The parade of seiyuu celebrity continues wth Sakurai Takahiro stepping up to the plate this week on Joker Game. And like Kimura Ryouhei before him, here we have an actor who’s more than capable of carrying the weight of stories like those this show is telling. Sakurai doesn’t fare as well when he has to project a lot of tonal range in a single role, but give him either straight comedy or serious drama without them overlapping much and he’s on the A-list. And it’s always nice to hear him playing an adult, because that’s really all he should be doing at this stage of his career.
Joker Game is settling into an episodic groove now, for better or worse – mostly better, fortunately. Its identity is emerging – a classic spy tale structurally, but with a rather subversive undertone. Nothing speaks to spy atmosphere like a mystery on a train, and here we have the Asia – the “fastest train in the Orient”, as its littlest passengers assure this week’s protagonist Tazaki (Sakurai). There are no bait-and-switches this time – the D-Agency agent is in fact the main character, and he’s on a rather straightforward mission.
The Asia is speeding through Manchuria, the region between modern Russia and China which Japan brutally subjugated and used as a staging ground for its invasion of China in 1937. On board is Morozoff, a Soviet spy working for the Japanese, with plans to sell vital information to Tazaki and use the cash to flee to America. But also on board is an agent from SMERSH, the notorious Soviet counterintelligence agency tasked with taking out anyone who’s not completely loyal to the Soviet Union. Also on board are three young brothers, bored and clever, who Tazaki winds up using as tools to help him turn the tables on the SMERSH agent after Morozoff is assassinated.
While the mechanics of the espionage are rather conventional, what really makes all this work is the atmosphere (which has been consistently great with Joker Game). Between the situation itself and the music, this is an incredibly tense train ride. It’s rather striking that Tazaki would send those boys on a “mission” for him, knowing that by doing so he was certainly putting them in at least a bit of danger. As always a Yuuki man is extremely well-prepared for the job at hand, and if it’s a bit of a conceit in Joker Game that the Japanese agent is always a step ahead of the Russian, or the Brit, or the Frenchman – well, so be it.
Once again we see a very definite pattern in the strategy of D-Agency. Once Tazaki has incapacitated the SMERSH agent (the conductor) and confronted the woman who double-crossed Morozoff and sold him out to the Soviets, he blackmails her into working as a spy for Japan. There’s no room for Shinsengumi-style “slay evil immediately” justice here – why kill an exposed spy when they’re a perfect candidate to be used against their former master? And why kill the SMERSH agent when doing so would create a whole lot of ruckus and attention that the D-Agency doesn’t need or want? It’s all very practical and detached – and the logic of it is pretty unassailable.
As always, however, the upshot of Joker Game is figuring out what everyone involved is really fighting for. Tazaki notes that the information Yuuki gathers is almost always misused and wasted by the Imperial Army, but – assuming he does – at what point does Yuuki flat-out stop working to support the Imperial regime altogether? The post-credit sequence is a crucial one, and suggests that the top brass is about to make a big move regarding (and possibly against) D-Agency, for whom there’s a deep well of mistrust. Perhaps this is the moment when Yuuki’s hand is forced, and he decides that his interests and those of his nominal bosses are irreconcilable.