We’ve known it from the beginning, but the politics of Joker Game are pretty complicated. And that doesn’t just apply to the story itself (though it obviously does) but to the present day. Taken in the context of a country about to be dragged into a war by a fascist military dictatorship, the existence of something like the D-Agency is a difficult prospect to get a handle on. And taken in the context of a country still struggling with its role in dragging the world into that war – and what it perpetrated during it – a fictional work about something like the D-Agency is a potential flashpoint for the audience.
Does this episode portend a transition for Joker Game – a cycle where the members of D-Agency each get an origin story or turn in the spotlight? Perhaps (next week focuses on the one played by Fukuyama Jun, seemingly) – and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that prospect. In any event the spy in focus this week is the young man named Hatano (Kaji Yuuki), who in 1940 is living in a France recently occupied by the Nazis. He’s recently lost his memory in a scuffle after helping an elderly villager about to be executed for standing up to the Nazi soldiers, and wakes up in the company of a trio of French resistance fighters.
There are all kinds of interesting and confusing permutations at play here. As of this moment Japan is not officially allied with Germany, but even if they were – what would be the purpose for a Japanese spy working for a man who may or may not be trying to sabotage his own government to be in France? Whose side would he be on? The French resistance (Hatano before his injury has sussed it out to be a mere 2% of the population, though to hear people talk about it after the war ended you’d think 90% were resistance fighters, not bystanders) has to work in stealth of course, but D-Agency is very much working in stealth mode too, even inside their own military intelligence.
To be honest I do have some issues with the casting in Joker Game. Kaji, Fukuyama and Shimono Hiro are just not the right actors to pull off these sorts of dramatic turns – the range and gravitas just isn’t there. Fukuyama is the best of them and can be excellent in the right sort of dramatic role, but I just don’t think this series is it. Shimono did have a few early performances that hinted he could handle this kind of material but those were a long time ago, and Kaji, well… None of this is a deal breaker, but Kaji’s wooden delivery does go a long way in undercutting what was otherwise a tense and tightly-written story. It seems a shame to clearly cast actors based on brand identity when a series has no chance to be a commercial hit anyway, but at least Joker Game was produced in the first place – that’s something.
Hatano’s story is rather involving in most respects – even if he’s lost his short-term memory there’s no question he’s heavily trained in the art of espionage, and he gets a chance to show off his whole bag of tricks here (yes, dust explosions are a very real thing). It seems clear that he has a certain sympathy with the resistance, and though it could be argued he acted to save himself in escaping when surrounded by German soldiers, his act of helping the trio was largely genuine. Of course Japan is on the verge of becoming Germany’s ally, which nominally means it’s actually the infiltrator Marie (played by the great Itou Shizuka) he should be siding with.
But of course, it’s not that simple – nothing in Joker Game is that simple – and this is made clear in Hatano’s reaction when Col. Yuuki shows up in France to deliver the news that Japan has officially allied with Germany. Yuuki is the key to everything here. While the pre-open describes D-Agency as having been established by the Imperial Army, it seems to exist largely through the force of Yuuki’s personality – and will. And the true nature of his intentions for it are still a bit of a mystery – not so much his political leanings, but his practical goals. I hope a rotating focus on his subordinates doesn’t take us too far from unraveling that mystery, or for too long.