written by Laurie Tom
I didn’t expect to like Juni Taisen: Zodiac War as much as I did, but that said, it’s not going to be like that for everyone. The show is a throwback to the more violent anime of the 1990s in that there are lots of blood and guts, with possibly one of the most creative and disgusting ways I’ve ever seen to hide a corpse, but at the same time the series is very talky and ultimately depressing.
Juni Taisen is about a tournament fought every twelve years by twelve families. Each family sends a representative to participate in the gruesome death match, with the outcome deciding the fate of various nations between the power mongers of the world. As for the sole tournament survivor, they earn the fulfillment of one wish, no matter how outlandish.
Each combatant is themed to an animal of the Chinese zodiac and in several cases this also comes with a supernatural ability. During the tournament they don’t go by their proper names, but rather the name of their animal in Japanese followed by a description of their killing style. For instance: Eiji, the Ox, will introduce himself as “Ushi, Killing Systematically.” And make no mistake, there is a lot of killing.
At the start of the tournament, each combatant is instructed to swallow a gemlike object that turns out to be poisonous. The poison will dissolve into their bodies in twelve hours, setting a time limit for the battle. In order to win, the winner must have all twelve gems in their possession before time is up. Given these circumstances, true cooperation seems impossible, since winning involves removing an object from an opponent’s stomach, though at least one participant tries.
With a couple exceptions, each episode focuses on a particular combatant and we see parts of their personal backstory; who they are and why they entered the tournament in the first place. Unfortunately, after a few episodes the show is clearly following a pattern.
Viewers familiar with the Chinese zodiac, which will likely be the majority of the original Japanese audience, will be able to figure out who the winner is pretty quickly, so the show doesn’t particularly worry about revealing any secrets as the body count builds up. It might be possible for a western viewer to watch the show from an angle of suspense if they don’t know the zodiac and don’t watch the ending credits too closely, but the show was certainly not written with that possibility in mind.
How effective Juni Taisen is largely depends on the audience’s attachment for how these warriors came into their present circumstances, since (nearly) everyone dies and if a character’s one moment in the spotlight doesn’t catch the eye, then there’s not much point to anything else. Even the eventual winner’s story is not terribly climactic since their identity is not expected to be a surprise, which makes for an unusually tepid ending. I liked the winner, but because of the lack of surprise, their episode didn’t have a heavier punch than any other despite wrapping up the storyline.
While I enjoyed watching Juni Taisen as each new episode came out, it’s a series that’s more about watching a bunch of skilled strangers kill each other in various ways than anything deeper. We do get a feel for most of them as human beings, but the format prevents us from knowing them enough to miss them.
Number of Episodes: 12
Pluses: Interesting storytelling format, everyone more or less gets a chance to shine
Minuses: Doesn’t feel as deep as it was aiming for, winner is predictable if you know the Chinese zodiac
Laurie Tom is a fantasy and science fiction writer based in southern California. Since she was a kid she has considered books, video games, and anime in roughly equal portions to be her primary source of entertainment. Laurie’s short fiction has been published in Galaxy’s Edge, Strange Horizons, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.