Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
Of all the narrative cul-de-sacs Juni Taisen has indulged over the course of the season, the MacGuffin of the single winning wish was always the most problematic for me. Since the show seemed so determined to eschew and ostensibly subvert many of battle royale story tropes, the wish was inevitably going to be especially prickly to tackle, given how often the show indulged in the same tropes it was trying to upend with its wonky narrative and dubious themes. Granting an all-powerful, reality-altering wish isn't something Juni Taisen could simply ignore, even though the characters never seemed particularly interested in the matter during the story's run. Since most every aspect of Juni Taisen felt artificially stretched to cater to the series' endless self-indulgent pontificating, I half expected the show to simply never address how the wish-granting process worked or what its potential consequences would be. Most of the series' worldbuilding and plotting has been left vague after all, so as not to take time away from all those interior monologues.
So imagine how pleasantly surprised I was that this final episode of Juni Taisen would finally start addressing the many questions raised over what it even means to win the Juni Taisen tournament. Finally, the series would be forced to develop its sole remaining protagonist, Rat, and give him an opportunity to reckon with the consequences of the violence he took part in. Having succeeded where his fellow Zodiac Warriors failed, Rat is now burdened with an almost inconceivable conundrum. Now that he can obtain anything in existence that he could possibly want, what will his wish end up being? No longer would the wish function as a barely necessary holy grail to justify the tournament's murders; it would finally be given some thematic weight, simply by virtue of Rat having to decide what he wants.
On the surface, Rat's inner conflict is incredibly tantalizing, probably the most interesting character work that the story has accomplished. I won't harp on the fact that cramming all of the story's most fascinating ideas into the final episode makes Juni Taisen feel even more narratively discombobulated than it already was, though that remains a critical flaw that can't be completely ignored. At this point, I was just glad to finally feel engaged with Juni Taisen again, more than I have since the show began. Rat is just a kid after all, and seeing him mull in frustration over the many options at his disposal paints as clear and sympathetic a picture as anything the show has ever done. Does he use his wish on petty urges and selfish desires, or does he take a nobler route and reserve his miracle for the benefit of someone else? Should he wish for the damage that the tournament wrought to be undone, or are some of the fallen warriors better off dead? If Monkey were revived, for example, would that be the right thing to do, simply because she was the noblest fighter? Or would her lifelong mission to put others before herself make such a wish an affront to everything she stood for?
For the first time in its run, Juni Taisen's obsessive self-reflection didn't just feel like posturing; it was actually using the tropes of its genre to ask nuanced questions that did more than shed light on some character's cliched backstory. Not only that, but the episode uses Rat's puzzling to shed some light on his various lives, since it's clear that he had to live and die dozens of times on his path to victory. The silent-movie-like illustration of Rat's power is an almost arresting sequence in its own right, but the other Warriors get a little extra time in the spotlight too. Perhaps most tellingly, Rat goes over how all of the other fighters would have used their wish. Some of them, such as Boar's and Ram's, don't tell the audience anything we don't already know, but other characters do feel slightly more compelling after they spill their guts to Rat. The most significant is probably Dog, who finally gets to share the history we never got to see when he was around. (He's a preschool teacher and a dorky dad). Rabbit also shares a moment of vulnerability, which thankfully doesn't attempt to completely humanize the show's only truly threatening monster.
Unfortunately (and it seems like there's almost always an “unfortunately” with Juni Taisen), all of my praise for this episode gets balanced out pretty heavily by the end result of all Rat's hemming and hawing. As Duedeculpe at last approaches Rat and asks for his final answer, almost a hundred possibilities scream through his mind, every possible treasure, lesson, or miracle he could possibly want. Torn apart by his own indecision, the young boy finally cries out that all he wants to do is forget about everything he's gone through, to erase all the violence and the burden of choice from his brain. And so it is done, and Rat wanders back into the haze of his everyday life, looking as peaceful as he's ever been in the literal bliss of ignorance.
To say that this development is profoundly underwhelming would be an understatement. As with all of Juni Taisen's greatest flaws, Rat's final wish is a theoretically cool concept that's completely marred by its execution. If Rat was a character the audience had been following from the beginning, and if his curse of having to experience a hundred different lifetimes of violence was something we'd been privy to for more than an episode or so, than I could see this conclusion having more emotional and thematic impact. Instead, because of the sloppy and uneven way that the show developed its story and characters, Rat's conflict comes across as little more than another elaborate thought experiment, where the character's interiority and emotional depth is sacrificed for the sake of making a rather obvious and boring philosophical point about the anxiety caused by truly endless possibilities.
This frustrating anticlimax isn't the episode's only flaw; in truth, even many of this week's high points are cast in the shadow of the series' omnipresent missteps. The complexity of Rat's character is undermined by his utter lack of presence for the first 80% of the series. The thought-provoking ethical problems brought about by Rat's imminent wish are dampened by the fact that the Juni Taisen Tournament itself only barely made sense, making it even harder to pull relevant messages from its ridiculous world.
This finale was Juni Taisen's last opportunity to accomplish something worthwhile with its otherwise wasted premise, and instead it confirmed itself to be a shaggy dog of an anime, a series of overlong digressions into the lives of characters we struggle to care about, who are caught in a conflict that ultimately leads to nothing of importance for anyone involved. Is this a fair or poetic metaphor for the pointlessness of war itself? Maybe, but that doesn't change the fact that Juni Taisen ended up squandering its potential. Maybe in some of the other ninety-nine realities Rat lived through, the Zodiac War ended up working as either blood-splattered battle royale entertainment, or as a character-driven exploration of the horrors and futility of war. Unfortunately, this reality wasn't one of them.
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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