I’ll be honest. I was never very good at History, what with date memorization and understanding the relevance of treaty so-and-so of year-goes-here in random-nation development. But at the same time, I’ve always enjoyed a story that ties itself into historical events. For Example, much of my understanding of the Cold War comes from Metal Gear Solid III: Snake Eater; historical figures of significance are thanks to the Fate/Stay series, as well as other random historical tidbits care of Japanimation, et al.
But Joker Game isn’t so much caught up with its historical machinations than it is, truly, a period piece that makes the best of its setup to create an engaging political exercise of sorts. It’s a particular time in Japan’s history where they were an emerging superpower, prominent enough to have had a seat in the League of Nations, but still too young a nation to be taken seriously by the big boys. This sort of setup sets the stage for Japan to create a spy network aimed towards improving its intelligence network in order to keep pace with its burgeoning western rivals.
In that regard, Joker Game is a well-grounded period piece that introduces an anachronistic group of spies, the D-Agency, pit against its ostensible protagonist and traditional Japanese solider Sakuma. In the first two episodes of this show, Sakuma learns the hard way that his nation’s ideologies aren’t as clear cut as they may seem. Rival factions and personal agendas mar the overarching goal of a unified state, and as prominent offices vie for power, its the rank-and-file officers that end up taking the collateral damage. Shoddy practices are swept under the rug, all the while citizens are brainwashed day and night that their actions are for the betterment of the state:
“Remember that, as the protection of the state and the maintenance of its power depend upon the strength of its arms, the growth or decline of this strength must affect the nation’s destiny, for good or for evil. Therefore neither be lead astray by current opinions nor meddle in politics, but with single heart fulfill your essential duty of loyalty, and bear in mind that duty is weightier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather.”
Dying for one’s country, even in ignorance to the greater schemes at play, is something to be proud of — the greatest form of patriotism one can express.
The premise is fine and dandy, but how does the show go about achieving this?
The first episode places Sakuma in the thick of the agency as a sort of liaison, where he experiences first hand the entirely different philosophy that these gentlemen espouse. This philosophy is explained through a poker match between Sakuma and members of the D-Agency. After losing, Sakmua is told that he did not lose due to lack of skill, but that information on his hand was being leaked to other players on the table. Calling out trickery, Sakuma’s perspective is challenged when the game is brought up as an analogy to Japan’s recent embarrassment at the Washington Naval Conference of 1922. In this treaty, Japan’s codes were decrypted by the United States’ Cypher unit, the Black Chamber, and as a result, critical information on the nation’s naval status was used against them.
As far fetched as the method may have seemed, Joker Game succeeds more in creating an interesting dynamic between the clashing philosophies of a traditional Japanese soldier against these modern-day spies. You can call them cheats and cowards, but strip Sakuma of his homage towards the state and there’s little for him to be proud of. His dogma is given to him by a higher level of office, but these spies answer to no one. At the same time, these spies are, quite literally, no one. They cease to exist in the eyes of the government, but function in order to preserve order through intelligence gathering. This contradiction in service to the nation and overarching goal plagues Sakuma as he dismisses their ideologies as taboo — that only a monster can carry out such a task.
But when he winds up becoming the victim of a higher official’s efforts to cover up his own mistakes, Sakuma almost ends up paying for it with his life. Eyes now open to the fact that he can’t even trust his own superiors, Sakuma goes on to embrace the world view of the D-Agency, but still maintains a certain hopeful stance. That he can become a dignified soldier without betraying his own sense of moral duty towards the state. This ideology is framed beautifully at the end of the second episode where we see Sakuma standing beneath a cherry blossom tree in bloom — the epitome of a rose-colored naivete — but facing in the opposite direction of an oncoming company of soldiers. Sakuma may be way behind understanding the D-Agency, but he’s hopeful that he will resolve his misgivings for it. And very hopeful that he can serve his country in a dignified way that will lead to a brighter future.
The world could use a whole lot more Sakumas in that regard. Joker Game’s first two episodes juggled its moral weights around a bit, but it’s good to see that this show won’t be about a continuous struggle between the ideologies of just Sakuma and the D-Agency. The overall production compliments the shows premise quite well, and that last scene was definitely a keeper. So far, I have very little room to complain for this show, but time will tell if it will be able to maintain this level of storytelling. In isolation, these first two episodes serve well in introducing the shows characters, but I have my own worries about where this will be taken. Here’s to hoping that Joker Game will still maintain its compelling nature and search for honor amidst a sea of political strife.
Episode rating: B+