Joker Game – 12 (End) and Series Review

That’s it?

Joker Game - 12 -1It seems only fitting that Joker Game would end in wholly perplexing and unsatisfying fashion, because this show is an enigma I defy even Alan Turing to conquer.  I didn’t think any series would top Mayoiga as far as giving us an ending that wasn’t an ending this season (I literally had no idea it was that show’s last episode until I read it online later) but Joker Game didn’t even make a pass at it.  I’ll give it credit for consistency, which I suppose counts for something, but that’s about it.

Joker Game - 12 -2In the end, I really can’t figure out just why this series existed. I’m glad it did, because it certainly wasn’t a cookie-cutter modern anime by any means.  But what was the thinking here?  Was there any intent to tell a complete story or develop any connection to the characters, or was it intended to be exactly what it wound up being – a largely unconnected string of modestly well-crafted spy tales about a generic cast?  I’ve long since given up on Joker Game taking any sort of moral or ethical positions (and beaten the topic to death), but the matter of a narrative purpose is an awfully important one.

Joker Game - 12 -3Ultimately I think this is more important than the issue of historical context, because even if I was quite put off by the lack of introspection or self-awareness, not everyone will be.  But the flat nature of the cast and the lack of narrative direction is a problem I think we can all share.  Apart from Yuuki I don’t think I could have named a single character in the end – maybe Miyoshi because he died last week and was back this week (timeskip), but certainly not the hero of this episode (Odagiri) or anyone else in Yuuki’s D-Agency.  It’s fine to give us more insight into the guest cast than the recurring cast (especially since apart from Yuuki there really wasn’t one), but given the lack of political or social criticism, what else is there to really care about at the end of the day?

Joker Game - 12 -4If nothing else, at least in Odagiri we did get a little insight into the emotional life of one of Yuuki’s men.  He actually found himself drawn into the case (a German triple-agent double-crossing both the Nazis and the Soviets dies mysteriously) because his subject’s actress girlfriend resembles the woman who raised him.  It’s fitting that both his colleagues and the series itself should judge Odagiri so harshly for being human, since that’s clearly anathema to both – and of course it’s true, a spy must be able to maintain an ironclad emotional detachment when he’s on the job (something woman are apparently incapable of doing, according to Yuuki).  Still, even if that’s true it’s not especially dramatic, and Odagiri (who ends up resigning from D-Agency in the end because his impassivity has been compromised) was something of a break from that.

Joker Game - 12 -5This ended up being a pretty unusual season for me in that two of my top three series going in – this one and Bungou Stray Dogs – significantly underperformed, and yet the season survived that, thanks to the superb Shounen Maid and Tanaka-kun wa Itsumo Kedaruge picking up the slack.  I wasn’t nearly as let down by Joker Game as by Bungou – I enjoyed this series right up to the end (for the Kawai Kenji soundtrack not least), and its mature and restrained style was a nice contrast to the most of the schedule.  But ultimately Joker Game leaves me feeling pretty hollow, as if I really wouldn’t have missed it if it had never existed.  And for a series that seemed to show suck promise, that can only be classified as a disappointing outcome.

 

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16 comments

  1. J

    I thought that this was a great series for pretty much the same reason people didn’t like it: It was emotionally empty. We never got to peek inside the brains of the spies (except Odagiri) and see their “true selves.” I felt that the purpose of the show was a celebration of spies/spying as an idea, and how that idea can play out in different scenarios. The focus was never really about the characters, because as spies, it really shouldn’t be about them. They are supposed to be malleable characters, changing with each mission. This last episode once again shows the incompatibility of spying and personal identity. The characters in the shows aren’t interesting or memorable in the traditional sense because they can’t be. I kinda chuckled when Odagiri decided to resign because while he is probably one of the only memorable members of Yuuki’s agency (aside from Yuuki himself), that is precisely the reason why he cannot remain a spy.

  2. I didn’t love the show but I enjoyed it. I find the show being emotionally sparse interesting. In many ways, the show itself was an extension of the spies: avoiding moral/ethical purpose, perplexing, detached, and (to some) “as if it never existed”. I jokingly like to imagine that if the show were to become less detached, to involve us more in the internal working of the characters and the overall purpose/intentions of its leader, to show more emotion and to be more human, it would need to “resign” just like Odagiri.

    It was definitely an interesting show. It peaked at episodes 4-6 for me and I’d honestly be happy with watching those three alone because the rest of the show wasn’t quite as riveting. I’m glad I got to watch it though! The Kawai Kenji soundtrack was killer too.

  3. Y

    I’m disappointed, though mostly because I had extremely high expectations and Joker Game turned out to be a completely different series than I had envisioned. I think many of the episodes were quite well done though (save for the last few episodes), and I would’ve enjoyed this one too if Yuuki didn’t make a slight sexist comment at the end (#womenaresoemotional). IMO this season has turned out rather lackluster, esp. right after such a wonderful winter season. The saving grace for me is BnHA, which has exceeded my expectations.

  4. D

    On an episode by episode basis, I think it was a good show, and I like to see ‘grown-up’ shows like this.
    Where it was lacking, I felt, was in having any kind of binding story.
    We had a series of vignettes, and they were for the most part interesting, but there was very little substance to the whole.

    Given the setting, any overarching story might have been too ‘problematic’, so maybe that’s why?

  5. D

    “But the flat nature of the cast and the lack of narrative direction is a problem I think we can all share.”

    I personally don’t. The lack of narrative direction is not a problem in itself, unless you apply the same to shows such as Space Dandy or Kino’s Journey. The cast isn’t flat, this final episode proves it. It’s simply that the series decided early on to focus on something other than character drama, which is a pretty bold choice and should be commended. The non-ending is simply explained by the fact that thise series only adapted around half of the novel (A sequel announcment can’t come soon enough).

    The thing about Joker Game is that it’s a very literary and old-fashioned show, which is why it turns out modern audiences such as you who are craving for cliffhangers and character drama. When you understand what kind of show Joker Game wants to be, it becomes nothing shot of exciting. Certainly the best of the Spring season alongside JoJo part 4.

  6. I think the problem is when you strip away everything like character development and recurring plot and social commentary, the individual stories themselves have to be really riveting for a series to be successful. And I would rank the spy stories in JG as more “pretty good”. A few were indifferent, a couple were excellent, most were in-between. They were pretty formulaic for the most part – an emotional woman, the Japanese outsmarts the European, Yuuki does something OP.

    I think Space Dandy is a bad comparison for a couple of reasons. First, it had comedy to fall back on. Second, it had a recurring plot and characters. And third, it was intentionally experimental in terms of style, which gives you another layer of interest as an audience member.

    I do get what Joker Game was trying to sell, that’s not the problem. The problem is I just didn’t think it was worth buying in large part.

  7. It’s disappointing that Joker Game ended up being typical spy adventures, its premise had so much potential…

    At least this last episode had all the spies get together, it’s just too bad the most I remember of them are their voice actors.

  8. The stories aren’t in chronological order (neither are the novels, though the order there is again different). This episode took place a short time after the first two episodes. Episode 11–where Miyoshi died–was set 2.5 years later.

    I’d argue that Joker Game makes sense narratively if you think about it as a look into the mind of a spymaster, or rather, into the mind of the spymaster known as Yuuki. With that, even the stories where he doesn’t physically appear have something to say about not just his motivations for spying for his country, but also some of his own core values. His final lines to Odagiri/Tobisaki in this episode (“Don’t die.” followed by “Are you stupid? Who bows while wearing a business suit?”) and, in particular, the way he said them…to me, they encapsulate in 30 seconds what the show was trying to do. It’s just done in such a subtle, understated way that I’m not surprised that it doesn’t appeal to everyone.

  9. I find the last resort defense of a failed narrative is often “It was too subtle. If you were just smart enough to get it, it would have worked for you.” And when you have to resort to that, well…

  10. To me, it doesn’t fail if there are people who got it, and there seem to be a reasonable number of such people in the places that are following the show. And I don’t think the creators care too much about not getting through to everyone: they accept it.

    Also, you’re the one framing it as “if you were just smart enough…” Personally, I recognise that it doesn’t work for you because you were looking for something else in the show, which is why I framed it with words like “My argument” and “to me” and “it doesn’t appeal to everyone.” I’m a little surprised that you seem to take offence at the idea that someone else can like a show for things that you didn’t care about.

  11. I don’t take offense – I just recognize that “it’s too subtle for you” argument and I know what it usually means.

  12. I kind of think ofJoker Game as like the spy version of Mushishi, though I agree that you don’t really care much for a lot of the characters in Joker Game (except Yuuki, for me). In Mushishi, it’s much easier to care and relate to the one-time characters– maybe if you are a naturally ruthless person, Joker Game will be your Mushishi. I can’t vouch for historical accuracy or actual political interests, but you can see how Yuuki (and his spies) has influenced the lives of the people (and countries?) they touched (similar to how Ginko touches the lives of others in his travels). Of course, this is done in a more manipulative manner in Joker Game, but I think that it is able to present the grounded reactions of the people around.

    Once you get on with the “process” early in the series, you kind of look forward and see how this process unfolds in different scenarios. I think the last episode showed some surprises in that process (involving the past of the spy who is supposed to be wiped of it), albeit in a rushed manner (and the sexism! but that’s a whole different topic). Sure it was a series that could have made bigger strides, maybe a more balanced perspective on history (maybe the novels touch on it more?), but still pretty good.

  13. I don’t fundamentally disagree with any of that, right down to “pretty good”. I could see a case being made that it took a similar tack to Mushishi, though as you note there are some very significant differences. One thing you didn’t mention is that based on the anime at least, I would argue that Mushishi is a far-better written series. As I said earlier I think when you take a narrative approach like this your margin for error is incredibly thin. That’s why more series don’t try and do what Mushishi did. I also think that approach works better in a fantasy setting than a historical one.

    I remain intensely curious about whether the novels are as apolitical and historically neutral as the anime.

  14. I don’t know, but this show has its good things even if it utterly fails to me.

    I don’t need “compelling characters” to enjoy a story, hell I actually prefer plot driven stories. The problem is that Joker Game didn’t have characters or a “plot” in the conventional sense. We have a premise, and we heard it every single episode, a “spy tell” set up, and nothing else. I don’t care about a japanese author not taking a stand in what his country did during WWII because they will never do that, expecting otherwise is kind naive.

    At the end of the day, this show has an interesting premise, but lacks that “spark” that would have made it an excellent show. For me that “spark” was a overreaching plot.

  15. T

    I’m surprised a lot of viewers are displeased by the sexism but not the absence of political stance/narrative of the show. Given the time period and Yuuki’s non traditional method, he must have some interesting ideas buried in his head.(Maybe I’m projecting too much?) At least give us some hints damnit! To me it seems the author chicken out after episode one. (or smart to make it easier to sell?) It’s just a very unsatisfying watch.
    Another long time lurker, keep up the good work Enzo! You make watching anime more enjoyable!

  16. I’m always heartened to see someone decloak after a long silence – thanks for the nice comment. I agree, Yuuki seems like he would have been an interesting guy if we’d met him in another series.

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