Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War
Episodes 1-12 Streaming
The rules of the Juni Taisen are clear. Every twelve years, one challenger representing each noble beast of the zodiac will stand with their fellow warriors. Every twelve years, these warriors will fight until only one remains, using all their strength and cunning to cut down their fellow contestants. There can be no mercy in the Juni Taisen, and little room for remorse—after all, only one fighter can secure the final victory and the wish-granting prestige it carries. As the curtain rises, let's see who will triumph over their bloodythirsty rivals in the latest Juni Taisen!
In some ways, the clarity of Juni Taisen's premise is what makes it such a strange property. The show has a clear and obvious hook: twelve zodiac-themed warriors all use their awesome strength and fantastical powers to try and kill each other. The first episode lays out this premise with grace, offering a morbid and action-packed introduction to one of the twelve fighters. Expectations are thus set for a campy, thrilling battle royale, a show dedicated to awesome fights between a machete-wielding bunny and various other absurd characters.
But Juni Taisen is not a campy, thrilling battle royale. In spite of its violent, contrived premise and over-the-top character designs, the show turns out to be a pretty terrible vehicle for sweet fights. Violence in Juni Taisen is usually so quick that it's unsatisfying, and the luxurious fight animation of Boar's backstory never really returns. In spite of all indications to the contrary, Juni Taisen is ultimately more a melancholy series of character sketches than an action show. If you're familiar with its author Nisioisin, this isn't actually that surprising.
Setting up an obvious action-friendly premise and then subverting it into a melancholy character-focused piece is actually a trick Nisioisin has used before in Katanagatari. “A tactician and her bodyguard hunt down twelve legendary swords” feels like it'd be grounds for a thrilling spectacle, but Katanagatari turned out to be a long series of roundabout dialogues, an endearing romance, and a reflection on the nature of legacy. Juni Taisen is similarly subversive, though whether it's effectively subversive is a much thornier question. But at least as a starting point, expecting Juni Taisen to please as a traditional action show is definitely a recipe for disappointment.
That said, the show's action chops aren't totally without merit. Its first episode is thrilling from start to finish, and there's certainly fun to be found in wondering how Juni Taisen's various challengers will all match up in a fight. Every character in the Juni Taisen has at least one unique power, whether it's the ability to command birds or the ability to regulate poisons within their own body. How the characters make use of these abilities, as well as their general combat strength, leads to a number of entertainingly lopsided showdowns. But generally, these showdowns follow a standard formula of hubris leading to death, with few of Juni Taisen's antiheroes getting an opportunity to show off their full strength.
That seems to be the point with this show. Episodes follow a consistent formula, with each one centering on a new competitor and offering both backstory and some progression of the present-day conflict. Individually, Juni Taisen's stars range from dedicated pacifists to gleeful hedonists, from warriors terrified by their own weakness to champions so strong they can't even conceive of being weak. The show is good at painting likable and multifaceted characters in as few strokes as possible, and even for the more one-dimensional stars, their characterization is generally pulled off with enough flair to make them entertaining regardless. As with all Nisioisin shows, these characters' conflicts often come down to simply arguing with their fellows—whether before a climactic duel or in the course of working as temporary allies, Juni Taisen's characters build a variety of rapports that serve to further illustrate their diverse natures.
Collectively, all of these little character stories conjure a picture of a sad and violent world. In spite of its exploitation-friendly premise, Juni Taisen seems disgusted by war and far more interested in its human consequences than its potential value as entertainment. Juni Taisen's characters are shaped by their violent upbringings, and as the show continues, it begins to feel more like the story is celebrating their lives as they end than dangling clues as to who might win. The show's formula seems to follow its point: “No matter how strong you are, the violence of war is brutish and unfair and sudden. Find your worth in your beliefs and the life you lived, not in the glory of combat.”
Of course, a show whose choices undercut its own appeal as entertainment won't necessarily be fun to watch. At its best, Juni Taisen is able to tell gripping little episodic tragedies, stories that make you care deeply about its warriors just before they exit the stage. Its snappy fight scenes offer all the validation these characters need; one hero may die without even striking their opponent, but if that death marks the turning point where they first decided to believe in something, it's still its own kind of victory.
At its worst, Juni Taisen is simply tedious. The problem of scattering your focus across twelve characters that tend to die shortly after you meet them means Juni Taisen has a serious issue with narrative flow, and that individual episodes tend to succeed or fail based on the strength of their focus characters. There's a bloody shakeup around the halfway point that leaves the show floundering for direction, and a two-episode arc focused on contenders far too boring to warrant the doubled attention. The show's last arc pulls its remaining characters together well and even offers some genuine action highlights, but the road there is circuitous and marked by missteps. Did I like Juni Taisen? Yes, very much. Did I enjoy my time with it? Well, certainly not all of it.
Juni Taisen is almost as distinctive in its aesthetics as its narrative priorities. The show's character designs are wonderfully over-the-top, each contestant evoking their zodiac parallel through cues that range from subtle boar-tusk earrings to an absurd booty shorts/suspenders/bunny tail combo. The distinctive photography work of Yoshihiro Sekiya makes these characters seem to pop off the screen; as in his work on Granblue Fantasy, Sekiya's preference toward ostentatiously variable line weight makes his characters feel like living sketches. The direction is less of a standout, but the show is often able to use its carefully employed CG to set up some dynamic fight scenes. Of course, much of this series is simply focused on killers having long rambling conversations with each other, so the camera often just doesn't have much to do.
On the music front, Juni Taisen offers a relatively strong soundtrack, with orchestral tunes sitting nicely next to ominous chanting melodies and a variety of other distinctive songs. The music doesn't generally draw much attention to itself, but the diverse instrumentation certainly gives it a unique flavor. The show's musical highlight is likely its opening theme, a driving rock song that's effectively contrasted against arresting double-exposure images of the show's stars.
Overall, Juni Taisen is exactly the kind of Weird Thing that I always have trouble recommending. I enjoyed this show, but I'm a major fan of its creator, and Juni Taisen reflects that creator's eccentricities in ways that deeply limit its potential audience. Those expecting a traditional battle royale will almost certainly be disappointed, and even as a melancholy character piece, there are stumbles that make for an uneven journey. But ultimately, the show's strange, sympathetic, and doomed heroes almost all won me over. It's a credit to Juni Taisen that its chosen genre actually made me kind of mad; I didn't want to see these characters die, I wanted them to laugh and bicker and generally celebrate the human vibrancy they embodied. That Juni Taisen's unfairness is the point only somewhat lessens the sting of saying goodbye to these characters. Juni Taisen is slow at times, but when the end comes, it feels like it all went by too fast.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Offers a collection of tragic and touching character stories, builds to an emphatic refutation of war, character art gives it a unique visual appeal
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