Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
Episodes 1-3

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War ?

This fall is shaping up to be a fine season for fans nostalgic for the gnarly OVAs that helped build anime's Western audience back in the '80s and '90s, with both Garo: Vanishing Line and especially Juni Taisen: Zodiac War providing the moody atmosphere, over-the-top violence, and generally trashy fun than one could hope for. The first episode was one of the more entertaining premieres of this season, and I'm happy to report that episodes two and three keep the fun coming more or less consistently. The show isn't without its faults, but Juni Taisen has still managed to make a great first impression overall.

Much of the show's success can probably be attributed to the strength of its source material, which was written by Nisio Isin. Despite being best known as the author behind the Monogatari series, Juni Taisen revels in entirely different sensibilities, trading out dialogue-driven character drama for brash and bloody spectacle. That spectacle doesn't just come from the stylized animation and gory action beats either; even the basic structure of the plot prioritizes flashy, immediate gratification over long-term storytelling gains. Each episode follows a familiar pattern, at least so far: in reverse order, focus on a new member of the Zodiac warriors participating in this bloody tournament, alternate between the present-day action and flashbacks that detail their sordid pasts, then watch them die a horrible death. The first episode gave us the Boar's vengeful rise to the top of her clan and her subsequent transformation into one of the Rabbit's zombie slaves. Episode two provided the Dog with an opportunity to use the Chicken to his advantage before she smooshed his head in, and episode three detailed Chicken's terribly grim origins right before Ox proved generous enough to give her a free (and fatal) corpus callosotomy with his katana. Given that next week's episode seems to focus on Monkey, I can only imagine that she won't be long for this world.

While I appreciate Juni Taisen's creative approach to framing its winner-takes-all fight to the death, I will admit that it's more appreciable as an exercise in style than anything else. The explicit telegraphing of each focus character's fate in their respective episodes make the fun of the show primarily in seeing how they die, even though you ultimately don't care so much about the how and whys by the end. It also results in decidedly uneven characterization; while Boar and Chicken both had interesting screwed-up backstories to help fill out their episodes and instill just enough empathy not to render their deaths entirely meaningless, poor Dog gets the short shrift. His episode mostly existed to provide exposition about the other fighters in the tournament and set up Chicken's betrayal at the end. While it makes sense that not every character will get the same level of characterization, Juni Taisen's frivolous disregard for its own cast's existences only reinforces that this show is bound to rub some viewers the wrong way.

Still, those moment-to-moment beats of emotion and gruesome spectacle do work for the most part. There are some shots that cut away too quickly, like when Chicken's crows make off with Boar's devoured remains, and some of the animation is inconsistent in character weight and clarity of the action. My biggest complaint so far would have to be the show's constant overlaying of inner-monologue atop spoken dialogue. I get the intended effect, and it works when used sparingly, but all too often we get characters explaining things in voiceover that the audience should be able to grasp via context alone, so the over-explanation ends up irritating. At one point, Chicken's inner monologue chimes in to remind the audience that she was planning on betraying Monkey's pack of pacifists, despite the entire episode being devoted to showing how easily she betrays people.

These are all minor issues though, and I'm happy to be keeping up with Juni Taisen this season overall. Its characters are fairly shallow archetypes, but they're still fun to watch, and the show's solid direction and brisk pace doesn't leave much time for the script to grow stale. From the opening moments of episode one, it was clear that this series was never going to be concerned with developing complex relationships between its cast members. Instead, this show is all about watching a bunch of weirdos in bizarre costumes use zodiac-themed super-powers to kill each other in a variety of gruesome ways. If you're looking for some dumb, crazy fun to get lost in this fall, Juni Taisen should have you covered for the foreseeable future.

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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