I hinted in my last review that Joker Game’s current style of self-contained vignettes could run the risk of becoming stale. That and the fact that each individual spy is obscure to begin with, owing to lukewarm characterization that does not guarantee any emotional investment. Thankfully, episode 4 showed the type of narrative flexibility the show is willing to show in order to push its spy stories forward. And indeed, these are the type of spy shows that anyone into the drama will definitely enjoy. In this particular episode, the spy is primarily out of the picture, as the story is told from the perspective of a “guest” detective for the purposes of this short story vignette.
We’re brought to Shanghai during the early days of the war. Japan had just occupied the eastern banks of China, and after just a few years, anti-Japanese movements have begun to surface. After reports of intelligence leaks through the ranks of the Japanese stationed in Shanghai, Sergeant Honma — a newly stationed military police officer — is assigned to crack down the case on who the possible spy is.
What makes this episode particularly compelling is its choice of protagonist. He’s obviously not a spy, but inquisitive enough to know that something’s off. To a certain extent, he comes across as an even more naive Sakuma. And when he discovers the same idea that Sakuma did — that there are deeper agendas admixing within the duties of the state amongst the higher ranks of military society — he does what every good-mannered soldier does and hopes that their senior officer will come to their senses. Unfortunately, human emotions can precede any good judgement, and so unlike Sakuma, Honma learns his lessons on the cruelties of corrupt military governance in cold blood.
It’s an interesting shift in storytelling that alleviates any fears I had about the format of “spy-of-the-week” becoming stale. This sort of dynamic story telling is probably procedural for people used to watching spy shows, but the thoughtfully structured episode plot was fairly effective and engaging enough despite not really knowing, on a deeper level, who these characters are and what their motives truly mean.
But of course, those individual motives are minuscule to the larger agenda, which is the Japanese occupation in Shanghai — or better yet, the Japanese involvement in World War II. The only saving grace for stories like this is the idea that they are small, probably even insignificant tales, that bred in obscurity, but have a story to tell, nonetheless. Joker game thus far has proved that these “insignificant” stories are still quite fascinating to watch, and boy was this episode good proof to that.
The art and music are still on the high-tiers of good without any major signs of deterioration. The scene where Honma tails a suspect was a brilliant use of suspense, with the ingenious hard cut to children playing with firecrackers when we were expecting a possible gunshot. The music is just right, this time with some effective suspense scenes that allowed for some amount of tension. Overall, this show is maintaining its polish, and the flexibility in its narrative only means that this show has most of its bases covered. The only way now is for it to stumble with a narrative not as good as the others. So far, this episode was much stronger than the last one, so it will take quite a bit to maintain this level of finesse. Here’s hoping.
Episode grade: B+