Joker Game – Review
Original Air Dates: April 5th, 2016 – June 21st, 2016
Synopsis: 1937, the coals of World War II had begun to smolder. Lt. Col. Yuuki, of the Imperial Army, secretly forms a spy training organization named “D Agency.” Those enrolled are trained in every field, taught in every way to be perfect at blending in, hidden, and unseen. But the D Agency sits in opposition of the nationalist ideals of the Imperial Army. Sakuma, an instructor, placed there by the Imperial Army to monitor the D Agency, becomes weary of the Agency and their methods as the men they churn out are now no more than monsters, with no morals nor allegiances.
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
Tom: Joker Game shifts its focus from episode to episode, meaning we never become attached or get to know any of our D-Agency spies for very long. Only Lt. Colonel Yuuki, the head of D-Agency, acts as a recurring character to give a sense of continuity to all the different stories that pepper this anthology. Everyone else, despite having unique character designs, feel largely interchangeable making it difficult to remember who is who from episode to episode. It’s clearly intentional, the show’s way of showcasing how impressive each is as a spy, someone who leaves no lasting impression and can shift from role to role with ease. The series initially began focused on one Lt. Sakuma as he came to understand the thought process behind the D-Agency and how it differed from the Imperial Army’s way of thinking. His presence remains largely absent from the rest of the series, but returns in the final episode to act as a bookend. But by and large characters are used as vehicles to drive the plot forward, rarely developing as individuals or experiencing situations that challenge their own internal beliefs. This isn’t a show for viewers who are looking to become attached to someone or who need a character to identify with. Characters simply aren’t the focus here.
Linny: Each episode is like an anthology. While they’re all to do with the workings of the D-Agency and its members, there’s rarely any direct continuation between the events and the characters meaning that even if you really enjoyed a particular storyline or character, you’re most likely never going to see them or have them mentioned again in the season with the exception of the two-parter opening and the two main characters in it. This could be frustrating as some of the episodes could have used more exposition and time in order to really tell its story in a satisfying manner.
Tom: Because Joker Game is an anthology there’s a greater danger of the quality varying episode to episode, a danger Joker Game doesn’t always avoid. Each story, outside of a couple outliers, is told within a single episode. The simple truth is a number of the stories don’t always work within that restriction. Certain episodes feel shallow, or rushed in an effort to squeeze the set up, the action and the reveal all into the short twenty-four minute window. There are of course a few episodes that easily fit, and work beautifully remaining engaging and fast paced enough for the viewer so they don’t have time to think about the small plot holes necessary to wrap everything up in time. But this all generates an extreme hit or miss vibe and I’d say Joker Game is much closer to a 50/50 ratio than what’s normally comfortable for a series like this. Thankfully, if the mystery is enough for you there’s a good chance the weaker episodes may still remain engaging enough to prevent you from over thinking events on screen. It’s unfortunate, as spy shows need to be at the top of their game to feel most effective and it doesn’t always feel like Joker Game manages that.
Linny: For those that like their protagonists to be in real danger or suffer extreme loss, the D-Agency members may feel a bit overpowered as they always emerge victorious no matter how dire the situation they’ve found themselves in. In some cases, it isn’t their own skill but the help of others that gets them out of a tough spot. Some viewers will take that as a show of how even the most skilled spies can’t survive on their own while others may be frustrated at how these spies always manage to survive with the devil’s own luck even when there seemed no escape. Either way, if you’re okay with the idea of watching a spy agency always getting the upper hand without an urgent need for logical and rational solutions and methods, Joker Game can be an enjoyable experience. While it never gets super technical or finicky about details, there’s enough unexpected twists and reveals to keep a more casual viewer engaged.
Tom: Joker Game is based off a three volume novel series but it never becomes clear how much of the story we really managed to fit into this twelve-episode run, and considering how condensed everything feels we most likely skipped over a host of details or entire outings by the D-Agency. The series attempts to book end itself with one last story about Sakuma, who was absent otherwise throughout the series after its first two parter. But the effect is minimal, as Sakuma’s final episode is a personal one, and the tone doesn’t really jive with what is otherwise a highly impersonal series. Unfortunately for what good there is within Joker Game it’ll go largely unnoticed by the anime community in general. With such a heavy focus on Pre World War II, even if the audience doesn’t need an ounce of knowledge concerning the period, many will be turned away simply because Joker Game is a straight drama thriller with none of the normal fantasy and sci-fi elements expected of anime at large. It’s unfortunate, but at the same time Joker Game’s flaws keep me from pushing it as a truly worthy title against the general community’s predisposition.
Linny: Whilst it was airing, there was some attention on its art style and its visual depiction of the non Japanese characters. They are drawn in a different manner compared to the Japanese cast and that raised issue with some viewers. They might not be as noticeable to most western audiences and in the show’s defense, it seems to do it in an attempt to distinguish between the Japanese cast and the other Asian characters and locations it features. How truly offensive it is could be more to do with personal taste rather than any actual ill intent and the anime does repeatedly flash a text saying that characters and events depicted are all works of fiction. If there’s anything extremely obvious about its art style, it would be the show’s tendency to over demonize its villains. From drawing them to look almost abnormal and inhuman to having them break out into cliche villainous cackling and ranting, it may make the situation and story rather silly and comical considering its otherwise somber and realistic tone.
Tom: Even those anime fans that enjoy the few straight drama we get every year will find Joker Game doesn’t hold a candle to recent offerings like last winter’s Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Joker Game is a competent offering, but won’t ever be remembered as a classic. It’s a decent piece of entertainment for those seeking a more grounded drama within the anime medium, but suffers from a few too many flaws to make it an outstanding title. I recommend Joker Game to anime fans starving for more realistic settings, for fans seeking anime that speaks to an older viewer, but this isn’t the show to convince the more average fan that there’s fun to be had outside of the normal slice of life, fantasy, or mecha fare.
Linny: While Joker Game was a nice break from the usual wave of typical shounen and slice of life we get every season, it isn’t exactly amazing. It definitely has its flaws thanks to rushed story telling and a bland finale that suffered from bad storytelling and a complete change of pace and tone from the rest of the series. If you’re a hardcore shounen fan that really enjoys the more popular genres of anime, Joker Game won’t convert you. If you’re tired of seeing nothing but high school kids everywhere, then Joker Game can be a breath of fresh air, especially if you have a casual interest in the world of spies. Just make sure you go in knowing that it’s anthological in nature and has a rushed and sometimes confusing storytelling style.
Joker Game is available for streaming via Crunchyroll.com.