I originally shared this review over on the Brisbane Geek Social Club website. The website for a not for profit club/community that I help to run. You can find the original post here.
In autumn of 1937, as the coals of World War II are beginning to smoulder, Lt. Col. Yuuki of the Imperial Army secretly establishes a spy training organization called the “D Agency.” Those chosen as members of the agency, in opposition to the national trend toward reverence of native-born soldiers in the army, are civilian university graduates who pass the superhuman selection test with flying colours. Under the resourceful Lieutenant Colonel Yuuki, they learn not only how to work with gunpowder, wireless communications, vehicles, and airplanes, but also various skills essential for spies.
Going into Joker Game I think it will help most people knowing what they are in for. It is a more serious tone than most casual anime fans are probably used to. It also features none of the humour or silly animation that even some of the darker franchises use to break things up. Instead we are treated to story which tackles the serious world of espionage and war with thought provoking situations and ideas. We see a mostly realistic, though sometimes exaggerated, depiction of our protagonists and their roles.
Furthermore, the storytelling uses a very uncommon format as it does not follow a single character or story arc over the entire shows run. Instead we are introduced to the team and given a bit of insight into the world and then treated to a vignette for each of them. Each episode taking place in a non-chronological manner and in a different place with only one two-parter. I think this works for Joker Game due to the lack of any overarching storyline but instead providing overarching themes in a shared world.
Due to the lack of continued exposure to most of the team it may be difficult for man viewers to get a feel of the characters and attain any real connection or deep interest in them. This may even be intentional as the best spies had no ties to the world; why would we connect to them? There are only two exceptions to this from my experience and these are Sakuma, whose eyes we are introduced into this world of espionage through, and Yuuki the mysterious founder of D-Agency whom we slowly learn more about over the twelve episodes.
Not all the episodes play by the same rules either. Some of them begin with characters other than the spy and we follow them with the spy in question only having limited direct input, in others we follow the spy from beginning to end and are in his mind the whole time. In one pair of episodes we follow members of the Wind Agency a rival espionage agency whose ideals match the Army’s traditional values of “killing and dying with honour” more closely when compared to D-Agency whose motto essentially is “Don’t kill, don’t die”. With Wind Agency trying to vie for position as the Imperial Japanese Army’s intelligence branch against D-Agency it makes for an interesting perspective on the events that play out.
Of note despite the alignment of the various nations during World War 2 we find the D-Agency team facing up against internal threats, Nazis and Communist Russia more than Britain and with no real sign of the United States after the first episode. The lack of the United States’ real involvement can easily be noted because the events of the anime at least end before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even when pitted against British intelligence the D-Agency it is treated fairly evenly, with nothing overtly nefarious seeming to be in play. This focus perhaps helps make the stories more acceptable to a modern audience and audiences outside Japan as Nazi Germany and Communist Russia are easily accepted as villains in their place in history even though Japan was one of the Axis forces and Russia worked with the Allies.
At some turns I even got the feeling that the military and the dark side of Japan were shown to be greater enemies to our protagonists than any of the Allies and perhaps this is the creators own way of recognising Japan’s wrongdoings and the ways of the time. Doing so without really making any side look completely clean mind you. Though perhaps that is only my interpretation as I am an Australian and that’s what my world view provides. In any case our protagonists don’t glorify killing “Killing is the worst choice you can make. Of course, so is dying” which not only puts them in a positive light like some of our most beloved heroes who don’t kill despite the dangers they face (Batman for example) but it also makes sense for their line of work. A dead body be it the enemy or your own draws unwanted attention and investigation. Sometimes it is better to turn enemy into an asset and after all “a dog is more useful than a spy whose cover has been blown”.
Who shouldn’t watch Joker Game?
If your taste in anime is all about cutesy creatures, slice of life stories or over the top unrealistic super battles between super heroes or mechs and aliens this one is not going to be your thing. People who are sensitive about World War 2. Also anyone wanting a traditional story arc.
Who would I suggest watch Joker Game?
People who are interested in some level of realism and are open to non-traditional story-telling methods and thought provoking situations. It is also a great option if you want a change of pace from Shōnen sensibilities or something to show that sceptic who has only seen Pokémon and Sailor Moon that anime is a vast and varied medium.
Where can you see it?
I watched Joker Game on the anime streaming service Crunchyroll. As this is a fairly new anime this is the only place you can currently see it with English subtitles and there is no dubbed version yet. Funimation will be taking care of video distribution and any likely English dub.