Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Series Review – No Twists, No Turns, Little Excitement, But Not Fatally Flawed

Overview:

12 Zodiac themed warriors have been chosen to take place in the Juni Taisen (big death match) where the winner will have a wish granted. That’s pretty much it.

Review – There will be spoilers:

If you are looking for an anime with a clear grasp of the big picture (the how and the why and all those things) than Juni Taisen is not for you. Then again, if you are looking for an anime that treats its characters as more than just fodder for increasingly less shocking deaths, is consistent in pace and action, and occasionally manages to seem like you should perhaps care about the characters, you probably aren’t making it very far into Juni Taisen anyway.

Maybe that seems ‘overly pessimistic’ as one person told me I was being after my review of episode 1 where I raised concerns that killing off the only character the audience had any connection to was probably not a stroke of narrative genius and I wasn’t really sure how this show would manage to be interesting given it seemed locked into a 12 episode/12 hour fight sequence with fairly telegraphed deaths (okay, I wasn’t that specific in my episode 1 review though in hind-sight I should have been). So it might seem like I was being pessimistic then and now, but I actually have no reason to change that view. While there are some good things to be found in Juni Taisen, my main impression as I finished the series was one of relief because to be honest this was a chore to finish by the end. Crunchyroll advertising insisting there were twists and turns to be found just kind of bugged me given there wasn’t one twist from start to finish in a story that ended up being ridiculously linear and vague.

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Despite everything, I still would recommend this for a watch if it had explained why the war was taking place. And I mean, really explained. Not just some vague rich guys/countries are gambling on it and somehow we’ll redraw the map after it is done. The audience never sees the weight of the contest or the outcome in terms of the effect it has on the world so basically we just watch 12 characters try to kill each other and hope it amuses us. And again, that could work. I like horror. I don’t mind the occasional brutal death. However if you want to know who is next just know the order of the Chinese Zodiac (which unfortunately I knew all too well because it is the basis of a board game I played as a kid) so after week 2 it was more of less locked in who was next to die and who would win the game.

Does that mean it couldn’t be fun? We could still get some great action, couldn’t we? Episode 1 had an amazing display of animation where we saw the Boar training and becoming the awesome warrior she apparently was. It was spectacular. Yet everything after just seemed to have less energy and drive. None of the fights last any particular length of time so if you want to know what you will mostly be watching it is characters sitting around running an internal monologue. Usually this is closely followed by their death.

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One or two of the characters were interesting enough. I didn’t mind the Chicken or the Tiger and Rat (when he appeared) was always making me curious even as he slept through the tournament, but mostly the characters were characterised by arrogance or pride. None of them seemed concerned enough about their potential deaths and almost all of them died after severely underestimating an opponent. Once or twice this might be seen as an okay move but the repetitive nature of this became truly dull viewing.

The character designs are quite well done (if a little insane and I’m sure many people will have issue with the fan service like nature of the female warriors’ outfits (they certainly aren’t designed for defence), but they nicely exemplify the zodiac and at least there is no issue with distinguishing the characters. Besides, if you start throwing rocks at the girls you would have to wonder just what the Rabbit was wearing and that is a question that I think many people will have after just one episode. Again, that isn’t designed for defence.

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Visually, Juni Taisen is kind of interesting as the actual tournament is taking place at night with all the scenes being quite dark. By contrast, almost all of the flash back sequences are brighter as is the final episode when the victor is trying to decide what to do with their prize. This kind of attention to detail is appreciated.

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Basically, I loved the concept this show had and was looking forward to it, but found that the actual story and the execution was lacking even though it looks great and it is clear a lot of effort has been put into it. I don’t think I have any real need to ever revisit this series and it isn’t one I can overly recommend given what it is lacking, but it isn’t a complete train-wreck either. Basically it ends up being just kind of average.

Episode Reviews:


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Karandi James

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Friday’s Feature: Make A Wish, But Will That Help The Story?

It is a fairly common moment in stories where a character wishes for strength or power or to undo something terrible that has happened or even wishes to save a friend. While the vast majority of these wishes will go unanswered leading to some kind of tragic moment the character must overcome through non-magical means, occasionally a character will be granted their wish. But does this lead to a satisfying story for the audience?

The answer to that really depends on how the wish is framed within the narrative and the results of the wish. For example, a story like Aladdin kind of requires a few wishes to be granted. Without the genie and magical wishes you kind of don’t have a story at all. Then again, it can also be used as the cheat card, particularly in Christmas movies. The plot ties itself into ridiculous knots and then a character usually looks up at a star and makes a wish squeezing their hands together earnestly before a miracle happens and somehow everything works out okay. While this might make for a feel good scenario it also kind of makes all the effort or attempts by any of the characters to resolve the situation prior to the wish feel mostly futile.

Today I want to look at some examples of anime that deal with wishes and the different ways they are used. Yes, this post was definitely inspired by the final episode of Juni Taisen and yes, there will be spoilers for the anime below so if you are concerned, thanks for reading this far and please check out some of my other posts.

I’m going to start with the easy one, xxxHolic. This one is easy because it plays on one of the most common tropes of being careful what you wish for and the idea that nothing comes for free. While this theme is heavily embedded in all of its stories, the super obvious one with the story of the Monkey’s Paw. Now you’ve probably heard this story before because it does the rounds as an urban myth and has been used in almost every collection of strange tales ever but essentially a character finds a tube containing a monkey’s paw and it gives them five wishes, one for each finger that of course break with an ominous snap after each wish.

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Which would be all well and good except that the wish maker in this case, and in most cases with this style of story, makes wishes for selfish reasons and doesn’t really think through the consequences of their wishes. Ultimately their wishes lead to the death of another and finally they are killed.

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Much like Aladdin, the story here wouldn’t exist without the wishes coming true, albeit in a horrible manner in this case. It isn’t a cheat to solve a plot problem, but rather it is the problem or the source of conflict that will ultimately drive the story. So while you might accuse this of being cliché, it fundamentally works as a narrative.

On the opposite side of this, we have a story like Ah! My Goddess that also starts from a wish, only in that case the wish is granted without tricks or traps. It still does have the pitfall of poor wording and not quite thinking through consequences even if ultimately things work out.

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For those unfamiliar with the story, Keiichi is down on his luck and kind of a doormat but has a real love for working with mechanical objects. When left to look after the dorm one day he receives a phone call from a Goddess who claims she will grant his wish before she appears through the mirror in his room. After his initial skepticism is met with upbeat and positive answers, Keiichi makes a fairly rash wish that a goddess, like the one before him, would stay with him. And just like that heaven grants his wish and Belldandy, the Goddess, is now going to stay with him.

It isn’t all smooth sailing as Keiichi is thrown out of the dorm and they at first struggle to find a place to stay. Other goddesses and even a demon show up and at times really cause issues for Keiichi. At one point, due to a computer error in heaven, the wish is lost and Keiichi needs to use the exact wording to remake the contract with Belldandy but can’t remember what he said on the spur of the moment.

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The point however is, that once again, the wish is what kicks the story into gear. There’s no other reason for a goddess to be bound on earth and living with this ordinary guy and so none of the story that follows could happen without the wish. What I do like about Ah! My Goddess is that even though Belldandy and the other goddesses do have some significant power, there are some incredible restrictions on the use of that power on earth. Many issues come up during the story and for the most part when they are mortal issues they are dealt with through mortal means with magical solutions being reserved for more magical problems.

So despite the wish itself not having strings attached or some moral message about not making wishes, this story looks at the aftermath and how just having a wish granted isn’t enough to solve all your problems as new problems will continue to arise and it is only by facing them one by one that progress can be made. The wish is again fundamental to the operation of the story and the themes being constructed.

But what both of these stories have in common is that they uses wishes as a catalyst for the story. What about anime where the wish comes later in the series and we have two very good examples of this in Madoka Magica and in Juni Taisen.

Starting with Madoka Magica, making a wish is what makes the contract with Kyubey to become a magical girl. If you don’t make a wish you can’t become a magical girl and Madoka, our title character, can’t decide on her wish. More importantly, the longer she delays making her wish, the more she learns about the consequences of wishes and of being a magical girl.

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Sayaka, Madoka’s friend, jumps in early at making a wish and uses it to heal a friend who has been in hospital. She clearly has deeper feelings for her while he sees her as just a friend, but she uses her wish on him and becomes a magical girl. Because of the nature of her wish, Sayaka has incredible self-healing power but is otherwise fairly inexperienced as a magical girl.

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Imagine her surprise then when the boy she literally gave her soul to bring happiness to ends up accepting a confession from another friend. Emotionally unbalanced, she swiftly descends and falls from being a magical girl to become a witch.

Much like xxxHolic, there’s a lot of warnings about being careful of wishing for things and realising that nothing is truly free. However, Madoka’s wish doesn’t come until the very end. When things are at their worst and we know Madoka can make the most powerful wish ever which in turn will lead her to become the worst witch ever, and you have to wonder how the writers are going to pull out of this loop they’ve written themselves into. And then Madoka literally breaks the world with her wish.

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If this had been done poorly it would feel as much a cheat as a Christmas miracle but Madoka’s wish has some great writing backing it up. We already knew that Madoka’s potential was beyond any other magical girl and the audience knew she could make a truly amazing wish. We also knew the fundamentals of how the magical girl/witch system worked at that point and so Madoka wanting to save magical girls from becoming witches would of course require the entire system to be rewritten. The wish also didn’t come without a price. Madoka saved the girls from becoming witches but didn’t save them from dying and she also didn’t save herself as she isn’t in the new world that has been created.

Foreshadowing coupled with a decent price levied for the wish that was made ensured this didn’t feel like a cheap plot device designed only to bring the show to an end on a high note. It felt like everything had led the audience and Madoka to that moment and it was the perfect solution to the complications presented by the story.

And that then brings us to Juni Taisen (big spoiler ahead if you haven’t watched and don’t know who won).

Now, there are all sorts of issues with Juni Taisen in the way it executed its story, but the story itself does work. 12 warriors come together every 12 years to fight a battle royal and the winner gets a wish. It is simple and could have worked quite spectacularly. While I’m not going to get into what I felt when wrong with Juni Taisen here (I’ll save that for my actual review) I do want to look at the wish aspect of the story.

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Very much like Madoka, Rat can’t decide what to wish for. He’s been given (or earned through the battle) a wish and the audience is told he can literally wish for anything. The mechanics of how or why someone else can grant any wish (including apparently resurrection) is something the show isn’t interested in getting into so unlike Madoka we never really know why such a wish can be granted. And so Rat begins to go through 100 options for his wish and for each idea he comes up with he sees an obvious down side or consequence and quickly dismisses the idea.

It is kind of the opposite of all those other stories where characters make rash wishes without thinking through the consequences, and was almost novel enough as an idea to work. All these characters competing for a wish and the one who wins it doesn’t know what to do with it.

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Ultimately, Rat’s decision didn’t sit well with a lot of viewers. He wished to forget. Forget the tournament and the deaths and the 100 paths he had to take to find victory. For some this wish seemed horrible given it essentially wasted an unlimited wish and for some viewers it seemed like it invalidated the deaths of the other warriors.

I actually really liked Rat’s wish as I kind of felt it fit the show thematically in that so much of everything was pointless and unexplained and none of it was going to bring happiness or contentment to a traumatized teen who had just experienced his own death 99 times. It was one of the few moments where I kind of felt a grudging respect for a choice the story had made.

However, like or not, does Rat’s wish work within the narrative?

I’d have to say it probably doesn’t work as well as a conclusion as Madoka’s wish did. With Madoka, we have spent a whole season with her as a character and seeing her learn about the consequences of making a wish and what it will cost and learning who she is as a person. With Rat we have two episodes really where we learn very little about him other than he has a general apathy toward life before he makes his wish. Also, while the wish at the end of the tournament is announced early on, the audience is never made aware of the mechanics of the wish or how it fits into the world being constructed.

So, yes Rat’s wish does end the story and the tournament in a way that we were told the tournament would end with a character getting a wish. But, it doesn’t leave the audience feeling satisfied with the overall story. The wish doesn’t address what the story was about but simply gives some closure to a character we’ve had insufficient screen time with to really care about whether they get closure. Of course, it probably isn’t the wish’s fault that the ending feels lacking and probably more a sign of deeper issues with the anime as a whole.

And this post got a lot longer than intended so I’m going to leave it there. Four examples of anime that all use wishes and for the most part integrate the wishes well into their overall narrative structure. What are some of your favourite examples of wishes in anime? Or do you find wishes a narrative cheat that you could do without? Let me know in the comments below.


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Tuesday’s Top 5: Opening Themes in 2017

Tuesday's Top 5

Last year I wrote my list on the top opening themes of 2016 and unsurprisingly Yuri On Ice’s History Maker took out the top spot. This year there wasn’t a single stand out song that really stuck with me, but there were lots of opening themes that really matched their show so it ended up being a fairly close competition.

My criteria for top 5 opening theme is mostly that the song could be listened to as a song by itself and still sound good without the visuals, though also had good visuals to go with it, that it matched the tone of the show, and that it got me ready to watch the episode. So here are my top 5 opening themes of 2017.

Please Note – There probably won’t be any spoilers in this list.

Honourable mentions this week go to: Recovery of an MMO Junkie, 18if, Chain Chronicle and Land of the Lustrous.

Number 5: Here from The Ancient Magus’ Bride

This probably shouldn’t need too much explanation but the song conjures up a sense of sadness and lonliness even while it seems to move us forward. The visuals also have Chise alone a lot of the time and yet surrounded by magic and beauty, even when it is quite dark. All and all, I really enjoy this theme each week and feel it compliments the show quite nicely.

Number 4: Rapture from Juni Taisen

 

One thing I noticed last year was that not necessarily liking the show doesn’t necessarily mean that I dislike the theme. Rapture is a definitely a case where it captures what I would have loved Juni Taisen to be. It really gets me ready to watch something truly special and then I found the episodes mostly leaving me disappointed. That said, it wasn’t like the theme was a mismatch. It is more the theme is aspirational of what the show was trying to be.

Number 3: Tabiji from KADO: The Right Answer

As much as I ended up disappointed by the ending of KADO I still loved the way the show presented itself early on and I love how the theme just prepared you for a calm viewing experience that was puzzling and made you think. Visually, the quality of the opening isn’t impressive, but it still looks gorgeous and draws you into the story as you try to link ideas and images that may not actually go together. Regardless of how the show ended, it was a theme that really stood out for its show and set a tone that was unique in its season.

Number 2: Shadow and Truth from ACCA

Now this was a theme I would have happily listened to over and over again. It’s boppy and upbeat but also just a bit intriguing. The visuals stood out and it really set the laid back and yet exciting feel of the show. Okay, maybe I’m just a sucker for jazz inspired opening songs because there were a few this year I really enjoyed.

Number 1: The Other Side of the Wall from Princess Principal

This one is exciting, thrilling, powerful and visually entertaining. It is everything you could want from an opening about an all female spy team back at the turn of the century in a steampunk like setting. Thematically relevant and hitting just the right tone, this was definitely the opening of the year for me.

Alright, over to you. What opening themes made you pay attention in 2017?


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Tuesday’s Top 5: Anime That Disappointed Me From 2017

Tuesday's Top 5

Last week I gave my top 5 list of suprisingly good shows from 2017. This week I turn it around and share my top 5 disappointments from 2017. Like the last list, this isn’t the list of shows I thought were the worst (those will come out in their own list with the reader’s choices later). This list is for shows that I foolishly held any kind of expectation for and then had my hopes dashed, shattered and basically destroyed as the series progressed. It is a highly subjective list as if you didn’t have expectations for the show it probably won’t be a disappointment so I’d love to know which shows you found a bit disappointing last year. Be sure to leave a comment below.

Please Note: There will be spoilers below.

Honourable mentions go to Clockwork Planet, KADO, and Silver Guardian.

Okay, KADO was actually a major disappointment but I didn’t have any expectations when the show started because I hadn’t even heard of it. It was more the second half of the show could not manage to live up to the expectations built during the first half.

Number 5: Juni Taisen: Zodiac War

This is entirely my own fault. I rarely watch promotional videos prior to viewing an anime but this is one I had seen talked up a lot and the promos looked fantastic. In the show’s defense, the show mostly looks pretty amazing, particularly in action sequences (which are few and far between after the dramatic opening episode that show cases just how pretty the animation could be). But with dull characters that I never connected with and a mostly predictable plot I didn’t care about, this show quickly became a chose to watch and ended up being something I actually put off watching for a day some week’s even knowing that the events of the episode would be ‘spoiled’ after I read the blogs of others. I just didn’t care whether I knew what was about to happen or not because I’d given up expecting anything from the show.

Number 4: Knight’s & Magic

For a show with such a cool concept of combining mecha and magic and placing it in a standard isekai setting this quickly became just a mess of time jumps, dull narration, and very little to invest in. Ernesti could have become an interesting character excpet that the show went out of its way to never challenge him and to never have him second guess himself. Ever. The support cast are mostly forgettable. The final story arc deals with a threat that more or less comes out of nowhere and you don’t actually feel any of the main characters are threatened. Basically it is a mess of a show where it could have so easily been good.

Number 3: Black Clover

I’m aware, it isn’t done yet. But the disappointment this one gave me was palpable. I don’t buy into hype and so despite the Crunchyroll push of this anime everywhere prior to release, I kind of resigned myself to a pretty standard shounen story that would have the usual annoyances of the genre but would probably be a good enough bit of light hearted entertainment. Alas, Black Clover forgot the most imporant part thing is to actually engage your audience and entertain them. See, the point isn’t just to stretch wafer thin content until it crumbles and exposes the absolute rubbish characters and their lack of motives or development. Each episode just compounded the irritation associated with this show and it couldn’t even live up to my expectations that this might be alright for a bit of fun. I feel very bad for people who went in to this show actually expecting the next big shounen title.

Number 2: Tales of Zestiria the X Season 2

After season 1, I wasn’t expecting much of season 2. I was more or less just hoping to find out how Sorey actually got a handle on his powers and defeated the Calamity King. And in fairness, season 2 did get around to delivering that story. We just spent a lot of time kind of meandering around before the henchman of the villain just kind of showed up and said ‘he’s over there, go get him’ and then we watched the characters more or less just go and do that. There are some good moments and some fairly impressive visuals at times, but all and all the narrative is a mess and there are too many characters who seem to exist only because they must have been in the game. It all just detracts from the story and sucks any fun out of the experience.

Number 1: Sword Oratoria

My number one biggest disappointment goes to a show I didn’t actually finish so have never reviewed (and given I am not inclined to return to the show, I will never review). Sword Oratoria. I am such a huge fan of DanMachi and I was actually really excited to see a spin-off (would have preferred a sequel but I’ll take what I can get – or at least I thought so). Then I found out the focus was going to be Ais, one of the least interesting characters from the original. Then the show aired. So boring, so much talking, so many characters I don’t care about… When the only reason to keep watching are the tiny glimpses of Bell you kind of have to realise you may as well just go and rewatch DanMachi. This was incredibly disappointing.

So there is my list, and as I said at the beginning it is incredibly subjective due to the fact that you can only be disappointed when you go in expecting something. Please share your biggest disappointments from 2017 in the comments below and get the conversation going.


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The Worst of Autumn 2017

Something different this season, I’m starting with the worst so that the best can follow. I will admit, this season the poll had the most votes for worst anime of the season and there was a clear winner fairly early on. So, first I’ll share my picks for worst of the season (keeping in mind these are the shows I watched and not the ones I dropped) and then I’ll share the result of the reader’s poll. Be sure to check back later for the best of Autumn.

My Least Favourite Show

Despite a number of shows managing to disappoint or not live up to their potential this season (and yes there were a lot of amazing shows too but that means very few ended up in the middle either being fantastic or meh, dull or just painful), a clear winner for my least favourite show still emerged. Yes, it was the show I should have dropped after that train wreck of a prologue and I certainly shouldn’t have continued beyond episode 3 and yet I’m just not very good at knowing when to admit defeat. You guessed it, Dies Irae. A horrible mess of a show that never got any better and after watching a prologue and 11 episodes I’m still not really sure if there is any point other than crazy characters with super powers being crazy.

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My Least Favourite Character

This is actually kind of hard because there were a lot of very bland characters out there this season. I’d nominate most of the cast of Juni Taisen but none of them hung around long enough for me to really care enough about to say they were my least favourite character. And Asta (Black Clover), as much as he would win for most annoying voice of the season, hasn’t actually done enough of anything for me to care about him either. So, sorry to say but the character who I liked the least even though he is kind of important to the story was Koiwai from Recovery of an MMO Junkie. If I knew him in real life I would genuinely despise this guy. Regardless of his intentions, his actions are at times highly questionable and he has way too much fun stirring up Sakurai.

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My Least Favourite Story

Unquestionably Juni Taisen. I think what makes this worst is the advertising that insists on twists and turns in a plot that is utterly devoid of anything resembling a twist (unless a lack of twist is a twist these days). And really, where is the story. They fight, they die, we still don’t know what impact that had and we never had any reason to care about them. The few interesting elements of this show can’t save a plot that marches through the process of knocking off its cast without bothering to give us a reason why or making us care.

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My Least Favourite Opening Theme

Sengoku Night Blood, oddly enough. It isn’t that it is terrible but it is just painfully generic and unremarkable in any sense of the word. I guess it matches most of what the show delivers but to be honest this was the opening I skipped the most during Autumn.

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My Least Favourite Visuals

I have to give it to King’s Game. As much as I quite liked this story, the terrible depiction of deaths (heads getting screwed off, bleeding, severed limbs etc) just come off as incredibly laughable when they aren’t completely lame. While the rest of the show is just kind of average, for a horror that takes pride in knocking off its cast with alarming regularity they never really did manage to make even one death look in any way cool, interesting, or even just impressively real. For instance, in the image below, the guy is bleeding from the neck and his head is about to fall off. While censorship could be blamed a little, even that isn’t enough to account for how poor some of the visuals are in this anime.

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Reader’s Choice – Worst Anime of Autumn 2017

Well, here it is. I’m going to be honest in that I was hoping that Dies Irae would take over the lead but I guess I always knew what the majority of people would vote for. Thanks to everyone who participated in the vote this time round.

Worst of Autumn

Yes, King’s Game had an early lead and never really relinquished it. Clearly, bad horror left a bad taste in many viewers mouths.

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That’s it for the worst of Autumn 2017. Be sure to check back later for the best of Autumn post and remember the best of the year poll will open tomorrow with results to go out next week. As always, I would love to know your final thoughts on the season, so what did you vote for and which shows do you think deserved the title worst of the season?


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Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Episode 12: I Think The Viewers Need Rat’s Wish

Review:

Sad that the final episode was the first that made me actually kind of intrigued by a character and the world constructed by this anime. Sad that all of the previous 11 episodes ultimately ended with Nezumi’s one wish that he decided needed to be granted. However it is now done and I will admit episode 12 at least let this show end with some dignity as it certainly provided a far more engaging viewing experience than anything thus far.

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Nezumi was always a bit of an enigma but I liked the few times we saw him during the Juni Taisen so an episode focused on him was kind of entertaining to watch. His general attitude, while it would be frustrating to follow a protagonist with that mind-set for a whole season, was fairly amusing in the small doses we got and as a closer to the season. This episode also gave us some insight into the other contestants (though definitely a case of too little too late).

While this doesn’t change my overall pessimistic view of this show, I actually have to say I didn’t mind this final and it certainly could have been worse.


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Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Episode 11 – I’d Say It’s Over But There’s Still and Episode To Go

Review (some spoilers):

There’s a real sense of time wasted as this eleventh episode rolls around. At no point has this series veered off the path it set for itself in episode 1 as characters continued to be taken out in strict Zodiac order using the same basic idea over and over again. These great warriors have all made a serious mis-judgement and fallen quickly because of it.

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As the second last living warrior standing, Ox faces off with Zombie rabbit thing (though I think snake and dragon are in there as well). It is a fairly pointless fight with the only real interesting part being the idea of all these tiny bits and pieces of bodies being reassembled. But then it was too dark to really see it and appreciate the creation fully and it didn’t really do much on screen so I guess it is neither here nor there.

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Then we get the monkey prize from inside the corpse and I guess that satisfied the ‘where is the monkey’ question. And while Monkey pins down Ox, Rat casually strolls up, lays down a bomb, asks Ox for any last words, and then walks away before we get the big boom that Sheep promised us. Not exactly edge of your seat delivery for a final fight in a death match.

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I’d write this episode off as another fairly dull entry in a dull series except that I didn’t mind how they showed us Rat’s power and the post match interview was kind of interesting. Not enough that I’m actually looking forward to the 12th episode given there’s no more death match going on, but enough that I can’t just dismiss the entire thing as a waste of time.


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