“Don’t worry. All I’m taking is your life. In exchange, I hope you’ll be my friend, too. I’ve wanted that so badly since the first moment I saw you…”
(Rabbit, “Even a Champion”)
There was a time when I veered away from any kind of atmosphere that would get my heart pumping, or suffocate me in fear. Horror films always stuck in my mind and came to life in the darkness of sleep. Action and thrillers threatened to cut me in seemingly everyday activities in the car or walking on the sidewalk. As I dabbled my ankles in these genres over the years, I slowly waded deeper and deeper into the blackness of the unknown. What seemed too frightful as a child promised to excite me as an adult.
Juni Taisen: Zodiac War is this season’s offering from Nisio Isin, also known for his Monogatari series, Katangatari, and Medaka Box. A little bit of fear, the dash of a promise just out of reach, and plenty of violence fill each episode. There’s no comfort to be found in the arms of a protagonist; our writer is just as happy to tell their histories as he is to cut them right out of it. Our twelve characters, each representing a member of the Chinese Zodiac, are no heroes, either. Every one of them, no matter how righteous, reeks of questionable motives.
With an irredeemable cast and a predictable story, it might seem like Juni Taisen offers nothing of substance for enjoyment. In almost every other instance I cite my necessity for unique characters and an interesting plot.
Forget about those. Juni Taisen is a hell of a lot of fun.
First, the players. Thirteen members, two of them twins, come together to battle it out and have one wish granted. Combining an all out fight to the death like in Battle Royale with a wish like promised in Fate/stay night, Juni Taisen adds in its own flavor with the Chinese Zodiac. All the usuals are there: the tiger (my girl), horse, and monkey. These aren’t the cute animals you might remember from Fruits Basket or Etotama. The character designs draw harsh lines that perfectly capture their owners’ cruelty and skills. Boar, with her bountiful bosom, long, blonde pigtails, and bright red lip, oozes with jealousy and hunger. Chicken’s feathery outfit and large eyes deceive the viewer into underestimating her abilities. Then there’s Rabbit, wearing only a thong, stilettos, suspenders, a bow tie, and bunny ears. His incredible physique clashes with his larger than life puff tail.
Their battle visuals aside, each week allows us to peer into their lives outside of this fight. Mercenaries of war, they have put their weapons to use enough times and with enough prowess to earn them their tickets into the 12th Zodiac Tournament. They all have their reasons for fighting. For some, it’s a matter of pride. For others, it’s to protect another. As creator Nisio Isin does so well, the characters are complicated—they are exaggerations of our own strengths and weaknesses. We see the ugliness that can be found in familial duty with Boar’s manipulation of her sister, as well as its complete opposite in Sheep taking his still young grandson’s place in the tournament. Monkey’s desire for world peace may bring about temporary ceasefire between nations and light hope in the hearts of the downtrodden, but there are times where peace talks turn away from her vision towards something worse, something that takes newly lit hope and extinguishes it beyond revival. Of all of the characters, her pacifist outlook and considerable combat skills make her an immediate favorite to win.
But don’t forget that in this war there are no guarantees. The shock and pain at seeing the players you’ve come to admire meet their grisly ends somehow makes their lives prior to these events right up to their deaths all the more brilliant. They almost blind you with their self-importance as they fight to survive.
I remember on my trip to New Zealand gaping in awe at the glowworms forming their own galaxy on the cave’s ceiling. They shine to attract food, and live short lives. Once they reach adulthood, they have about three days to lay their eggs before they die. Glowworms require specific features to survive: darkness to attract their prey, damp conditions, a horizontal surface from which to hang their “fishing” lines, and a protected environment safe from wind or other predators. That they still manage to survive even with these limitations makes their existence incredible. We seek them out because of their beauty and rarity. Like the glowworms, Juni Taisen’s cast of characters attract us with their ferocity to live.
Second to surprise me is the plot, predictable as it may be. It didn’t take me long to realize the deaths followed a pattern, with the exception of the Dragon who was split into two players. There’s little surprise after the first episode in who will die next and the manner in which the story will introduce them. Each member provides a bit of first-person perspective and back story, then passes away to push us on to the next contestant. If I know who will die and the basic structure of their episodes, then I shouldn’t be interested, should I?
This is where the writing proves its worth. I end up more invested in the manner rather than the matter. The style in which they lived and died becomes more the story than the 12th Zodiac Tournament. Who cares about the final outcome or the identity of the hands shaping and betting on it? They aren’t the point in this fight. Who these people are and why they’re here to entertain us are the points to follow. Like Rabbit suggests, don’t worry about dying. The end will come for us all in one way or another—all we can do is make damn sure we’ve lived lives worth telling before we light the final fuse.
Watch Juni Taisen: Zodiac War on Crunchyroll.
“Even a Champion Racehorse May Stumble.” Juni Taisen: Zodiac War, written by Nisio Isin, directed by Naoto Hosoda, Crunchyroll, 7 Nov. 2017.