Reviewby Lynzee Loveridge,
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War
Every 12 years, a dozen of the world's toughest mercenaries gather on a single battleground to fight to the death. The reward is a single limitless wish of their choice. These fighters of the Chinese zodiac have convened in an abandoned city to test their luck against the toughest adversaries, but things get off to an unexpectedly rocky start when one fighter collapses the meeting room's floor right after Monkey proposes a truce, claiming she can end the fight without anyone dying. Can the Zodiac War end without any casualties, or is peace merely a facade for deadly betrayal?
As an anime fan, it's hard to ignore the works of NisiOisin. The anime adaptation of his Monogatari novels is renowned for the symbiotic relationship between studio Shaft's art style and the author's indulgent character writing. Monogatari is synonymous with many hallmarks of otaku pop culture from questionable toothbrushes to complex psychological analysis of anime tropes. The Kubikiri Cycle OVA follows in these footsteps, while his Imperfect Girl manga is also centered around disturbing protagonists. I've tuned in weekly to Graphinica's adaptation of NisiOisin's Juni Taisen: Zodiac War novel because I can't get enough of its bombastic, twisted characters murdering one another. It's buttery popcorn entertainment at its best.
Knowing all this, I cracked open the novel expecting more fleshed-out backstories for the game's warriors, hoping to discover what makes them tick and what wishes they want granted so desperately that they'd put their lives at stake. I expected plenty of double-crossing and cackling laughter, ready to suspend my disbelief for a fun ride over the next 200 or so pages. Unfortunately, I was horribly disappointed. The Juni Taisen novel reads like the bare bones of its own premise, and I have to applaud the anime's writers for building upon this material to make something entertaining. The book manages to be a redundantly bloated mess, with each thin chapter padded out with expository narration to the point that terminology and motivations get explained thrice over, giving the impression that the book expects you to either not be paying attention or just be too stupid to understand details the first time around.
This is especially odd because it's not like this novel is entrenched in fantasy terms or military jargon. There is nothing complicated about the narrative itself that would require so much of what can only be described as “filler.” For example, the first chapter describes Boar as haughty, egotistical, elegant-minded, and a perfectionist, in third-person narration that shoves each detail down the reader's throat. Four pages into the first chapter, it's easy to find yourself mumbling, “yeah I get it already”, but then this follows for the entire rest of the book. The choice to also over-explanatory third-person narration into every chapter as the focus character changes only makes the experience more awkward. A complete first-person perspective for each chapter would have greatly enhanced the story's characterization and reading experience, but it would have also required a greater level of effort.
Readers also hoping for more backstory on each fighter will also be disappointed. Character's past experiences do not factor into the novel at all. Instead, each chapter opens with a “profile page” for the character where a short run-down of their life is put down. I really can't emphasize how extremely lazy this is, it comes off like the worksheets authors usually create to flesh out their cast before writing, not a shortcut to skip fleshing out characters within the narrative itself. This is also what makes the chapters so frustrating because there was obviously some thought that went into making these warriors but instead of actually writing it, we're treated to monotonous filler instead. If NisiOisin was having a hard time making his page count, he could have revisited his whole approach and written an interesting book.
In their one-backstory-per-episode approach, the anime series' writers are basically filling in the blanks of short profiles that completely precede the book's main narrative. For example, in episode one we learn about Boar's long-con of her younger sister who was initially chosen to represent the clan in the Zodiac War. That entire sequence in the anime is based on a single sentence from Boar's profile page that offers no detail on what she did, only that she tricked her sister out of the running. All other backstories are derived the same way, making it fair to argue that the characters on screen belong just as much to screenwriter Sadayuki Mirai as NisiOisin. It'll be interesting to see how the anime adaptation handles Rabbit, who doesn't even get a profile page and thus no backstory whatsoever.
Fans of the anime series will also notice a few translation inconsistencies that could use some tweaking for a more streamlined experience. Each Zodiac character has an introduction that includes how they kill. These are not the same between both mediums, with Rabbit's being the most obviously different ('killing psychotically' in the anime vs 'killing with distinction' in the book), while others are synonymous but use slightly different English words. It would have been nice for the translations to achieve more consistency in this regard.
Juni Taisen essentially reads as a shell of a story. It flounders to keep its plot moving at a breakneck pace, while padding out expository details to keep that story from ending at half its page count. Characters' unique power attributes are utilized fairly well for some interesting face-offs, but their personalities and motivations get completely lost in the rushed narrative if they aren't just ignored altogether. Without revealing too much, readers are also likely to find the ending an immense cop-out when it comes to how the winner's wish is realized. If you had a hard time looking past the convenience of a poison jewel that only dissolves in stomach acid in a set amount of time and can't be regurgitated, prepare yourself for much more contrived outcomes down the line.
Unlike its television counterpart, Juni Taisen isn't an entertaining experience. For a book that's supposed to be all about the blood, guts, and glory, it feels more like a poorly written chore.
Overall : D
Story : D
Art : B
+ Interesting premise with potential for a raucous good time, memorable character designs
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