Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
This week's Juni Taisen upends the show's formula in a number of ways. Not only does it focus much more on character development than action, it also marks the first episode where a Zodiac fighter doesn't bite the dust by the end of the episode. This makes sense, given that the central figure this time is Monkey, whose mysteriously pacifistic take on the tournament would need more than one episode to explore properly. Slowing down with one of the show's biggest wildcards is a move that makes a lot of sense, but the episode's rough production values and lack of forward momentum can't help but drag it down regardless.
The key problem with this episode is balance. Episodes 1 and 3 of Juni Taisen's found a rough balance between developing the backstory of their central character and making sure to keep the present day tournament plot moving. Episode 2 was weaker for essentially ditching Dog's backstory to focus almost entirely on the tournament stuff. This week takes the opposite route but ends up running into the same problem of imbalance. This time, we spend almost every scene of the episode with Monkey and Rat in the sewers as they debate the pros and cons of Monkey's anti-violent philosophy; only in the episode's final minutes does the pair finally get up from their break to reengage with the other Zodiac warriors. I'm usually all for slowing down to prioritize character development, but over-the-top action was what made Juni Taisen stand out in the first place, and its absence is sorely felt this week.
None of this would be an issue if Monkey's backstory or her dialogue with Rat resonated more strongly, but unfortunately this material is fairly predictable stuff. Monkey is an unapologetic pacifist, working around the world to engage in ceasefire negotiations and peace talks, though Rat's counterargument is equally predictable: human war and suffering will never truly end. Monkey's extended flashback illustrates this point nicely. She believes that a decades-long war between two feuding nations can be ended by raising up a rebel army to take over the territory in question, but of course that just gives the two nations cause to join forces and blow the rebels to smithereens. Monkey's pained reaction as she watches the bombs continue to drop should be the episode's emotional peak, but this is where the sloppy visuals really get in the way. Monkey looks consistently off-model in her flashbacks, and the animation is rushed and choppy when it should be bolstering the melancholy of the moment. Monkey herself is endearing enough that the scene works well enough to get the message across, but it's nowhere near as effective as it should have been.
In the end, this dialogue between Monkey and Rat comes back to a fairly basic debate of Nihilism vs. Optimism. Rat sees the inevitability of human conflict as reason to be apathetic to their suffering, where Monkey devotes herself to peace precisely because she knows just how cruel the world can be. It's a theme that serves Juni Taisen just fine on some level, but it still can't sustain an entire episode. NisiOisin specializes in writing dialogue filled with circular and heady philosophizing, but nothing in Monkey's backstory was creative or thoughtful enough to warrant more than a mild amount of flashbacking. The most intriguing part of Monkey's history actually has nothing to do with her history as a negotiator; the reveal that she was trained by the Three Wise Monkeys of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil” fame is much more memorable. The presence of mystical animal spirits shouldn't be surprising in a show like this, but the other Zodiac fighters have histories rooted in crime syndicates and shadowy government experiments. Juni Taisen has explained so little of how its world actually works that I certainly didn't expect Monkey to literally come into her role by training with monkeys.
It's that kind of nonchalant bizarreness that I find so appealing about Juni Taisen, and even though I have reservations with Monkey's outing this week, they're not enough to derail the show completely. Monkey is a charming character in spite of her clichéd writing, and I'm glad to see that the closest thing we have to a protagonist didn't have to die so early in the season. The prospect of taking on Rabbit and his undead minions in a nonviolent manner is suitably absurd, and it will undoubtedly make for a thrilling showdown, especially since Rat is also beginning to show his hand a little. “You're always like this,” he says to a puzzled Monkey, and I'm guessing that's a big hint about the nature of his power. Everyone's remarked at how familiar this young man looks; maybe that's because he's been through all of this before? I won't lie: introducing time travel to Juni Taisen is an idea that's just crazy and awesome enough to work.
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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