Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 7 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
American filmmaker Howard Hawks once said that he thought a good movie was any feature that contained “three great scenes, and no bad ones.” Modern Japanese animation made for television is very different from the American cinema of the 1950s, but I still think there's a kernel of truth to be had in Hawks' idea. If you have no bad scenes and at least a few great ones, you can count that as a net positive of entertainment value at least. Juni Taisen has only scraped by in attaining that net positive, unfortunately; its excellent sense of style and occasionally creative direction and writing has consistently been hampered by clumsy execution, haphazard scripting, and a general dearth of likable or even interesting characters. But despite its faults, Juni Taisen has usually managed to at least break even, since no episodes have had any truly awful scenes, even if we've rarely seen the show deliver anything approaching “great” either. This week, Juni Taisen offers its most underwhelming episode yet, a sloppily animated and tedious mess that has me very worried for this show's future.
This isn't just a matter of this single episode not working, but that its execution maximizes flaws that have always been apparent in less irritating and disappointing echoes throughout the show. This week's story is a double-billed focus on Snake and Dragon, and on paper they have what could be the most interesting of this Zodiac War's backstories. They were twins who grew up as inseparable criminals, until their clans chose them to represent their respective reptiles in the illustrious Juni Taisen tournament. Their knack for causing mayhem and destruction wherever they go makes them uniquely suited to this particular honor, but they are warned upfront that a tournament can only have one winner. No matter how well they work together on the battlefield, they will eventually have to face each other as enemies instead of family.
Again, on paper this is a premise that is absolutely rife with juicy dramatic potential, but Juni Taisen botches it in two key ways. First of all, we already know that one of the brothers won't even survive the tournament's start, so any dramatic tension that could have been caused by their inevitable conflict was tossed out seven weeks ago. The second problem is that Snake and Dragon are simply uninteresting characters in every other regard. They are visually the least creative or intimidating of the entire Zodiac bunch, and their personalities are almost indistinguishable from one another (a problem only made worse given the show's frustrating pattern of focusing on only character before immediately discarding them for another). Their filial ties to one another seemed to indicate a potentially emotional twist on the tournament in retrospect, but Dragon hardly seemed to care at all when his brother was murdered, which makes the too-long flashback featuring their relationship feel especially pointless.
Now, there have been many moments that could easily be read as foreshadowing some kind of dramatic reveal that Snake's fate was not all that it seemed, but no matter what happens in the following episodes, Juni Taisen has been deeply frustrating as a moment-to-moment viewing experience. Its callous disregard for its characters' lives could easily be excused if the show had anything interesting to say about warfare and the lives of the soldiers who suffer in it, but Juni Taisen doesn't offer anything in that respect. All of its heroes (save perhaps for Monkey, who is now also dead) are unlikable, unrelatable, and only rarely compelling as wacky caricatures, so nothing that happens to them registers much emotional or intellectual reaction. Snake, Dragon, Monkey, and everyone else that has been so quickly dispatched have all had entire episodes to make us feel bad to see them die, but not one of them has been terribly missed since they've been killed. It says a lot that Snake is a more compelling force for the plot as a limbless corpse than he ever was as an actual person.
Speaking of Snake's lacking limbs, that does lead us to the episode's one good scene, which is actually almost a great one. Tiger may be the most endearing character we have left on this show, and her scene with Snake is a refreshingly fun change of pace from the Snake and Dragon's boring extended flashback, and no scene of this show has made me smile more than the sight of Tiger brazenly guzzling the gasoline from Snake's fuel tank. This gag pays off big time when Ox, who is being strangled by Snake's disembodied arm, uses Tiger's drunken gasoline spit to ignite a fire with the sparks of his sword. This is one of the most creatively set up and straight-up weird payoffs I've seen in a long time, and the beat singlehandedly makes the episode worth watching. It's a shame the episode is so flatly directed and shoddily animated this week; Juni Taisen's one saving grace has always been its bonkers stylistic sensibilities, but the show can't work its magic when the visuals don't live up to the ideas at play.
Juni Taisen had one of the most promising premieres of the season, but week after week it has failed to live up to the lofty expectations of that first episode. It's a battle royale with remarkably anticlimactic action scenes and a cast of characters who are exponentially less compelling than their crazy costumes might suggest. Its themes about the state of warfare in a modern and unsympathetic world are tired and underdeveloped to say the least, and any interesting ideas it might have are squandered by a script that simply doesn't give itself the time or space needed to flesh out its world or characters. This episode was a mix of bad and boring scenes with only one almost-great moment, which makes this the first week in Juni Taisen's run that it has truly failed to justify its own entertainment value. No matter how much I want to have faith in this show's potential, Juni Taisen is proving to be more tedious than anything else. If this keeps up, Juni Taisen won't just be one of the season's most disappointing series – it could just end up being a bad show overall.
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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