Joker Game Review

This is review number three hundred and seventy one. This anime is part of the Spring 2016 lineup. It’s called Joker Game, and it’s a twelve episode anime about spies in the Shouwa era. Baccano and last season’s Shouwa Genroku has already proven that anything set in the 1930s is just awesome, and this is another show to convince us of that. Let’s read on.

Story

As the embers of war smoldered, in autumn of 1937, the Imperial Army established a clandestine spy agency. The histories, names and even ages of the elite men, who pass its rigorous application process, are all treated as top secret information. They easily complete training exercises that push them to their physical and mental limits. Under the command of founder Lieutenant Colonel Yuuki, they operate worldwide within the shadows.

And so, a brand new intelligence agency was created. Its name is “D-Agency.

– Opening Narration

Taking the Pants Off

Joker Game is a really good anime, and it has stayed true to the idea that novel adapted anime are pretty gawd damn awesome. I personally feel a bit mixed about my experience with the show though, and I can’t quite describe it properly. It’s not really a feeling of disappointment, but more of feeling like there should’ve been more to this anime. It follows a new spy agency in Japan before it enters World War II, and it involves eight spy agents carrying out their various missions. I guess for a story slut like me that loves exposition, I just wanted a stronger narrative than what we got. Of course, I’m not saying Joker Game’s story is simple. It’s actually far from it. It is complex, engaging and an absolute thrill ride from start to finish. I smile at the end of every episode because of the solid writing from the show. It’s just clean and concise, and it’s a pretty rare thing to come by nowadays. Personally reviewing three hundred and seventy anime, you really cherish those that are truly good. Joker Game is a really great anime. I’m a bit bummed though, because I really wanted more. I’ll explain later on, but I do believe Joker Game is a solid for 2016.

The anime is about a group of spies and their missions. Every episode has a standalone story focusing on one of the eight spies of the D-Agency. There are some two part episodes, but the anime is non-episodic in design. At first I was a bit dubious of this, because I think spy stories should be longer than twenty two minutes given how awesome the idea is. The first episode easily changed my mind though. The way it explained the Joker Game, I was suddenly leaning towards my laptop screen because of how intriguing the setup is. The first episode explains that the Joker Game is about convincing other people to join your side, and it also involves using people to get what you want. A poker scene suddenly took on a different meaning when the show focuses on the surrounding characters apparently signaling one of the players of their opponent’s cards. This is basically the most ingenious way to introduce your story. The following episodes will soon contain story of the same nature. It involves people using others to get what they want, and it focuses on the sly handed tricks spies will use to complete their mission. The story of the first episode ends with a character claiming that he doesn’t want to be a pawn in the chess game of the head master of D-Agency, and it just setup the anime in a beautiful fashion.

Looking back on the first episode though, I think my problems also started there. The first story is just told so damn well, and it follows a military man getting caught in D-Agency’s Joker Game. The military man is a patriotic soldier that would willingly die for his country. He was ingrained with the honor of serving his country, and he believes that a soldier should act as a symbol of moral goodness. He is everything the D-Agency is not. The spies will use low tricks to get their information. They’ll lie, cheat and steal to complete their mission and they do not uphold any blind morals a regular soldier keeps dear. They don’t give a sh*t, and the military man is bothered by this. Upon entering a cruel Joker Game made by the spies, the soldier would then start to understand how the game is properly played. He decided to turn the tables, but he still upholds everything that makes him a proud military man of Japan. The soldier is so good at playing spy that the head master of D-Agency was impressed by him. I initially thought that the story would focus more on the soldier and how he stacks up to the spies. I really wanted more of him, and the anime really got my expectations up. You’ll only realize the show is non-episodic at the third episode, and there was a lot of time to really get my expectations soaring in the clouds. The show teased me, and I fell hard for it. It was probably a Joker Game as well, and I lost.

Despite my initial expectations not being met by the following individual stories, the Joker Game is still pretty ingenious at each episode. Using other people without them knowing about it, making up calculated plan to achieve the ideal scenario, and trying to escape dangerous situations are all wonderful ingredients of a Joker Game. Every episode promises these ingredients to really make each story as interesting and engaging to watch. Despite having these explosive ingredients though, the stories aren’t really a carbon copy of each other. The thing I like about the individual stories is that the main characters are all different. It could follow the exploits of the spies of D-Agency, or it could have their enemy as the main character. It could even focus on their targets, and it really just proves how flexible the story can be. The Joker Game is told in so many point of views that you’re often just caught up trying to understand the kind of game they are playing. This anime’s main strength lies in the structure of the stories: they’re all mystery stories.

It’s not a traditional mystery where the audience is urged to solve the mystery with the characters. The mystery stories often involve solving a riddle or finding out who the culprit is, but it also involves tricking the audience.  This anime tries its best to keep the audience out of the loop while also giving them a chance to solve the mysteries with the same disadvantages as the main characters of the stories. I love how the smallest details are often the biggest clue to solve the mystery, and it often happens under the audience’s nose. When I have learned the stories’ trick, I can often spot it but the story still robs me of the dot it’s supposed to connect to. For example, a simple command by the husband to his wife to bring his umbrella is suspect to me but I don’t know what happens after. This is part of the trick, but you’re going to have to watch the rest of the episode to see where it actually fits in the big puzzle. Sometimes you can speculate and your hunch can be right, but the mystery is really just a smart trick to engage the audience. It draws you into the story and it helps cover up the flaws of the anime. There are some major flaws in this show, but a simple mystery in the story can preoccupy your mind instead.

One of my complaints about the story is the unforgettable spies. I get it though, because they’re supposed to meld in the background and remain unknown entities in a country spying for another. They’re supposed to be on the down low, but eight of them can be a hassle to track. Some of them look alike, and I often mix up one character to another. I would sometimes remember the spies already featured in previous episodes, so I know which spy is being featured now, but it’s often a tiresome task. You don’t really need to remember the spies though, because the Joker Game they’re playing is the main focus. It doesn’t matter if there are eight of them, because the stories often end by revealing who the D-Agency spy is after everything is done. For me, I just really want to be as smart as the show so I try to remember who is who. In spoilers central AKA wikipedia, the descriptions of the characters highlights some of their small quirks and the anime never really try to differentiate them. The spies share one personality: they work for the enigmatic head master, Yuuki. I want to share a closer bond with the spies though, but the anime really keeps them at a significant distance. Remember their hairstyle, because that’s the only way to distinguish some of them. Also their height, but I’m too absorbed in the story to even notice that.

Another flaw I noticed is that the characters featured in the story and their motivations are often the same. Most of the stories features a lot of revenge plans carried out by vulnerable people. I think I counted four of them, and the reasons are often identical. I do think spies are human too, and a country being hurled in WWII can have similar stories of loved ones being killed. The problem is that they aren’t really that different from each other. Spies killed my beloved, so I’m going to be a spy now and kill those that killed my beloved. It’s a good motive for murder, but the Joker Game can feel a bit tedious when the same reason is played over and over across different characters. Again, this is really just a small nitpick for me. Despite characters having similar motivations, they’re often balanced out by other standout characters. It’s often a power hungry bastard that gets his comeuppance in the end, after being in the losing end of the Joker Game, but this can also have its flaws to it.

Another noticeable pattern in the stories is one guy, often a spy, chasing down the eight spies or their head master, Yuuki. It’s often a guy motivated by uncovering who they are. You’ll often follow his exploits on being part of a Joker Game, where he is inches into finding out the truth, and then he suddenly loses. The story is one-sidedly on the D-Agency’s side even if they are up against veteran spies with much more experience than them. In episode four, one of the D-Agency spies is captured and he was injected with a truth serum to force the information out of him. Despite the overwhelming odds, the spy still escaped and it’s cool to know Yuuki actually plan him getting caught. This is the appeal of the whole “chasing down the spy” stories. It’s the excitement of seeing them get out by the skin of their teeth, and it’s very satisfying. With very little variation though, I soon started calling BS on Yuuki and his untouchable persona. He is f*cking perfect wherein spies with years of experience would act like idiot novice when they are up against him. It’s a bit unfair, because Yuuki is being unreasonably perfect and the story is just putting him on a pedestal. As you all know, I freaking hate this kind of character. I do understand that he looks cool acting like the wind, his presence is there but you can’t touch him, but it gets under my skin sometimes. I think there are four “chasing down the spy” stories, and I would slowly root for the bad guy because I just wanted to see Yuuki lose. He just recently created the spy program of Japan and he is up against British, German and Russian intelligences, but he still comes out on top? All the time? Like, seriously? I don’t like that. To be fair, this is just a personal flaw to me and I’m sure other people will just find Yuuki cool. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Aside from the mystery, I also love the beautiful places of the stories. The spies are scattered all over the world, and they often do their mission in countries being hurled into World War II. I love the way it captured the social aspect of the countries. In France, revolutionaries are causing civil unrest during Germany’s invasion. In Shanghai, the corrupt system of the country is in full display. In Britain, you can feel the tension as they are up against the Allied Powers. I have personally read these stories in history books while I tutor my students, and I f*cking grew to hate world history, and I just love how the episodes would capture the state of the countries its set in. The author really crafted a very vivid world for the spies to move in, and it must’ve taken a lot of time to do it properly. The anime tiptoed around the Nazis and the Japanese Empire’s invasion of Asia, but it’s still something the settings acknowledged. If you have a good idea of the WWII, then you’d understand some of the scenarios playing out. Of course, it only serves as some sort of fan service for history buffs though because the stories never really relied much on history itself to make engaging Joker Games. The stories are still a great period piece, and it’s interesting given how different the countries are culturally. It adds a level of complexity to the stories that I personally appreciate. The author really crafted a story of espionage that could be similar to what any history books can describe, and I love it.

As for characters, they only serve as chess pieces for the Joker game and they’re pretty forgettable. The only consistent character is the head master, Yuuki. He is a man shrouded in mystery, and most of the stories feature him. The anime doesn’t dive deep, because of spy secrecy, but it would often go out of its way to describe how perfect of a spy Yuuki is. He is frighteningly smart, and he is f*cking untouchable. He is always four steps ahead of anybody, and other characters would just be in awe at how amazing the guy is. He’s a Mary Sue, and I’m currently repressing my hatred because I do understand how cool of a character he is. His methods are fun to see unfold, and the amount of knowledge he has is really outstanding. In one episode, a spy is tasked to find proof that a rich guy is a spy as well. As the story unfolds, we discover Yuuki already knows of the spy spying on the other spy, and he already has his own spy spying on the spy spying on the other spy. Per-f*cking-fection. There are other details about Yuuki that just makes him likeable as a character, and I do appreciate how we discover them spread throughout the anime as some sort of reward to sticking with the story. It is cool picking up puzzle pieces related to him until you get a better picture about him and his motivations.

Again, the characters are pretty forgettable but you can group them up somehow. In the stories, there are certain roles characters would fall into. Obviously, there is the D-Agency spy. It’s often fun spotting them, because you often have a chance to deduce what they’re doing there before the anime reveals it. Every story has a D-Agency spy, and they only have one role. They just try to finish their mission, but the specifics are often revealed at the end of the stories.

Another character role is the villain. This is often a person in power like a commander or another government agent, and they’d go up against the D-Agency spy. Their only role is to have a scuffle with the D-Agency agent, and they often lose. Whether they die or not depends on the story.

joker14

There is also the concerned soldier. This is often just an ordinary soldier upholding his duty, and they’d be used as a chess piece for the Joker Game. I personally love these characters because they’re easy to relate to. They are the good guys, and they often need to think like a spy to win the Joker Game. The main character of the first episode fills this role, and I think three more characters acted in this role in different stories as well.

There is also the “vengeful lover”, and it’s often played by a woman. They’d be someone acting as a spy to avenge someone. Their motivations really only involve “love”, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad representation of woman. In late 1930s though, I think its genius to have woman, often considered just homemakers, be a spy for your agency. Making them act out of petty revenge is pretty bad though, but you decide.

Lastly, there’s the target. These are often old dudes, sometimes spies, being the main target of the D-Agency’s mission. They’d act harmless in the story just doing random stuff, but the story would often revolve heavily around them. They’re vital to the Joker Game though, because they’d often have something crucial to end the game.

Once again, Production IG is doing phenomenal anime. It’s really a no brainer at this point. If it’s a Production IG anime, then it’ll be enjoyable. Visuals aside, they also know how to properly give us consistently good anime story-wise and I really love them for that. Reviewing anime, you often just feel a bit defeated when an anime doesn’t turn out good but it’s nice to know you can always trust Production IG to never fail you. I think the last bad Production IG anime that I saw was Robotics;Note, and that was back in 2012. Surprisingly, it was Kazuya Nomura that directed both Robotics;Note and Joker Game. He also directed the new Ghost in the Shell anime movie, but I don’t really have a pulse with anime movies. In terms of his style, it really improved considerably. Robotics;Note is a mess of an adaptation, but look at him now easily adapting a novel series. Novels are especially hard to adapt, so he displayed how talented he is of a director. He nailed the different scenarios and the individual stories are consistently told without any episode looking particularly bad. I think his directorial style improved ten folds thanks to the writer he is paired with. Taku Kishimoto has done a lot of series composition, and they’re all really good. He handled Usagi Drop, Haikyuu and last seasons ERASED. Every show he worked on is really good, and I just love consistent writers like him. Taku is also able to handle dialogue properly since I have never felt a lull in any of the anime he worked with. This guy is simply talented, and Production IG should give him more shows to craft and create for them. Joker Game is pretty dialogue heavy as well, but the way he writes the script is incredibly smooth. It’s amazing.

Sight and Sound

Character design is something I really admire from this anime. I think the manga is illustrated by Shirow Miwa, and the anime based the designs on it. He also created Dogs: Bullets and Carnage and designed the characters for Supercell’s this-should-be-an-anime PV called “Perfect Days”. The guy is certainly talented, because he really captured the era the characters are in. The main spies all look alike, with height and hair style slightly differing, but their faces are still pretty nicely designed. In terms of design, there is a variety but the differences are subtle. It’s still amazing though, because they look alike but there are actually many unique factors to the designs of the eight spies. You just have to look hard for them, and this minute detail style is really something incredible. Shirow’s designs are always flashy, and the ones in Joker Game are no different. From their outfits to the way the characters pose, they just exude awesomeness and it’s something only a talented artist can really vividly portray. But it’s not just the main spies though.

This anime is a period piece featuring various countries and the characters from each country are all nicely designed. Asian characters have Asian features, European people have the muscular feature and blue eyes unique to that region, and there is just a scary wide range of character design here. You just have to look at the crowd in the background of every city featured in the stories, and you’ll notice how incredibly rich in character design the show is. It’s a big element that captures the era the show is in, and it adds a wonderful atmosphere to the anime. Production IG loves stuff like this, and I’m glad their ability to show innovation isn’t just on the smooth animation. Background characters have as much detail as a main character in a story, and it’s just really fun to watch different races interact. If I have one criticism in the designs, it’d be the Nazi uniforms. I know they can’t feature the swastika, because I feel like Japan is trying to distance itself from the Third Reich just from this anime alone, but the crosses on the Nazi uniforms feel a bit safe. People not familiar with them, and I know a lot of people aren’t, won’t really understand the implication of the scene involving these characters. Still, that’s just a minor complaint from me.

Animation is pretty great. From the opening sequence alone, you can tell that Production IG doesn’t just feature great animation but they also know how to be classy. The James Bond-ish feel of the spies are nicely presented, and the busy city the stories are set are wonderfully captured as well. Even though the anime is dialogue heavy, there is still a lot of complex animation going in the background. It’s crazy, because you’re often absorbed in the Joker Game that you won’t notice the background characters but Production IG still puts effort in animating every single detail. The amount of effort they put in their shows is just incredible, and I have total respect that they care enough for the atmosphere of the story to go as far as to create a busy animated world for the characters to move in. Animation is pretty decent, but it really only serves as a way to feature the story. There are very little fights, and not a lot of shooting. Some people die, but the action is very limited. The animation is really only focused on the small details going on in the background and the minute mannerisms the characters do like Yuuki walking with a cane or one of the spies hiding a freaking pigeon. This is really where the director shines, because his vision of the anime is so vivid that it really just draws you in.

The anime’s OP is “Reason Triangle” by QUADRANGLE. This is a really cool song to capture the energy of the series. I love the brass instrumentals as it gives us a James Bond kind of appeal to it. This is even more evident by the wonderful OP sequence. The lyrics are a bit simple though talking about discovering the truth and surviving, but it does fit the overall feel of the anime. The sequence features all the characters in a flashy spy montage, and I love the way it tries to give us the James Bond appeal. The sequence is like a cool movie intro, and the flashy animation by Production IG really made a huge difference.

The anime’s ED is “Double” by MAGIC OF LiFE. It’s a song about someone putting on a brave front despite her insecurities, and it does capture the spy lifestyle of the characters. I’m surprised the anime has solemn lyrics since the song is so energetic. It’s a really cool song. The ED sequence features a noir style illustration of the characters, and I think Shirow’s design is prominently featured here. You can tell the style is the same with the Dogs series, and I just find that funny because I still can differentiate the eight spies in the ED sequence.

Overall Score

8/10 “It’s an incredible ride from start to finish featuring talented spies and a mystery game you just can’t help but join in.”

This is a really solid anime. The story is amazing, the animation is top notch and the mystery is just engaging. The characters might be a bit forgettable, but the twists and turns in the show makes up for it. The smart writing and the incredibly detailed animation makes up for one hell of an anime experience. This is Production IG, so I don’t need to say anything more. I highly recommend this.

 

Thoughts~

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