First Look: Joker Game

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Novel Adaptation by Production I.G
Streaming on Crunchyroll

Premise

The year is 1937 and Lieutenant-Colonel Yuuki has formed a team of spies, none of whom have a background in the military but all of whom are highly trained and skilled in the arts of manipulation. Known as the “D Agency”, these antihero agents are tasked with conducting various operations in the midst of – a possibly fictitious version of? – the second Sino-Japanese War.

Artemis’ verdict: Mixed Feelings

I’ll get the most obvious thing out of the way first – anime producers really need to be hiring people with better English skills when it comes to scripting English dialogue. I get that the voice actors do the best they can with pronunciation, and I also get that the vast majority of Japanese people – i.e. the target audience – have a very poor grasp of English grammar, let alone what constitutes natural phrasing. (This is not me being elitist by the way; I speak from personal experience.) That said, I definitely think a little more effort would go a long way, and it can’t cost all that much to get a native speaker (or just someone with an English language degree) to check over a few lines, can it? I know this may come across as making a big deal out of a relatively minor point, but when it’s literally the very first thing you’re confronted with in a story, this stuff matters.

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I also sense I’m going to have some issues with setting, or more specifically, the way in which the setting is handled when it comes to war-related content. Again, I fully understand that as a foreigner, I’m not the target audience for the show and just to be clear, I like the setting in general terms. The 1930s are an interesting time and I’m always up for anime with a historical bent, especially when they get away from the also interesting but by now way overdone Edo period. To its credit, Joker Game looks to be handling details like clothing and architecture pretty well, and that leaves a really good first impression. I’m a lot more conflicted about the personal viewpoints being expressed here, to say nothing of the portrayal of the one foreigner right off the bat. I didn’t feel strongly enough about it to be offended but I definitely wouldn’t say I felt comfortable either, and I’m wary about what might be coming in later episodes.

But hey, there’s also a decent amount to like here. The premise, based on a series of full-length novels, is very different from the usual anime fare, and since it’s not aimed at teens we thankfully get none of the tropes I’d be anticipating from a shounen or shoujo title. While we know little of most of the cast yet, the number balance is good and I think they all have a lot of room for potential. And as I’ve come to expect from Production I.G, the visuals have a very distinctive feel that works really well for the setting. The animation itself isn’t anything special and I actually noticed a number of drawn-out still frames, but I really dig the character designs, and there’s also a lot to be said for good framing and composition. Whatever I end up thinking of the story, Joker Game has already impressed me with its sense of style – and that’s evident in the OP and ED visuals as well, even if the songs themselves are only average.

I’m not sold yet, but this has certainly earned at least another couple of episodes.

jokergame3Aqua’s verdict: Threading Dangerous Waters

All anime come with a ‘This show is a work of fiction’ warning nowadays, but I’ve never felt it particularly necessary up until now. Despite what people may claim, it is virtually impossible for fiction to be apolitical, especially when it concerns actual, real-life politics. This is why anime set in 1930s Japan is such a tough sell for me. On one hand, it’s an incredibly interesting setting, capturing the nation slowly succumbing to yet another militaristic regime. On the other hand, many Japanese creators have shown time after time again their incapability of acknowledging that this was undisputedly a very bad thing. In order to portray this era without falling back on harmful trivialization or outright delusional romanticizing, a lot of care is required, and to a certain degree Joker Game possesses this level of care.

Rather than portraying its heroes as, well, heroes, Joker Game pulls back from the action and focuses on the intrige behind the scenes, wisely opting to explore the philosophies of waging war rather than the ideologies. By bringing the still very much samurai-minded Sakuma into conflict with a new brand of soldier, who ‘cowardly’ dispose of their enemies without firing a single bullet themselves, Joker Game sums up sufficient pros and cons for both side of the argument, and most importantly of all, portrays its characters as they are, never creating any situations in which anyone gets the moral high ground. While audiences are clearly supposed to empathize with the honorable Sakuma over the ruthless spies, in the end his stubborn dedication to the bushido code of honour turns out to be his own, pointless undoing.

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It helps, of course, that Joker Game has the style and tension to maintain an impression of nuance. The directing is tight and tense, the atmospheric jazz soundtrack classy and the voice acting consistently understated. While it occasionally does foray into ham-fisted anime metaphor – the sequence that explains the show’s title is by far and away the episode’s nadir – Joker Game‘s script generally treats its audience with the same respect invested in its production values. All these elements combined, a provocative subject matter, old-school class and writing that doesn’t do viewers’ reasoning for them, make Joker Game into this season’s token thinking man’s anime. I just hope with all my heart that it won’t resort to catering to the wrong kinds of thinking.

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3 thoughts on “First Look: Joker Game

  1. Any comments on ep2 and 3? To be honest I’m really enjoying it. I thought the second episode gave us a view into the blind ideology of the military and Japan in general during that era. And the third finally took us into the action where we see the results of the training we see in the OP.

    It makes me wonder if Japan reall had spies in Europe prior, during and after the war…You know since this is a work of fiction and all.

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