Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
Episode 5

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 5 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?

It may have taken a few weeks longer than expected, but this week's episode of Juni Taisen does finally get one important piece of the puzzle on the board, as we get to learn more about what the Juni Taisen's purpose is outside of providing us with bloody entertainment. While the specifics remain vague, the tournament does seem to have consequences that reach far beyond the lives of its competitors; in a shadowy room framed by the glow of computer screens and holographic avatars, Duo stands with the men and women who rule the world, placing bets to determine who gets to control redrawing the map of nations. This kind of shadow-government conspiracy does well to increase the stakes of a narrative that would otherwise feel confined in its stakes, and it also ties in nicely to Monkey's exploits from last week. Though I didn't find her doomed humanitarianism to be too compelling on its own, it plays a little better knowing that there really are forces beyond her control that conspire to keep the blood of their warriors flowing at all costs.

This cold and detached mode of spectating the Juni Taisen tournament is contrasted starkly with the way the Juni Taisen anime attempts to explore the lives and motivations of its many fighters; for all their mystical powers and penchant for amoral bloodshed, the zodiac fighters are still human to some degree or another. That said, the actual results of Juni Taisen's narrative structure have been decidedly mixed so far, but at least Ram's story this week is one of the more successful dives into a character's backstory yet.

The fact that Ram has already won a Juni Taisen makes him stand out as a fighter, but it also frames his character as a true survivor, a former arms dealer who has used his skill as a warrior and his knowledge of explosives to kill his way into a peaceful life. Seeing the old man bond with his grandson is another archetypal setup, but I found it to be more effective than Monkey's introduction last week, mostly because it didn't feel like it was trying so hard to tug at the audience's heartstrings. There's a quiet nobility in the life of a man who has done some terrible things so that he might enjoy the life of a grandfather. The low-key moments of the episode were the best, such as seeing Ram show his grandson how to use a detonator to launch fireworks, or watching such an experienced killer become befuddled by the modern technology his young grandson is so adept at handling. It makes his decision to rejoin the tournament in place of his grandson make a lot of sense; he knows he's far past his prime as a fighter, but Ram would rather go out swinging on his own terms than see his grandson swept up in the fray of violence.

Ram's vulnerability as a man is complemented by the episode's focus on his vulnerability as a warrior, which is where the story started to lose me a bit. I've criticized the show for its over-reliance on inner monologue before, and it's an adaptational quirk the series doesn't seem keen on addressing any time soon. On the page, Ram's endless strategizing makes a lot of sense, and it could potentially be just as engaging as any descriptions of explosions or fisticuffs. On screen though, the constant stream of narration distracts from the plot being communicated by the visuals, and it ends up leaving the episode feeling overstuffed and stretched thin. So much of the episode is dedicated to Ram laying out his plans for success in the tournament, but none of that planning has been set into motion of any consequence yet.

The action is instead delegated to Monkey and Rat, along with a couple of intrusions from Ox. The former two are are busy fending off Rabbit, his undead horde of birds, and Snake's headless corpse, while Ox comes close to catching up with Ram, though he ends up making contact with a strategically placed landmine instead. These scenes work well enough on their own, but they don't end up going anywhere within the episode itself, a frustration exacerbated by the episode's non-ending, which feels less like a proper conclusion and more like Ram and Tiger's scene got chopped in half arbitrarily in editing. Given that the original NisiOisin book was just one volume, I have a hunch that Juni Taisen might end up being more effective as a binge watch, where the individual episodes' loose plotting will be a lot easier to stitch together.

As a week-to-week viewing experience, Juni Taisen is leaving me surprisingly cold. It's well-produced for the most part, and it provides enough entertainment to keep its momentum going between episodes, but I'm having a tough time engaging with the story on an emotional level. It's an experience akin to attending a sporting event for teams you don't have any investment in. You can understand on an intellectual level who is winning or losing, and you might know a good game is being played based on the cheers of the crowd, but the experience remains an impersonal one. Juni Taisen is a solid and entertaining show that I'm struggling find much joy in, unfortunately. I hope that changes before too long.

Rating: B

Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

James is an English teacher who has loved anime his entire life, and he spends way too much time on Twitter and his blog.

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