The night is dark and full of terrors.
I knew as soon as we saw the word “Shanghai” pop up on-screen that this episode of Joker Game was going to be a journey to the heart of darkness. This series has a lot going for it, but ultimately what most compels is the fact that novelist Yanagi Kouji seems to pull no punches in forcing his readers to confront that which Japan still has not come to terms with 7 decades after World War II ended. And if you could say one word that would most cause nationalist and even mainstream Japanese to shift uncomfortably in their chairs, it might just be Nanking. This was an especially horrific episode in Japanese history, and both Japan’s actions in the 1930’s and 40’s and the way right-wing politicians deal with them today cause tremendous tension in the Japan-China relationship.
I’ve been on record as stating that I would rather Joker Game not go down the path of dedicating most of its one-cour run to backstories about the members of D Agency, and I still feel that way. But to give credit where it’s due, this episode was gloriously creepy, unsettling and bleak. If you’re going to tell a story about Imperial Japan’s occupation of Shanghai, you damn well better make it all of those things because this was not a glorious time in history. I’ve always felt Joker Game was going to be at its best when it too pulled no punches, and this episode pulled no punches.
It must be said that Joker Game is about as nontraditional to 2016 anime as it gets (as is often the case with anime based on novels). There’s not a lot of spoonfeeding going on here – you’ve got to pay attention and put the pieces together yourself. It was never clear (at least to me) that the D Agency player here was Fukumoto (Nakai Kazuya) until the last moments of the episode – an episode in which he played a relatively peripheral role, posing as writer Shiozuka Hajime. But the story was so compelling and debauched that it didn’t really make any difference. As a stand-alone story this worked superbly, full of atmosphere and cinematic flair.
In truth, the story here wasn’t so much a hard look at the evils of Japan’s occupation of Shanghai as it was a morality play about a soldier gone bad. But I think the larger point here – the one Yanagi and the anime staff want us to see – is that this is a cautionary tale of what living in an environment surrounded by evil does to people. By all accounts the Japanese military police captain Oikawa seems to have been a relatively ethical person when he arrived in Shanghai, but being surrounded by greed, exploitation and oppression (and temptation) unlocked something terrible in him. Maybe it was something that lies dormant in most men who might have found themselves in Oikawa’s shoes, maybe not – but Shanghai brought out the worst in Oikawa, just as it brought out the worst in the Japanese.
The story of a straight-laced naif set up as a patsy by a corrupt system is a staple in this sort of setting, and Joker Game plays it up to the hilt. The man that Oikawa puts in charge of the supposed investigation into a spy in the ranks of the M.P. is given a little shove in the direction of the truth by Fukumoto – the premise being that Col. Yuuki wants to force the military authorities to confront the reality of just how bad things have gotten in Shanghai. And the deeper Sgt. Honma wades into the muck the more it stinks – opium, pedophilia, oppression, murder. Shanghai pretty much has it all, and Oikawa is in the middle of all of it.
The ending is a rather shocking one, but somehow seems a fitting way for the unsavory events of the episode to conclude. Joker Game is a story of a nation that’s lost its way and if a nation is lost, its people are lost. In a funny sort of way this episode reminds of Carol Reed’s classic The Third Man (which features perhaps the film performance whose impact most exceeds its screen time in Orson Welles’). That film is set in postwar Vienna, but tells a similar tale of human weakness and of the way people are changed by the environment in which they exist. Perhaps no struggle is more difficult for mankind than the struggle for decency, but it’s only in looking into the dark places that we might find the strength to avoid them.