show was basing its characters' death order on the reverse order of the Chinese Zodiac, making it fairly easy to guess that Rat would be the one to win the contest. So when he finally emerges from the shadows with Ram's homemade bomb, the moment lands with a dull thud. Rat has hardly done or said anything interesting over the past ten weeks, so it's hard to care about him winning on an emotional level, and the show's predictable format ensures that the audience is unlikely to glean any intellectual joy from seeing him step out of the shadows. He simply walks up with a bomb, sets it off, and claims his victory.
The resulting anti-climax puts all of the narrative pressure on the reveal of Rat's secret powers, which are admittedly interesting, but the show also drops the ball by managing to over-explain them while somehow also keeping things frustratingly vague. In essence, Rat has the ability to see the multiple various outcomes of any given decision, and then act accordingly to choose the one that ends with his success. Exactly how this power works isn't clear, but as far as I understand it, Rat has the power to go back in time inside of his own mind and redo any significant choices that end in death, so he can ultimately come out on top.
This is an undeniably cool ability, and it is initially amusing to see it in action when Rat experiences every kind of painful death imaginable in his efforts to avoid dealing with Duedecuple in the wake of his victory. The scene goes on way too long though, and it eventually devolves into Rat simply explaining his victory in an incredibly underwhelming exchange of dialogue. Had the show not been so dead-set on following the patterns of the novel, we might have gotten to see more of Rat's incredible ability in action over the course of the series, instead of having it info-dumped at us all one week before the season's end.
Alas, this is Juni Taisen we're talking about, a show that seems determined to find every creatively engaging choice it could have made and then proceed to do the exact opposite. I've heard claims that this might be intended as the point of the entire story, that NisiOisin is “subverting” genre expectations in order to communicate his super deep ideas on how "war is bad", I guess. If this were a shorter project with a better script, I can see how the idea of Juni Taisen might have worked. But as a season of television episodes, that idea became an insufferable mess of hobbled potential and inconsistent execution. I don't need to have Rat's powers to know that the only satisfying victory next week will bring is the relief of this show finally being finished.
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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