First Impression – Joker Game


It’s all about how you play the game…

spring15-irenesThere’s a reason that this first impression covers both the first and second episode, and believe me, it wasn’t because of laziness. 😛

One of my most anticipated series of the season, I of course came with a few expectations going into this. It’s a series taking place in the 30s-40s WWII era, and it involves the intriguing world of espionage. That alone is enough to whet anyone’s palate, but especially for me, who is a major fan of anime set in this era, from the loud and bombastic Baccano, to the somber, heartrending Grave of the Fireflies. And yet, after watching the first episode, well…let’s just say that that was the first time that I was rather at a loss for words…and not in a good way.

After the first episode, I wished I could go on my normal ramble about the characters and the plot and the themes and the tone, just as I usually do. And, I just couldn’t really do that…until today.


Lt. Col Yuuki tends to wear a smile behind his usual dour facade.

Joker Game, adapted from a novel (and not a light one) really feels like one. And unfortunately, because of that, falls to the pitfall of telling rather than showing. This series is seriously chocked full of exposition, and it’s not done well. You know all those training shot we saw in the trailer and assumed we would spend the series experiencing along with the main characters? Yeah, all that is squished in the first few minutes of the episode with some voice over.  Speaking of voice over, this series has an all-star cast, including the likes of Yuki Kaji, Jun Fukuyama, Ryohei Kimura, and Takahiro Sakurai, all in main roles, and yet most of them have been pretty much wasted so far. Actually it’s obvious from the get go that the main character is actually not the spies that we had come to see, but a young straight arrow lieutenant named Sakuma (who does most of the talking in all the episodes so far) who finds himself in quite a bit of trouble when he is made the liaison between Japan’s new espionage wing, “D-Agency” and the Imperial Japanese Army.


The men of D-Agency

At this point in time, Japan only has an espionage section because it has too. Hiding in shadow, using deception to get what you want, disguising your intentions, playing along with the enemy? These are the actions of a coward! And like the much of the world at this time, Japan was swelling under a sense of nationalistic pride and military might. Being a soldier? That was a position of respect and honor. A spy? You’re a fainthearted weakling that couldn’t make it past basic training.


The straight arrow

Our main character comes in with this very attitude and who’s to correct him? It’s the popular opinion of the nation, and he’s just regurgitating the beliefs of his culture and what he’s been taught. And his observations of the unorthodox ways of the spies of D-Agency only make him double down on his beliefs. So, it’s up to the agents and their incredibly intimidating leader, Lt. Col. Yuuki, to ruthlessly teach him the error of his ways.

And thus comes another one of the problems in this series: the preaching. If you thought Gate leaned a little too far to the right, Joker Game, has the opposite problem. It’s so determined to strip down and destroy Japan nationalistic mindset of the era (and one that is threatening to reemerge today) that it practically makes Sakuma an avatar for all that is wrong with WWII era Japan, in order for Yuuki and his spies to coldly snigger at and then proceed to tear down all his foolish, preconceived notions.


Poker face to the extreme

The scene where they teach him the rules of the titular Joker Game, is both intriguing and dismaying all in one stroke. It’s quite interesting seeing how these men see the world and what kind of people they’ve been trained to become. And yet, at the same time, you begin to really feel a disconnect to them. At least you can empathize with Sakuma despite his archaic ideals, simply because everyone has felt like they’ve been on the outside looking in before. But the men of the D-agency don’t even really trust each other, much less outsiders, and everything about them seems fake and fabricated. Which is good for spies, but bad for story characters that you are supposed to connect with. This group makes fun of Sakuma’s patriotic and devoted military principles, and instead seem to be in the other extreme, in that they trust nothing, believe in nothing, and are loyal to nothing. And it’s at this point that you have to ask: “Then why did you train to become spies anyway?”

A spy, despite their unconventional ways, is usually loyal to whichever party they are spying for. Without that loyalty, they really might as well be a mercenary for hire. If these men are not bound by duty, loyalty or any such “saccharine” beliefs as that, then why do they do what they do? It’s sure as heck can’t be for the pay!


Man, I sooo didn’t sign up for this…

I was honestly just about to give up on this series once they revealed that they were going to put Sakuma through the ultimate “hazing” in order to get him to see the error of his ways, by putting him through a “trial by fire” so to speak with the whole American spy debacle. And yet, by the second episode, I found myself enjoying seeing him step up his game, and decide to play by his own rules, turning things to his advantage. Seeing him put the clues together and use what he learned from being in the spies’ world was probably the best part of either episode. His realization that he’s been used as a pawn for one side and a joker for the other, for reasons that are incredibly petty, allows him to begin to make some informed decisions about his life. And thus, also makes him probably the only legitimately likable character so far.

Previously, when he was a devoted military automaton, I was really unable to find purchase in him, or really, anyone. The first episode was one of extremes, and not only that, but extremes that I as the audience had a hard time identifying with. But with Sakuma’s rapid character development and a knowledge of what to expect in this show, there is now thankfully a middle ground, a moderate area, that I can stand on and catch my breath. Because like the young lieutenant, who while no longer willing to be an unknowing military pawn, is not too enthused to go down that lonely road of capricious solitude of a spy either, I too find myself in the middle regarding this series. There are elements I like and some I don’t, but at least this second episode has left me intrigued enough to see more.


Going by the beat of a different drum.

As for the technicals, of course Production I.G.’s work is top notch. The OP and ED are stellar and the musical score is amazing. Animation is great for the most part. The character designs are pretty good I guess. I find the eyes to be a bit bizarre, and there is definitely the issue that a majority of the Japanese characters look far too similar to each other that I can’t tell them apart. Blending in, again, is good for spies, but not too helpful for main characters in a story, especially ones that don’t having any kind of defined characteristics to begin with.

And then there’s the fact that in a show that seems to intend to lean far into the realm of the realistic (No matter what Japan’s bullcrap “work of fiction” clause says…), that they decide to have all the Western characters look and act like ridiculous characters that look like they belong in a Dick Tracy strip. If American spy John Gordon threw you for a loop, wait till you meet the British one.


This series isn’t for everyone. It’s slow, methodical, with little to no action at all. And while it tries to be a thinking man’s show, it’s sometimes so wrapped up in its own political message that it begins to trip over its own feet. I of course came into this series with my own expectations, and I had to quickly and abruptly shift those once I got a full idea of what direction this series was headed in. I have also become aware that this series is going to be more of an episodic anthology than a continuous storyline, with some episodes happening years apart from each other. It will be up to the writers to make that sort of storytelling flow in animated form. As it is, there is a little too much time wasted by pointless flashbacks and back history as well as too much exposition, but perhaps that’s just the show’s way of trying to find its footing?  We’ll just have to see.



A Chicagoan biochemist, teacher, and an aspiring virologist, with a love for science only rivaled by my love for movies, animation, and anime. Both a lover of action/adventure and romance, I'm a girl who walks the entire spectrum. Mecha, Sci-Fi, Psychological Thriller, Romantic Period Piece, if it's has a good story, I'm there.
Blinklist BlogMarks Delicious Digg Diigo FaceBook Google MySpace Netvibes Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Twitter

13 Responses to “First Impression – Joker Game”

  1. skylion says:

    This series isn’t for everyone. It’s slow, methodical, with little to no action at all. And while it tries to be a thinking man’s show, it’s sometimes so wrapped up in its own political message that it begins to trip over its own feet.

    I kept reading your post going, “I know just what to say, I know just what to say!!!”. And you end up saying it really well. Yeah, this is my beef with it. Feels like it’s buying into it’s own hype and isn’t bothering to build it.

    It tries to be hard hitting, but ends up pulling it’s punches for some reason.

  2. BlackBriar says:

    Serious, gritty and downright intense from start to finish. These two episodes of Joker Game delivered and had my undivided attention.

    Always an interesting to see how far people would go to get the job done. Being a soldier is one thing because there’s nothing to hide but I personally it’s the spy that has a heavier load to bear serving the country is concerned since they have to stealthily insert themselves into enemy territory to gather information all while constantly looking over their shoulder not to get killed.

    Also, there’s the contrast between the characters I find was done. Drawn lines are easily seen and either side could be debated. Moreover, the contrast between Sakuma and the other 8 agents. He’s as White Knight as one could possibly get: Honest, naïve and idealistic. While the others are more down to Earth, accepting the harsh realities of world and prepared to adapt at a moment’s notice. If their ethics ever had to be questioned, it’s a safe bet they’d defend themselves saying something along the lines of “The ends justify the means”. That’s why I confess sometimes rolling my eyes at Sakuma preaching his idealistic views when I find everyone else’s side more realistic.

    But the men of the D-agency don’t even really trust each other, much less outsiders, and everything about them seems fake and fabricated. Which is good for spies, but bad for story characters that you are supposed to connect with.

    That’s just it. I don’t get the feeling we’re supposed to connect with them. It’s more like we’re meant to see for them for what they are, what see them right now. Plus, given their behavior, it’s doubtful any of them have an emotional backstory that’s supposed to make a connection with.

    This group makes fun of Sakuma’s patriotic and devoted military principles, and instead seem to be in the other extreme, in that they trust nothing, believe in nothing, and are loyal to nothing. And it’s at this point that you have to ask: “Then why did you train to become spies anyway?”

    Sakuma wondered the same in the first episode and came to conclusion that it’s all an obscene amount of self-confidence. They’re taking this path because they have the capacity to do so, because they can. And so, he calls them monsters.

    Second episode’s highlight, while surrounded by a number of cool moments was Sakuma wrecking his high-and-mighty commanding officer. That was glorious.

    The series is slow but not drawn out and boring. Which is something I can forgive a show for provided it has a story to keep me invested in even if there’s little to no action in between. Dialogues are all welcome as long as they’re worth my attention. I went into the series without expectations and am more or less content with what I’ve seen from these past 2 episodes. Therefore, ranking it high enough on my “must see” list for the season.

    • IreneSharda says:

      It’s actually storytelling 101 to have characters that you can connect with, or at least understand. Characters that engage. Without that, all you have is a series events that involve people going from one event to another. If I don’t care about the characters, even if I don’t like them, if I don’t feel anything for them, then why am I supposed to care about a story that revolves around them.

      Right now, the agents might as well be background characters for all the interest I have in them. The only characters that stick out are Sakuma of course and perhaps Yuuki to a degree.

      I’m hoping we get a more for them as the show goes on, but we’ll see.

  3. zztop says:

    If these men are not bound by duty, loyalty or any such “saccharine” beliefs as that, then why do they do what they do? 

    As nihilists, its likely they do it for the challenge: to test the limits of their spy skills in the field and the thrill of outplaying their opponent. “Spies are above nations, faith in Empire is a lie” sort of belief.

    • SherrisLok says:

      Or for money.

    • IreneSharda says:

      My thing is, I can understand that if they had the training to begin with, like if they were ex-special forces or something, I could see them going into it for the challenge.

      However, if these are all guys fresh from college, trade school, professional school, etc. Why would they choose to become spies? I’m assuming they had some degree of loyalty for their country, as there is a million other challenging avenues that they could have tried, other than that.

      Maybe we’ll find out later.

      • SherrisLok says:

        That’s what baffles me. Being a university graduate back then was a guarantee for getting a well-paid job. So there has to be something unique about their characters, like love for gamble and risk-taking.

  4. SherrisLok says:

    It’s sure as heck can’t be for the pay!

    Why do you think that? Not sure about the pre-war Japan, but the Soviet Union spent shitloads of money on their agents stationed abroad. This line of work has to be well compensated for, otherwise your agents will start seeking greener pastures.

    • IreneSharda says:

      Because in the second episode, Yuuki reveals that the reason they even went along with Muto’s order was because they wanted to take the chance to make him owe them, because they have a very tiny budget and therefore it was all about getting more money for their department.

      Remember that Japan wants to see the D-agency fail. Spies are cowards, remember? So they’re allocating practically nothing to them in terms of funds. These agents aren’t getting paid well at all. And again, these aren’t mercenaries for hire that can work for whoever they want, they are government employees and are technically under the military. If they switched to another side, there would be very heavy consequences.

  5. HannoX says:

    I don’t have a problem with the men of D-Agency being presented as one-dimensional and nihilistic in these first two episodes. We’re meant to see them through Sakuma’s eyes and that’s how he sees them, as well as thinking them unpatriotic.

    For some or all of them patriotism could be a large part of why they became spies for their country. But because they don’t wear their patriotism on their sleeves the way Sakuma is used to he thinks they have no love for their country. And they have no desire to correct his misapprehension of them since they find him naïve with a steel ramrod stuck up his ass.

    Of course, ego probably does play a part in their motivation for choosing to be spies. They think they can play the game better than their opponents and they want to put one over on them. And being gamblers can also be part of their motivation. What higher stakes can a gambler play for than their own life? And that must also be the greatest thrill a gambler can have.

    As for beating us over the head in the first few minutes of Episode Two with the amount of indoctrination the Japanese received during this period, I think it was probably necessary. Most people, including most Japanese, are probably ignorant of just how much and how relentless was the indoctrination the Japanese population received back then. So that needed to be emphasized.

  6. anaaga says:

    The spies are doing their job well. I can’t even tell them apart. That’s how good they are at “disguising.” Haha.

    Oddly, I find Sakuma as a glorification of the soldiers during that era. Despite of the harsh feedbacks and treatment he received from the spy agency, he stands on his ground and refuses to get swallowed by the opposite party. Even some of the spies respect him now. Such a brave and strong-hearted soldier.

Leave a Reply