This Week in Anime
Was the Zodiac War Worth Fighting For?

by Jacob Chapman & Steve Jones,

We hope you've been enjoying our new This Week in Anime feature this year! We'll be back for more anime discussion on January 2nd, but we're off for the yuletide season! Happy Holidays and we'll see you in 2018!

Juni Taisen: Zodiac War was a fight to the finish between Chinese Zodiac-themed warriors, but its twists and turns left viewers equally divided. This week in anime, Jacob and Steve duke it out over whether this battle royale was worth watching.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.


@Lossthief

@Liuwdere

@ANNJakeH

@vestenet


You can read our weekly coverage of Jūni Taisen: Zodiac War here!

Steve
Jake, I've been busy at the This Week in Anime laboratory running an exhaustive computational analysis of every fall anime episode, and I've come up with the most important screenshot of the season:


Jacob
SOMEONE hasn't been skipping leg day.

You don't get to the Juni Taisen by just focusing on your upper body, although Bunny definitely does that too.

Just, what a beautiful gift of a character design.

Yeah, he and all his new "friends" deserved a better show.

Except these douchebags, they deserve what they got:

The fact that they got two focus episodes and Rabbit got zero sums up several of Zodiac War's problems already.

Hey now, I actually enjoyed Juni Taisen quite a bit! It's definitely an odd show, any way you slice it. I will agree that the snake bros can go slither somewhere else.

Sweet, I guess we can have our own little Zodiac War then. We'll battle over whether the show worth your time or not.

LET'S FIGHT


Steve, Warrior of Trash Anime, killing by shitposting!

Jacob, Warrior of Enter-taint-ment, killing with rhetoric and rant!

So basically, Juni Taisen is a battle royale tournament where all the characters have to kill each other. But because it's based on a novel by Nisioisin (of Monogatari fame), it's anything but your typical killing game story. For one thing, you know from the get-go who dies and in what order, thanks to the Chinese Zodiac.

Well you know what they say, last to arrive first to...die?

The conceit is that each of the 12 episodes focuses on one of the characters, who usually dies at the end of their episode. Fun times!

And so the pattern continues for the rest of the show. Right from the beginning, you know how it's going to middle and end. I was not in love with this choice for a number of reasons. So, saying that genres have "rules" isn't entirely true. It's storytelling, rules exist to be broken. But if you're breaking a rule, you should probably do it for a reason that works for your audience. That said, here are the "rules" of a killing game story that Zodiac War breaks.

1) -Not knowing who's going to go next- As we mentioned, it's reverse zodiac order (with the exception of Snake who dies before the story starts because why not pointlessly break your own rules too), so that basic appeal is out.
2) -Having a stake in who wins for what reason, which may change over time depending on how alliances shift and characters develop- It's established right away that this is a proxy war between parties we never learn about, so it doesn't really matter who wins beyond the warriors' personal motivations. That would be fine, but most of these warriors aren't given a compelling reason to win, and the majority are even deliberately flat and unsympathetic.
3) -Twist surrounding the climax that changes the stakes or what beating the game means for the participants- This doesn't really happen either. The game's function remains straightforward until the end, and we don't ever learn much about it to begin with except that it serves the interests of unknown shadow governments.

Basically, this is a battle royale story that is probably not going to please battle royale fans and kinda seems like it was not even written with them in mind. So what is it aiming to do? And does it accomplish that? These become the new questions, and I'm still not sure of the answer to the first one, so my answer to the second one is "I don't think so".

Yeah, based on how the show was promoted, the presumed audience of Juni Taisen would be fans of the killing game genre. But because it's arguably intentionally designed to be an unsatisfying killing game, there was no chance it wasn't going to disappoint most of the people who were looking forward to it. So who's it for then? I don't know lol. My best guess is Nisioisin fans, which seems to hold true because I like Nisio and I liked this anime.

Yeah, that holds up! I don't like Nisio, and I don't like this anime.

Well, there you go!

It's mostly frustrating because there are things that I like about the show. The character designs are excellent. There's some great compelling imagery, creative concepts for weird warrior superpowers, that kinda thing.

Crows haunting zombies, that's a cool shot.

And crows carrying stick grenades, that's pretty rad!

But it doesn't come together in a satisfying way, it deliberately becomes less surprising or engaging as it goes (again, the complete opposite of intended killing game story momentum), and I don't particularly care for what Nisio was (I think?) trying to say through it, which is all delivered at the end through blunt monologue instead of being threaded thematically through the fights themselves. But I'll get into that later, I'm curious what you liked most about it.

I think one of NIsio's core strengths is the way he creates characters to get into these lofty debates with each other, and as such Juni Taisen is concerned with backstories and philosophies more than who kills whom. So I enjoyed the eccentric characters and how their different perspectives on war informed their entire lives. I guess for me it's less about the overall picture and more about individual moments and ideas where the show really shone.

I also enjoyed watching Tiger get drunk off her ass, because same.

It is certainly a highlight.

The philosophical stuff didn't work for me because Nisio's style of discourse is usually not my speed. I thought his ideas in this show were cliche and underdeveloped. But that's okay, you can have that in splatterfest entertainment, it was his style of dialogue that particularly killed the momentum of a killing game. I feel like this was just not his genre as a guy who tends to bludgeon you with redundant prose, because jesus christ will these fighters STOP DESCRIBING WHAT I CAN SEE HAPPENING ONSCREEN ALL THE TIME.


The most egregious moment is when we spend an entire episode with Sheep detailing all his plans for potentially negotiating with other characters (some of whom are already dead and he doesn't know). We hear every little detail of his A plans and B plans for winning the game, wasting maybe ten minutes of time before Tiger just kills him because he underestimated her. And that doesn't have much thematic resonance because regardless of their personality, basically everyone gets killed by unpredictable surprise or generic underestimation in this thing. It doesn't even fit Monkey's character for that to happen to her, but that's just how she ends up going!

Exactly! It's a really shitty killing game that's not fair for anybody, and that's ultimately the point imo. It's the ultimate meaningless war, which of course means that it's frustrating for anybody who wants to actually watch an engaging battle play out. Like, while I agree with all your criticisms of the story, that's all stuff I don't really care about. I'm normally not a fan of this genre, so the show deliberately eschewing most of what makes killing game anime tick actually creates a show that's much more interesting to me. But I also totally understand that making a shitty war anime in order to communicate that war is shitty is gonna frustrate most people.

I guess I chafe against the idea that just portraying a meaningless war is the same as communicating a message about the meaninglessness of war, which is very different and takes a great deal more effort and nuance. I don't think that Nisio succeeded in the latter, I think he just succeeded at the former.

I'd argue he did both, but I think that's largely gonna come down to how you feel about Nisio and his writing.

As a fan of the battle royale genre myself, I think you can write a killing game story to convey a message of hope, even one that rejects the killing game as pointless and frames the combatants as allies in humanity against a true oppressor. The Hunger Games did it, Danganronpa did it, the best killing game stories that speak to people for the longest time do that very well. Zodiac War isn't really interested in doing that, as exemplified by who wins the war and what he spends his wish on.

So this is Rat. He's a real charmer.


Naturally the guy who cared the least about the Juni Taisen wins it.

Unlike the participants, he's not especially motivated by anything in life, but he has the Dark Souls-esque power of trying out endless (okay 100) possibilities until one sticks. So he's guaranteed to win the war, the process is just going to be very unpleasant for him.


It IS the coolest of the weird supernatural powers that the warriors get, so it makes sense that it would lead him to victory. But I really liked the way the last episode explores how even that has its limits, ultimately turning his own power against him. I also like that said superpower is basically Super Anxiety.

Sure, but this is the problem I run into with Nisio's work a lot, which is that it might be interesting in a vacuum but doesn't bear much relevance to real-world issues—that would be fine if he wasn't trying to write about real-world conflicts, but he definitely is. I think the term for this phenomenon is "too clever by half."

Basically, Juni Taisen is only clever in an "elaborate shaggy-dog-length pun" sort of way. Rat wins by "riding Ox (and Monkey) to the finishing line", but I'm not sure what Nisio is trying to say through that.

Is it that wars are won by people who don't care about them? That isn't true. Neither are fictional killing games. Rat only won because he had a superpower, which technically required him to give a shit against his will.

And if that superpower is supposed to be Super Anxiety, (it's at least an accurate term for how it affects him), what is Nisio trying to say about that? I'm honestly not sure. Rat is made happy by deciding to care even less about the world than he did before. Is true happiness supposed to be not giving a shit about anything? Wouldn't this conclusion be more striking if it were given to someone who started out by caring too much instead of too little?

It's all too clever by half all the time, and it's hard to relate to or pull anything meaningful from besides Nisio once again writing a story where he elevates some asshole teenager whose passivity is rewarded by everyone pretending it's interesting I guess? I DON'T GET IT. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I think you're looking too hard and it's possible that the message of the show isn't anything deeper than "war is bad." I don't think it's inaccurate to say that war can be fought for dumb reasons and won for dumb reasons. And Rat's ending isn't what I would call a happy one, but it's probably the happiest one available to him. It's a total anticlimax, and he begs to forget everything to do with the Juni Taisen (which maybe a lot of the audience wants to do too lol). The show succeeded for me most as a weird character piece rather than something with a complex overarching message.

Eh, I don't need twelve episodes of weird poorly-written anticlimax to tell me that war is bad without really exploring why. I just want a compelling story, themes or no themes, and Zodiac War didn't quite get there. Although TWO EPISODES spent on the slither twins certainly didn't help.


I WILL hold them responsible for the worst part of the show, for sure.

That Adobe AfterEffects fire package...

The best thing the snake bros contributed to the story was more booze for Tiger to drink.

Also this very relatable exchange

I guess if I could throw out a wish for the show to be something, anything else that's not too ambitious and wouldn't detract from the "fighting is bad" thing, it would be more focus on that intended character stuff, which I found very weak. The last episode begins to approach this, but doesn't really follow through on because Rat doesn't care about anybody. But I like the show's largely untapped idea that you can't judge any of these guys based on appearances. The story only uses this to surprise someone with a superpower or hidden knowledge that leads to a death, but I would've liked for it to have more thematic resonance.

Because all those little throwaway surprises at the end were great! I laughed out loud at most of them.


Yeah! I thought the finale was a nice sendoff and reinforced that I would love to have spent more time with these characters.

(Boar's wish was pretty #relatable lbr)

But I felt like the show didn't really do anything with it because what, empathy? Not in this show!

Definitely not.

If this show gets a continuation of any kind, I want to know what happened in the JUNI TAISEN IN SPACE.

RIGHT?

Because holy shit there was a juni taisen IN SPACE

also consider: the winner was a sheep grandpa who plays video games

Apparently the book is getting some kind of a sequel, so who knows what future Juni Taisens will have in store for us? (Spoiler: probably more talking.)

Uggggh, Nisio.

I'm tellin ya, Too Clever By Half.


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