Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?
Of all the characters to devote an extended flashback to, why on Earth did Juni Taisen have to give it to Dragon and Snake again? Sure, it adheres to the rule of every character getting an episode dedicated to them in order, and since there are two brothers, it stands to reason that the twins would get two episodes as well. But as last week demonstrated, this despicable duo barely has enough juice between them to fill out even one chapter of this increasingly labored story, so I had trouble believing that an additional week spent with either brother would improve their standings as characters. Unfortunately, my fears proved to be entirely founded: “In Like a Dragon, Out Like a Snake (Part 2)” is far and away the worst episode of Juni Taisen yet, and its problems are so impacted into every aspect of its production that I can't help but see it as a dark sign of things to come for this misbegotten series.
At this point, we've basically been watching Juni Taisen's production fall apart in real time. Looking back at the show's slickly produced and well directed first episodes, these past couple of weeks seem like they're from a different series entirely. There are moments this week that rank among some of the ugliest sequences of animation I've seen all year (and I reviewed both Hand Shakers and Clockwork Planet). At its worst, this episode delivers animation that even the producers of Neo Yokio might have deemed unfit for air. Characters are consistently off model and stiffly animated, and anything that isn't of critical importance to a scene is drawn so haphazardly as to be barely recognizable. At one point, a trio of attack helicopters are rendered as blotches of green and brown that look as if they were thrown together in MSPaint. I am more than willing to overlook visual shortcomings if they aren't detrimental to the viewing experience as a whole, but significant portions of this episode were downright painful to watch.
It doesn't help that the story being told this week is absolutely pointless, both as a standalone work of character building and as world-building for Juni Taisen overall. The conceit is a flashback within a flashback, with Snake and Dragon being put on trial for their abhorrent war crimes as a framing device, in a court where their crimes are revisited in detail. In theory, this could serve to both flesh out Dragon and Snake much better and offer a unique take on Juni Taisen's social commentary regarding the murky morality required to profit off of war.
But as always, the problem lies with the execution of these seemingly promising ideas. Snake and Dragon have proven to be the least interesting of all the Zodiac fighters, and this episode offers nothing substantial to strengthen their case. Part one of this two-parter established that they are amoral, somewhat wily thieves who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. This week, twenty minutes more are taken to emphasize that Snake and Dragon are amoral, somewhat wily thieves who are willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead. They betray the people that hire them, sow seeds of chaos by distributing their money to whomever they see fit at the time, generally revel in causing mayhem and destruction, etc, etc. The particulars of their story are wholly forgettable, so the entire episode just functions to hammer home character details that were already apparent to anybody paying attention last week. The bits involving the competing factions that hire each brother, and the unfortunate children who suffer their destructive tendencies, could have been substituted with any war narrative cliché and the point would have remained the same: “Snake and Dragon are awful people who do awful things for arbitrary reasons. Isn't war terrible?”
What's worse, this hackneyed characterization completely undercuts whatever thematic relevance this ill-advised detour might have had. The whole thesis of the episode is bluntly hammered home when the lawyers prosecuting the brothers are taken to task by elder Tatsumi making the point that war is inherently built on broken morality that doesn't play by society's rules. "Can warriors such as my brother and I be fairly tried when we have been raised in a world that is completely incomprehensible to those who haven't fought in it?" The answer to that question is "Yeah, of course." Snake and Dragon aren't just soldiers fighting to represent their clans; they're psychopathic profiteers who've caused irreparable damage to innocent lives for no reason other than than they wanted to entertain themselves. It's bad enough that Dragon and Snake are the most hateful and unlikable characters in a cast filled with their ilk, but to see the show try and use their actions as some kind of muddled “I told you so!” on questionable wartime ethics is a bridge too far.
In short, this was a very bad episode. The show has made plenty of missteps over the past eight weeks, but this was the first time that even getting through one episode felt like work more than anything else. Two months in, and we're seeing Juni Taisen at its artistic nadir, both visually and thematically. All of the most interesting characters are dead, the animation has become cringe-worthy, and despite spending so much time letting its characters yammer on and on about warfare, the show doesn't seem to have anything of value to say about it. There are still a few weeks left in the season to turn things around, but my expectations are dwindling drastically. At this point, we'll be lucky for Juni Taisen to simply avoid being an all-out trainwreck. Actually getting to end on a high note seems like too much to hope for.
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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