Reviewby Theron Martin,
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
Every 12 years, the Juni Taisen—a survivor-takes-all death match—is fought by mercenary warriors who represent each of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac: Rabbit, Boar, Ox, Horse, Monkey, Dragon, Serpent, Chicken, Dog, Sheep, Tiger, and Rat. For the warriors, at stake is both survival from a slow-acting poison and the granting of a wish for the winner, though their individual reasons for participating vary greatly. Their matches can also have significance in resolving geopolitical conflicts, as mysterious world leaders watch the outcome. As first one and then another warrior falls, (and some rise back up to fight again!) who will be left to endure the bloody conflict?
This Fall 2017 series is a little different in that it is derived almost entirely from a single light novel, and not a long one at that. To turn such a short work into 12 episodes of animation, the adaptation team headed by Naoto Hosoda (The Future Diary, The Devil is a Part-Timer!) fleshed the story out by expanding greatly on the introductory blurbs for each of the warriors, in many cases turning just a few sentences of exposition about a character's background into as much as half an episode of content. Hence the first ten episodes are about equally split between actual contest action and exploration of most of the character's backgrounds. The sole exception? Rabbit. But really, does a psychotic killer who looks like a buff male stripper, wears a huge fluffy bunny tail, and talks about killing people so they can become his “friends” (he is a “Necromantist,” so he can reanimate the corpses of those he kills) actually need a background story to be interesting?
Whether or not this approach works depends heavily on what you want to get out of this series. If your primary interest is in creative bloody battles, then these background examinations can drag on the story, especially since some of them are clearly stretching to fill up time. On the other hand, if you're at least as interested in the warriors as personalities, then these background segments can be an asset. Not all of them are equally interesting, but some pack surprises and they do provide a vast amount of insight into why they're coming into the Jūni Taisen, from some with the noblest intentions to pure greedy masterminds. In a couple of cases, this also allows viewers to see how certain characters have crossed paths in the past and how that impacts their participation here; the case of Tiger and Ox is a stand-out, leading to the series' only truly poignant moment.
The way that the Jūni Taisen plays out is both a benefit and a hindrance to its story. The perspective shifts with nearly every episode as different characters get their turn in the spotlight, which sometimes allows scenes to play out from two different angles; in one, we hear one of the character's thoughts over the other talking, while the situation might be reversed for the next episode. This can make the bigger picture come into focus more quickly, but the downside to this approach is that some characters will effectively disappear for several episodes before re-emerging when their turn comes, and after a clear pattern emergeswhere characters are highlighted in a specific order right before being killed off, the deaths become entirely predictable after the first couple.
World-building is where the series is found wanting the most, though. Most of the warriors have special powers without any explanation, and details about behind-the-scenes betting schemes that are used to resolve greater world conflicts are never elaborated on beyond a casual mention. As a result, the details of the Jūni Taisen's purpose and history are poorly supported by the narrative. Granted, that doesn't interfere with the way the action plays out, but it results in a contest that pretty much just exists for its own sake as a spectacle.
The series' storytelling deficiencies are at least partly balanced out by the colorful cast and action scenes. Hardly any of the characters are as simple as they appear to be at first, and even the relatively straightforward Rabbit is far from ordinary. Action scenes tend to be more brief bursts of violence than sustained choreography, though a few scenes with more involved tactics are scattered throughout. On the whole, they're more remarkable for being effectively graphic and the occasional dramatic punctuation when someone suddenly gets killed than they are for delivering a proper action series, and some of the better action scenes are actually in the flashbacks rather than the contest itself.
Then there's the way the series ends. The actual contest wraps in episode 10, with episode 11 dealing purely with the aftermath and some elaboration on the surviving victor. While the nature of the winner's ability is intriguing, it also makes for an anticlimactic ending to the contest. The final episode, which appears to be based on a one-shot follow-up manga, is a far more intriguing piece as it analyzes exactly what the winner might wish for given the context of his power. The ultimate conclusion is satisfyingly dramatic as the winner comes to the only decision that made sense to them. So despite a deflating climax, the series manages to end on a high note anyway if you enjoy its twisted sense of humor.
The visual strength of the series stems from its character designs and their elaborate animal-themed costuming, whether it's the dashing matador style of Ox or the sexy minimalist looks of Chicken and Tiger. It goes without saying that Rabbit is an all-time stand-out character design, but none of the characters except maybe Rat look like standard visual archetypes. The camera seems to understand that the characters can highlight a scene without having to fight, which comes through in shots like the particular attention paid to how Boar strolls up staircases, but otherwise the direction isn't anything special. Use of CGI enhances the fight scenes pretty well, and there's no real fanservice despite the skimpy costumes of some female characters, but a high tolerance for graphic violence is recommended. The series also fares respectably well on the musical front. Diverse instrumentation makes for a flexible and generally effective musical score; it won't be especially memorable, but it does the job well enough. The rock-flavored opener is solid, while the closer is wholly unremarkable.
Funimation's English dub for the series is excellent. All of the roles are well-cast and adapted for English, with the highlight arguably being Clifford Chapin as Dragon and Matt Shipman as Serpent. Since this was simuldubbed originally, none of the voice actors had seen the series through at the time of recording, so their reactions to their characters being eliminated were recorded and included as extras. The Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack release also includes clean opener and closer and access to a digital copy.
Overall, Jūni Taisen has just enough going for it to warrant a recommendation. Much of its content is hit-or-miss in effectiveness, but the worst parts are largely just yawners, and the best parts are good enough to be worth the watch for genre fans.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Clever final episode, some good character studies and designs, strong English dub
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