Thank goodness for series like Joker Game.
It may not be perfect, but Joker Game is a pretty special series. I can heap praise on the writing and the production all day long, especially when that Kawai Kenji soundtrack really soars – my goodness, what a huge asset he is to any show. But what I really admire is that it’s treading on such dangerous ground here. That an animated television program could go where Joker Game is going is a testament to just how differently animation is viewed in Japan than it is in most of the West. And ultimately, isn’t that a pretty big reason why so many fans love anime so much?
I find it both amusing and a little depressing that I’ve seen some Western viewers complain that Sakuma is “unrealistic” because of the views he expressed in the premiere. Seriously – how can anyone love a Japanese art form like anime and be so ill-informed about the country’s history? Jingoistic militarism caught Japan up in a chokehold in the 1930’s – this was a nation that surrendered at a far lower rate than any Western allies or enemies during World War II. The scenes at the beginning of the episode are only a gentle reminder of the madness that gripped Japan then – a madness that drove intelligent and thoughtful people to sign on to a war effort whose aftereffects still shake the country to the core even now, three-quarters of a century later.
That’s the real point here – this time period is an uncomfortable subject for Japan even today, as its prime minister strives to scrap the pacifist constitution that arose from the ashes of the war and stir the flames of nationalism once more. Apologies for wartime atrocities and visits to military shrines are controversies that tear Japan apart still, and you have to admire the courage of writers like Yanagi Kouji who dare to talk about it in novels like Joker Game, and a studio like Production I.G. for bringing them to the screen. That disclaimer at the beginning of the episodes is not there by chance – this fence is electrified and probably always will be.
None of that would matter so much if Joker Game didn’t work as an entertainment, but it most certainly does. The game metaphor runs through this series but it seems more akin to chess (or Go) than poker, because where the wheat separates from the chaff is in seeing the long game. The raid at John Gordon’s house was many things, among them a test for Sakuma. Would he have been willing to commit harakiri if he hadn’t landed on the truth? One suspects he would – after all, many officers and enlisted men did no less during the war, something that can be traced all the way back to the samurai bushido code of honor. But in sensing the nature of the trap that had been laid for him, Sakuma not only saved his own life, but proved his worth to the D Agency.
Obviously, a battle of wits between Yuuki and Mutou should be stopped on a TKO in the first round, but in the big picture Lt. Col. Yuuki is fighting what seems an utterly Quixotic war. Yuuki is in a position to destroy two men he’s outsmarted – Gordon and Mutou – yet he destroys neither. Why? Because in his world – where his scrappy little underfunded rabble are a drop of skepticism and reason in an ocean of propaganda and jingoism – everything must be measured in terms of value. Gordon is now useless as a spy – as useless as the ciphers he’s been feeding the American army. But as long as Gordon’s contacts believe those ciphers are still valid they’ll waste time using them. And because Gordon knows Yuuki can destroy him at any time, he can be coerced into actively working on his behalf.
As for Mutou, he’s hoist by his own petard here. Revealing secrets and leaving his cigarette case behind at a geisha house is a huge blunder, but so is trying to use D Agency to try to cover his own failure in proving Gordon’s guilt. But he too is valuable to Yuuki now, because he too knows he can be destroyed at any time. This is the delicate game Yuuki is playing – he’s working on behalf of a system he despises, trying to find ways to undermine it without calling attention to that fact. It’s a dangerous agenda and Yuuki can’t afford to let anyone of value slip through his fingers (artificial or otherwise) – and Sakuma has proved he has value.
I said this last week, but I really believe Joker Game at its essence comes down to this: one can either choose to accept what they’re told at face value, or to question and consider everything including their own perception. Japan in 1937 is a runaway train of groupthink and obedience, and Yuuki is all about questioning everything. Throughout the first two episodes Sakuma has been tested over and over – shown a falsehood that was hiding a truth – and he’s learning to look beyond what his eyes and his prejudices (and his superiors) tell him. That’s subversive thinking now and it certainly was in 1937 – it could get you lined up in front of a wall and shot at the drop of a hat. And subversiveness is something we could all use a little more of.