Shelf Life
Joker Game

by Paul Jensen,

By the time you read this, the madness of Cyber Monday will probably be in full swing. I'm not really hunting for anything big this year, but best of luck to those of you who are. At least mashing the refresh button on your browser is more civilized than spending hours in line outside a store, which I have never done and probably never will. Welcome to Shelf Life.

Jump to this week's review:
Joker Game

On Shelves This Week

Full Metal Panic! The Second Raid - Complete Collection BD+DVD [Anime Classics]
Funimation - 325 min - Hyb - MSRP $34.98
Currently cheapest at: $25.54 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Sousuke is torn between his loyalty to Mithril and his desire to protect Kaname as a dangerous paramilitary group rises to power.

Extra: This Full Metal Panic! sequel originally came out in the days of single-disc releases, and we have reviews of volumes one, two, three, and four. You can stream it on Funimation and Hulu.

GoShogun - Complete Collection DVD
Discotek - 600 min - Sub - MSRP $49.95
Currently cheapest at: $32.47 Right Stuf

Synopsis: A former soldier, a spy, and a gangster team up to battle against the evil organization Docooga using a giant robot.

Extra: The last time this series appeared in the US, it was edited together with another show and aired on TV under the title Macron 1. For more background on the franchise, you'll want to read this installment of The Mike Toole Show.

Kiddy Girl -And - Complete Collection BD+DVD
Funimation - 600 min - Sub - MSRP $69.98
Currently cheapest at: $45.79 Amazon

Synopsis: Ascoeur and Q-feuille are trainees in the ES law enforcement agency, aiming to match the legacy of legendary agents Éclair and Lumiere.

Extra: This show is a sequel of sorts to Kiddy Grade, a sci-fi action series that I watched in high school but can't remember worth a darn. While we have an old review of Kiddy Grade, we've got nothing on this newer series. It doesn't appear to be available from any of the usual streaming sites, though you can watch the original series on Funimation.

Marmalade Boy - Part 2 DVD
Discotek - 830 min - Hyb - MSRP $59.95
Currently cheapest at: $38.97 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Miki's relationship with Yuu seems to be working out, but the appearance of Yuu's old flame Anju causes Miki to question Yuu's feelings for her.

Extra: Not much has changed since the first part of this series came out a few months ago: our formal reviews are still limited to a relatively old look at the original manga.

Squid Girl - Complete Collection BD, DVD, Limited Edition
Sentai - 675 min - Hyb - MSRP $99.98|$79.98|$199.98
Currently cheapest at: $57.19 Amazon|$51.99 Right Stuf|$114.29 Amazon

Synopsis: A vengeful squid attempts to invade the surface world, but she ends up working as a waitress in order to pay off the damage she causes to a seaside restaurant.

Extra: All my memories of this 2010 comedy are of squid puns. Lots and lots of squid puns. We have an old review of a region 4 DVD release of the first season, and you can stream the series on Crunchyroll and HIDIVE.

Swan Lake DVD
Discotek - 75 min - Hyb - MSRP $24.95
Currently cheapest at: $16.22 Right Stuf

Synopsis: The young Prince Siegfried encounters a beautiful swan, which turns out to be the Princess Odette who has been placed under a curse by the sorcerer Rothbart.

Extra: We don't have much coverage of this 1981 movie based on the classic ballet, but our user ratings for it have an average of about 7.2 out of 10.

Shelf Life Reviews

Shelf Worthy
Joker Game
Nothing this week.
Nothing this week.

I took a look at Joker Game for this week's review. If a mix of historical fiction and spy thriller stories sounds like your cup of tea, read on.

Joker Game falls into an interesting little category within the list of shows I've reviewed for this column. It's one of those rare cases where I think a series qualifies as Shelf Worthy even though I personally didn't love it. It does some things that don't really work for me, but its balance of good and bad points tips toward the positive end of the scale. At the end of the day, its appeal depends on what you want out of a spy thriller story.

The series follows the exploits of the clandestine “D-Agency,” a spy group formed in Japan during the buildup to World War II. Recruited from the civilian population instead of the military, the group's members are trained in a wide variety of skills before being sent on missions both inside Japan and abroad. Rather than following a single narrative path from beginning to end, Joker Game is presented as a series of largely standalone stories. Each single or two-episode arc tells the story of a particular mission carried out by D-Agency's operatives.

Right off the bat, this premise is likely to raise a few eyebrows. This time period in general covers some very sensitive territory, and things get even more precarious when you zoom in on Japan's military. A few minutes into the first episode, it'd be perfectly reasonable to worry about Joker Game sliding into blindly nationalistic territory. The show does indeed have a political point to make, but it turns out to be the opposite of what you might expect. The members of D-Agency are presented as a calm, rational counterpoint to the zeal and ambition of the regular military. While they do face off against spies from other countries, they spend a similar amount of time dealing with corrupt, incompetent, or downright bloodthirsty army officers from their own nation. The message is so blatant that's it's nigh impossible to miss: espionage in service of de-escalating violence good, escalating a war for national pride bad.

Apart from the relative lack of subtlety, that's all fine and dandy as far as I'm concerned. Joker Game has a strong central theme, and it's consistent in its presentation. Unfortunately, that emphasis on rational thinking has a pretty major side effect on the cast. The D-Agency guys are too calm and collected for their own good. They come across as being so emotionally distant that it's difficult to relate to them, and the group's commander is the only member to get any significant character development. Even there, we only get to know Yuuki through other people's observations of his actions. All of the messy and emotional human stuff is reserved for characters outside of D-Agency: rival spies, enemy soldiers, and ordinary people caught up in one mission or another. These characters tend to be more memorable than the protagonists, simply because they act like real human beings. When I find a German army officer more interesting than the supposed “good guys,” it's usually not a great sign.

The good news is that many of the stories are still intriguing, even if there's not much to attach to from an emotional standpoint. Much of the appeal lies in the missions themselves, which present a wide variety of challenges for each protagonist of the week to solve. One spy must maintain his cover story despite losing his memory, another gets captured and has to resist interrogation while plotting his escape, and on it goes. The interesting twist is that D-Agency's policy is to complete each mission without killing anyone, since murdering someone in peacetime is a quick way to blow your cover. That limitation is the closest thing these guys have to a weakness, which forces them to employ some unusual tactics. Even after it becomes obvious that the protagonists are too competent to ever fail a mission, the process of getting the job done is almost always worth watching.

Joker Game also looks and sounds pretty darn good. The visual direction and animation quality are both impressive, and everything from the costume design to the background art helps give it a strong sense of time and place. That atmosphere is further improved by the music, which does a nice job of setting the mood for each storyline. Funimation's dub is solid in most aspects, though some episodic characters' European accents can be hit-or-miss. Aside from the usual on-disc extras, this set contains two short-format episodes about a stray cat's adventures around the D-Agency headquarters. These shorts are a bit more fanciful than the rest of the series, but they're entertaining in their own right.

In many respects, Joker Game is the kind of series that I'd normally recommend without hesitation. It's well produced, it has some intriguing spy vs. spy story arcs, and it presents some big ideas for the audience to grapple with. The thing that keeps me from loving it is the lack of emotion, especially from its protagonists. Even in a story that champions rational thought over impulsive action, I prefer my heroes a little more flawed and relatable. That's not enough of a problem to keep Joker Game out of Shelf Worthy territory, however, and it's especially worth checking out if you prefer fewer car chases and more actual spycraft in an espionage thriller.

That wraps up the review section for this week. Thanks for reading!

This week's shelves are from Jonathan:

"I have been collecting anime since the 80s. I still have a few dozen tapes in storage. Nothing to play them on which is why they are in storage. My first anime DVD purchase was the Pioneer LDC Tenchi Muyo! Ultimate Edition. And yes, I have bought Tenchi a couple of more times.

I am retired now. My collection is still growing, but slower than it once did."

Even if they're in storage now, you still get bonus points for owning tapes. It's always cool to see collections that have grown and evolved over the decades. Thanks for sharing!

Got shelves of your own that you want to show off? Send me your photos at [email protected]!

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