Before I get into this review, let it be known that none of the events that happened in this anime are meant to be real. Any events that could have been related to them are purely coincidental.
Having said that, this anime takes place in a real world setting on the onset of World War II from the Japanese perspective. As I will discuss, this historical context will be crucial to my critique of it. By no means does Joker Game create a subversive take on the values that were held during that time and place, but it does give us its own critique for how the audience might learn from the mistakes of the past. I am not here to sympathize with the war efforts that transpired in Japan nor anywhere else from this time period, and if I may be so bold, neither does this anime.
So with all the cautionary things out of the way, suit up, put on your best fedora, and get to sleuthing. We got a series to crack.
Joker Game is a suspense anime about a Japanese spy agency set (roughly) between the years 1937 and 1943. Known simply as D-Agency, a minuscule team of eight spies remained after rigorous training in everything from coding, cloaking, physical and mental fitness, seduction, all things you imagine a spy would need. These eight gentlemen were to be sent across Europe and Asia while the rest of their country was on the rise of nationalist fervor, as Japanese forces had already begun their campaign to take control of East Asia and the Pacific.
But D-Agency was different from other spy agencies, and if I may be a little more realistic, probably would have never existed for its time. Although spear-headed by a charismatic Lieutenant Colonel Yūki, everyone part of this small organization is a civilian.
Unlike, nearly the rest of Japan as history would have you believe, the eight anonymous men of D-Agency were not the patriots of their peers. They would serve their country insofar as obtaining information while keeping enemies off their trail, certainly, but while the general public was already set into war time, their goals aren’t to take power or anything, but accumulate information from all the other players of the war by any means necessary, enemies and allies alike (because let’s be honest for a second here: Japan may have had an alliance with the Axis powers during WWII but they didn’t exactly trust them).
But there is one rule that sets D-Agency apart from any other Japanese spies at this time. Yūki has instilled a policy of “don’t die, don’t kill.”
To die is the way of literally everyone else in Japan in this era, as (at least in the highest positions of power) nationalism was the way to go. This is the way of heroes who care only about their country, their family, or some other cliché thing that societies value. And to kill, at least for a spy, only serves to get a lot messier, as investigations and all sorts of breaches to security ensue, thus cutting off any means for espionage to take place.
Thus, the eight spies we see in this narrative may very well be Japanese, but their motivations are not for the nation (in its most patriotic sense), their loved ones, or any of their comrades. Their job is to figure out the game that’s happening under everyone else’s noses, and play, knowing that no one will ever know of their actions. The world of spies is truly an empty existence.
That’s not to say that Joker Game was void of drama or its own positionality on any of the issues that rise up. Much of the crimes and mysteries surrounding them would be carried out by other players such as military personnel, double agents, and civilians. It would seem that just about everyone has blood on their hands, and while D-Agency may never have committed these acts in the immediacy, they did provide enough information to motivate others to do so.
But before I can boldly make that claim, Joker Game does draw a rather rigid distinction here. Each spy’s vignette requires of them to act accordingly to best fit the situation, and given that one rule that Yūki provided, there is one failure (depending on your perspective). So whether they are infiltrating an occupied France, an American cruise liner, a Chinese city of sin, or even smoking out a Russian spy in Manchuria, D-Agency is out to keep everyone honest without ever taking the kill route. That, to me, is one of the most brilliant parts of Joker Game because it’s almost as if this noir anime full of espionage took the dagger out of cloak and dagger! So what gives?
True, the fates of a lot of the antagonists often end in being captured, getting killed by someone else, becoming double agents themselves, or just act completely dumbfounded that they were outsmarted by some anonymous Japanese guy. But given the time period that Joker Game is set in, it is uncommon if not refreshing to see just how far D-Agency act in the shadows of a very human side of war time.
Despite the fervor of literally everyone else they come across, the spies of D-Agency never cave in to that war mindset where things like family and country come before all else. In fact, a common thread across every vignette here is that one’s attachment to such things is what drives the worst, and perhaps dumbest parts of the war time they are set in, regardless of how beautiful you might think their scenes take place.
This is how Joker Game contextualizes the mistakes that were made during this World War II era, and why I think it’s important to understand that they were wrong, even then. When the death of your enemies and lust for heroism becomes so strong for any nation (and Japan is definitely not the only country that was guilty of this), then trust is broken, the needs of the most powerful outweigh the stability of a nation, and sure enough, people will act in ways they wouldn’t do otherwise. Such is the failure of society, even in times of war.
Now do I think that Joker Game‘s overall message is to resist, be more diplomatic, and never kill? Probably not. The members of D-Agency know full well that they are working in war time, and are placed in dangerous situations that could incite much more violent reactions under the orders to gather information that they deem most useful to maintain order for their nation as a whole. I don’t see anything wrong with that. You can’t just blindly trust everyone you meet in such times, or ever if I had to say anything about it. And besides, information is so rampant from multiple points of view that truth as such is muddied enough for the vast majority of people to not understand the problems that are happening beyond their control. Thus to maintain that stability that whatever your society so desperately needs, the folks who act in shadows and sort out all the information given to them becomes just as crucial if not more so than to have every member of whatever community you belong to follow the same tune and uphold all the same values. It is the latter that leads up to the war time fervor in the first place!
One final point I would like to make about Joker Game is something that I cover a lot from my other reviews, and while I don’t exactly agree with the sentiment, I think it needs much more context than an average critic would give it credit for.
As appropriate for the setting and its historical context, the players of Joker Game on all sides remains, for the most part, gender neutral. Every character addressed is a person first. Every other identity ascribed to them comes second. I like this part of Joker Game‘s narrative and I wish that more popularized anime would follow suit with that. That being said, D-Agency refuses to hire women into their ranks, regardless of how qualified a female spy might be, because under Lt. Col. Yūki’s impression anyway, women will kill even when it’s not necessary. And given that D-Agency is on a “don’t die, don’t kill” policy, it’s probably best to hire anyone who might be so inclined.
While I wouldn’t posit this statement as entirely true or entirely false for that matter, I think it’s important to understand the context of the values that are at play in Joker Game. One thing that drives a person to choose death (whether by dying or killing) boils down to one’s attachment not just to country, but to loved ones as well. It’s a point that comes up in every other vignette of this anime. Now if you want to play semantics with me, just know that attachment to things like other people (i.e. through family, friends, romance) are… often… associated more with women than with men. This appears to be the logic that Yūki follows in making such a claim, never mind that men could just as easily be driven by such things as anyone else. I can say by experience that it is harder for men to be aware of just how their emotions drive their decisions, or even see a problem in becoming too attached to things like one’s own country. You know, like the kind of people that D-Agency is up against.
I’m not so interested in arguing over whether this mindset is right or wrong, but to me, it is a wink and a nod that even D-Agency is not without its own judgements and biases. After all, no matter how important their work might be, they are still very much human and thus subject to fallibility.
So if you’re looking for an anime that puts you in the empty world of spies in a rather realistic setting of World War II, watch Joker Game.
Next week, I will be shifting gears in scope and tone of my reviews, as I will also be starting up classes again for my credential program. It’s gonna be fun… at least for me, anyway.