Summary: The twelve warriors of the zodiac are called to compete in a battle royale to the death. They spend most of their time on the battlefield thinking about their origin stories instead of fighting.
The best “average” anime of the season, Juni Taisen comes really close to being clever and compelling, but then drops the ball with each pointless character death and forced flashback.
Some light spoilers ahead, since it’s hard to talk about a show that revolves around characters getting killed without mentioning some of the characters who get killed. But, then again, is it really a spoiler when the show always makes it so obvious who will die each episode?
Based on a light novel by Nisio Isin (of Monogatari series fame), this battle royale anime is less about actual action and more about banter. Surely, the lack of actual fight scenes disappointed a few viewers, but I for one enjoy a good talk-y series. However, if you’re going to have a show that focuses its lenses so heavily on its characters and their dialogues with one another, you should probably make sure those characters are all, you know, interesting.
Unlike the Monogatari series, which is also about quirky characters having ridiculously long conversations, Juni Taisen doesn’t give you much to look at. It’s all very basic. Character designs are fine, animation is fine, it’s all just fine. The reason Monogatari works so well is because it adds creative art and animations to balance its exhausting amount of dialogue, while this relies mostly on the dialogue alone. Granted, it does have plenty of interesting and entertaining exchanges between characters (namely between Rat and Monkey, or Tiger and anyone she’s in contact with), but at times the viewer is just left with narration and long shots of scenery, and that’s not really enough.
In fact, most of the time, the show is just narration over a flashback sequence. Since the actual story takes place in one location over the course of only a day or two, it makes sense that the writers would throw in flashbacks to provide a change of scenery. Usually, though, these scenes just feel forced, like in the cases of Snake and Dragon, because the characters aren’t worth caring about. Meanwhile, characters that do feel more important or consequential don’t get the same treatment – like, you never really learn about why Rat’s a warrior or much about the main antagonist, Rabbit. Mostly, it all just feels like lazy character development – flashbacks aren’t the only way you can build a character, after all. It would have been nice to have a little more “show don’t tell” here.
Even when the show does get these flashbacks right, like in the cases of Sheep or Tiger, it blows it by killing the characters off almost immediately. After about the second episode, it becomes obvious that anyone who gets a lengthy flashback is sure to be dead, probably as soon as the flashback is over. No one who dies gets to die in a cool way, either. What’s the point of learning their life story if they’re just going to die quickly and un-glamorously, anyways? Likely, their quick, inconsequential deaths are meant to satirize war as a whole and make a statement on how warriors are doomed to die for nothing and blah blah blah…but after you watch eleven characters die this way, it kind of loses that edge. Each death is an unsatisfying mess, which works for that overarching satire theme, but is not so fun for the viewer.
Speaking of unsatisfying and predictable, how about the fact that almost every episode tells you who will die in the episode right there in the episode title? The anime clearly doesn’t care about creating suspense or mystery, since the flashbacks, episode title, and actual zodiac order put up plenty of flashing arrows that point to, “this bitch ‘bout to die!”
There are hints of a larger message about war and violence here, but, the problem is, if this is meant to be a satire of war, it should have been more ridiculous and over-the-top. Take Tiger, for example. Even the drunken catgirl character doesn’t feel like she was as over-the-top as she could have been, and though her backstory was more effective than many others, it was still a bit too detached to fully hit the message home. Satires generally work because they exaggerate an issue while still getting its point across about the painful realities of said issue. Juni Taisen feels like it plays it a little too safe, and the satire feels too subtle to really work. Actually, the issue might not be subtlety but a lack thereof – some episodes hit you over the head with its message, particularly in the Snake and Dragon episode. Much of Rat’s dialogue is far too edgy and on-the-nose, as well. Juni Taisen apparently has things to say, it just doesn’t know when or how to say it.
Because of all this, Juni Taisen at times feels like nothing more than a lackluster action show. It might have just missed the mark tonally when it made the transition to anime. And yet, even with its awfully predictable story and borderline nonsensical plot (like, we still don’t really know what the hell the tournament is), it’s not a bad show. Nisio Isin knows how to write dialogue, after all, so it manages to be captivating even though it’s ridiculously formulaic and repetitive. As mentioned before, a few characters really are interesting enough to hold out for, even though you know they’ll be killed off. It’s worth mentioning that by the very end, most characters are given more depth and redeemed, but it takes a little bit too long to get that reward.
Final verdict: Like, 8 out of 12 zodiac signs. Juni Taisen had a lot of potential that it didn’t really live up to, but it’s not exactly a bad show. It just feels a bit…confused as to what it’s supposed to be.