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

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

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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 10 – I’m Going to Miss the Tiger

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Review (some spoilers):

As Tiger echoes my thoughts about little interest in a make-believe war (where the context and stakes are still so incredibly vague there’s genuinely no reason for the audience to care) I have to admit this episode was one of the better ones this show has delivered. Part of that comes courtesy of one of the few characters I have kind of cared about being the focus with Tiger finally getting to explain their issue with Ox. The fact that it is one of those ridiculous fake outs and she actually likes the guy (or respects him or something) and he forgot her which is why she’s annoyed, doesn’t make the episode less fun to watch, though it did kind of highlight that Ox is an incredibly boring character.

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Anyway, Rabbit is dead but not in the way that so many characters in this show have been, though my question is how does dead rabbit get controlled given the Rabbit is dead? That’s enough to do my head in and even if you were to argue that Rabbit’s dead brain could still function as the control centre, the body was still clearly moving after the brain got cleaved in two by Ox so now I’m just confused. If the bodies can move without being controlled, was Rabbit actually doing anything at all earlier?

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Dead Rabbit’s contribution was to effectively cut the final contestants down to Ox and Rat (who is still missing mind you), though I suspect Ox is going to have something to say to Rabbit before we get to a final show down. So, is there any room left for a twist given the characters have maintained strict Zodiac order for their death leaving the two we could have picked back at the start alive? Well, Rabbit might take out Ox or maybe Rat will just stay in hiding or maybe they will bother to have the guys placing bets take some sort of action, but pretty much I’m expecting little from this show. We did however get some fairly pretty reflections in this episode from convenient rain that only seemed to hit the characters when it suited the plot for it to happen.

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But I did enjoy this more than some other episodes. I guess we’ll find out who the final match will be between next week. Keeping in mind we still haven’t had the Rabbit’s back story which is definitely breaking the pattern.


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Juni Taisen Episode 9: Repetition is Apparently Important

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Review (with spoilers):

So we continue our way down the zodiac with Snake and Dragon biting the dust (though noteworthy that zombie Monkey has not yet been dispatched so potential for some sort of final spanner in the works to at least break up the monotone that is this story). Rabbit also was sliced and diced in mere seconds making for yet another lacklustre and unsatisfying fight sequence.

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Though, like with the zombie monkey, there are a couple of points about the rabbit that might actually lead to something resembling a twist in this so far incredibly dull and by the numbers plot. Firstly, the Rabbit didn’t get a flashback. We went from Dragon’s story to Tiger’s, for the very first time this whole series skipping a step in the zodiac. Secondly, given the Rabbit has been resurrecting dead characters left and right (including non-character birds) and the very obvious shot of his head and open eyes at the end of this episode, there is certainly potential for Rabbit to not be as out of this as expected given he was dismembered.

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Though, even if Rabbit isn’t dead, I’m still suspecting that little of interest is going to happen from a narrative point of view. Even the Ox, who has been all but a non-character for most of the story delivering only a handful of wooden lines and finally making a decent appearance only to demonstrate an extreme lack of personality or likability, has done nothing to convince me this is going anyway but what most viewers predicted way back after the Dog became the second victim.

Also, we spent the majority of this episode (where three characters died mind you) in Tiger’s past. And none of that past gave us any indication of why she has some sort of rage toward Ox. Given that is literally the only plot point of note that we have to cling to at this point in time (Rabbit is a psycho, Rat is missing, Ox has no personality and everyone else is dead), I don’t get why they decided it was more important to tell us why Tiger is a drunk over why Tiger hates Ox. I know which one would make me more invested in what may happen next in this story and it isn’t that burned out warriors on the battlefield sometimes like to take the edge off.

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Seriously, let the poison kill them all at this point. That at least would be a surprise.


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Juni Taisen Episode 8: So… Do We Just Skip This?

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Review:

Hand up every viewer who signed up for 19 minutes of flash back into the lives of two brothers. Where one character we never met in the present in a living state because he’s been dead since episode one. And the other character has so far had combined about ten lines total since episode one in the present day. See, these two are just so compelling they definitely need two episodes focussed on them, the second one spending almost its entire run time on a court case that then led to a further flash back of some random job the brothers pulled. And what is the payoff for the audience of sitting through all this? The brothers are angsty teens that like killing time and killing people works for them as a way to do that, as long as they get paid. Not that they care about the money.

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At this point, any hope I had of this show becoming a passable show in its completion kind of died. I kept thinking, if it ended well and had a good twist in its final episodes, I’d probably watch it again because binged, it probably doesn’t feel as long and the animation has been very good and there have been some interesting individual moments. But no. Nothing is worth sitting through these last two episodes. They’ve accomplished nothing and given the audience nothing. Maybe someone out there really connected with the walking corpse and was desperate to know his back story, but that wasn’t me. And maybe someone actually finds floating dragon kind of interesting, but again, that wasn’t me.

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There’s four episodes left so I’ll finish this. And if it does do something interesting in the final episodes, I’d be grateful, but regardless, this is a title I won’t rewatch and I’ll happily move on from and forget about. Which is a shame because the opening is pretty epic to listen to and I’ve enjoyed watching the visuals more and more as the season has unfolded. Too bad about the plot and the characters.


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Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Episode 6: I’m Sure Someone Thought That Was Clever

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Review (with heavy episode spoilers):

My first take on this review was a little bit sarcasm heavy but then I realised I was being needlessly harsh on this show. It isn’t that the show is all that bad, more that it continues to look like it should be a better show than it is and that is bothering me. So here is the revised version, and yeah, sarcasm is still coming through a bit.

You know how the first three weeks this followed a strictly linear and less than thrilling pattern of character gets back story and character dies? And the order we were introduced to said characters exactly followed the reverse order of the zodiac? So, the show has a formula. Fine. We can work with that even if it makes it a bit dull.

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Then we went two whole weeks where we got back stories on characters who didn’t die. It was still following the zodiac order in reverse but it didn’t kill them.

Ooh, a twist in the story. Does that mean I should expect something new and different to happen at the mid-way point? I didn’t really think so, but I was kind of hoping for something.

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And then we get episode 6 where in very quick succession we’ll knock off both the previous characters (in correct order for the reverse zodiac) and take out the third character who we get an extremely brief flash back of in this episode that tries really hard to be action packed but kind of just prolongs skirmishes that we’re already seeing the outcomes of while characters still talk and think too much.

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Yep, they killed Monkey, Sheep and Horse in that order during this episode leaving only the Snake (zombie), Dragon, Rabbit, Tiger, Ox and Rat in the game. And the obnoxious thing is the whole time I felt like the show was looking at me smugly with a ‘you didn’t expect that’ expression even though it just reverted fully back to formula.

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Actually, there were some cool moments in this episode. It is just the overall story and characters in this show that are doing my head in. Although, on the bright side, Rat seemed to finally get his head in the game and has bounced into the lead for being the character I like the most out of this cast. He doesn’t have a lot of competition mind you, but at least there’s someone in this game I’m finding amusing.


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Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Episode 5: And The Old Guy Rambles On

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Review:

The Sheep gets some backstory. Is anyone surprised that rather than focusing on the Rat, Snake, Monkey, Rabbit face-off from last week we instead listen to an old guy ramble while he plays with animal models and makes plans about people who are already dead? Good luck partnering with Dog or Boar.

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On the other hand, it seems like the pattern of dying in order of the zodiac isn’t broken yet because the Horse isn’t dead and no-one died yet this episode the Monkey may yet still be the next one to bite the dust. And everyone is so dismissive of Rat and his chances of winning it just kind of makes me think that’s where this is going and that would be incredibly disappointing.

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Though not as much as the reveal of why the Juni Taisen exists which they hit us with in the beginning of this episode. I wasn’t expecting much of a reason given how long they held off on telling us anything, but really? Great. Let’s have a war between twelve warrior,s place bets on them and somehow use that to redraw the global map every twelve years? That’s totally rational. As I said, wasn’t expecting much but this was kind of the minimum possible effort to give a reason for the premise.

Oh well, at least there is some promise of something changing once we are down to half the number of warriors so they’ve managed once again to hook my curiosity sufficiently that I don’t just roll my eyes and walk away and at least this remains really pretty to look at from an animation point of view even if both the story and the characters are leaving me feeling just a little bit uninspired.


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Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Episode 3: Points for the Episode Title

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Review with spoilers:

I’ve made it fairly clear that so far Zodiac War hasn’t exactly been amazing viewing and this week isn’t an exception. That said, I actually enjoyed this episode significantly more than episode 1 or 2 because the Chicken was actually kind of a fun character: you know, before they inevitably cut down the one character we’ve actually learned about during the episode.

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This show has clearly set its formula in stone with giving us glimpses of a character’s past and the messed up life they have had, as well as their internal thoughts about the other characters and the fight, before terminating their life in a gory and what seems to be an attempt at surprising twist at the end of an episode though given it has now been repeated three times that leaves something to be desired.

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However, the Chicken had far more personality and was far more interesting to learn about than either the Boar or the Dog, though no better at making me sympathetic for the ending we all kind of saw coming. If we get another plus out of this episode it is that the Boar is finished for good and isn’t a walking zombie boar anymore.

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Although, as the post title suggests, this episode has a pretty fun title though ultimately that gives away not only the death of the Chicken (though I guess that was kind of inevitable) but also the one who will strike the blow:

Cutting a Chicken with a Beef Cleaver

Clever? Yes. Leaving any room for any kind of surprise in the episode? Not really.

And once again we learn nothing of why the zodiac’s are fighting or who is in charge of setting up this match or even what they actually achieve if they win. I was pretty sure I was going to drop this show this week but then I kind of liked the episode despite having issues with the overall story (or lack of overall story other than ‘kill each other’). Still, looking at the good points of this show (it looks great, the character designs are interesting if a little crazy at times, there is definitely potential for the story, and well it is hard to really stuff up a battle royal too much) I’m probably keeping this on my watch list and maybe it will grow on me.


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Friday’s Feature: Characters To Make the Horror Real

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This was not my intended post for this week however having started two shows that both seem intent on killing off their cast members in spectacularly gruesome and unrealistic fashions for the entertainment of the viewers this season the importance of the characters in making these sorts of stories anything more than visual spectacle has been thoroughly on my mind. This month my features are all focussing on horror and so far I have looked at visuals and the unnamed victims so if you missed either of those posts be sure to check them out.

Starting with a non-anime example I want to look at a movie from my teens, Scream. Scream is not complicated. It is self-aware of its derivative nature, to the point of having the characters openly list the rules and requirements of a horror film even as they themselves go through the motions of being in a horror film. There isn’t a single character in the film you can point to and claim they are unique or particularly interesting as it is an ensemble cast of horror tropes and they work beautifully together to craft a story that actually makes you want the designated heroine of the story to survive and leaves you feeling happy when the killer is ingloriously shot down before getting his final jump scare.

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This is where we as an audience need to understand that these trope like characters serve a valuable narrative purpose and their most important role is to get the audience to react to them. You are supposed to be suspicious of this one, disgusted by that one, roll your eyes at her, and feel sympathy even as you want that one to stand up for herself. It is manipulative viewing and evokes the same emotional response in more or less any other decent teen horror but it is a formula that works.

When you throw competent people into a horror/thriller kind of story the struggle becomes giving them an opponent they can’t easily defeat. This is seen quite clearly in Predator. Here we have tough, trained soldiers who don’t come off as inept as soon as things go awry. They are just severely outclassed by an alien. All except Arnold but I think most of us suspected that he could beat off an alien hunter even before watching this movie.

And that kind of brings us to King’s Game and Juni Taisen: Zodiac War. King’s Game lands squarely in the high school students being terrorised by unknown forces and freaking out whereas Juni Taisen has trained warriors who have walked into and signed up for a death match (for reasons still unknown). Both shows have their flaws and strengths but in terms of the characters drawing me into the story, King’s Game is kind of winning even if the story doesn’t seem as strong (okay, it is rubbish but no one ever claimed horror was a genre filled with examples of brilliant writing – there’s some and we do appreciate it when it exists, but basically we’ll take what we can get) and the presentation has been far rougher. So what is actually going on here?

For me the issue squarely comes down to how the characters are reacting to the horror of their situation.

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King’s Game may suffer from pacing issues, character over-reactions and general poor writing, but the kids are scared. Inexplicable multiple deaths in a single night have them gathering in a panicked mob willing to lurch toward any potential solution. They want to stop the horror and they want out of the situation. That makes the horror feel real to me as a member of the audience. What is happening is actually a threat and one that is causing these characters to freak out. It makes me wonder what I would be feeling in their shoes or wondering if their idiotic actions might be justified even as I roll my eyes at mob-mentality. So far very few of these characters are anything more than a name (when I remember it) and a type (if they’ve even had a line of dialogue) but as a class of teenagers they excel at grounding the horror into something that becomes relatable and therefore something I am more likely to invest in emotionally.

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Episode two was not good. There is no way around that as a reviewer. It was not a good episode by any measure. Yet, there was this one moment where a character is forced with a choice of not following the King’s Order and dying, or of texting ‘die’ to someone and have them die. She knows the game is real now. She knows it won’t just be a joke  to text someone that single word. The look on her face, even through questionable animation and visuals, is one that brings the horror of that choice straight to the audience. What would you do? Do you die or do you sentence a classmate to death? Does it make it okay if you choose someone that the others don’t like? This is the best part of these sorts of horror stories, these small moments that drive the emotions home. Admittedly, King’s Game is hiding these small moments under a pile of mud and other unpleasant oozing substances and there’s a reason quite a few people have dropped the show.

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Juni Taisen however hasn’t had one of these moments. In the first two episodes we’ve met characters who are arrogant, cool, confident or disinterested. They aren’t shocked or scared by their situation and they don’t feel like they are in over their head. In fact, a lot of them just seem bored by the situation, or gleefully and unpleasantly excited by the prospect of killing. Even Boar’s surprise death lacked impact other than a momentary shock because she didn’t see it coming, had no time to feel helpless or pathetic for failing. There was no moment for the audience to empathise with her plight and even though she was in over her head the audience never had a moment to feel that way.

The fact that the Zodiac Warriors aren’t helpless teenagers isn’t a deal breaker in terms of making that emotional connection. Even trained soldiers can feel helpless or cornered and it is brilliant when done well because you can’t criticise the character for being useless. You know they are strong but the enemy is stronger or has managed to get the upper hand. This actually works impressively well when done well, but so far Juni Taisen seems fairly determined not to really allow the audience that connection that would make these deaths anything more than spectacle.

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Moving to the second episode and we meet the Dog. He’s as arrogant and self-assured as the Boar, possibly more so, and once again he never once sees his death coming. It is over in an instant. If I was to map out my emotional responses during the second episode it would be mostly a flat line  as we go through rounds of exposition, introductions, waiting around, and then a quick blip when the inevitable death occurred before returning to base.

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So while I’ll admit fairly readily that  Juni Taisen is far superior to King’s Game in terms of its animation quality, so far from an emotional point of view and from just wanting the horror to actually connect, King’s Game has been winning out for me. I know others have a different opinion and that’s what makes discussing these shows so much fun. It has been great reading about how others have taken to these two shows (or not). Neither show is particularly great yet in terms of narrative as there’s still a lot of unknowns and a lot of potential for both to fall pretty flat. The thing is though, when you set up your story with the understanding that the characters exist mostly to die, if the audience doesn’t care about these characters that makes it pretty hard to care about anything else.

Before finishing, I just want to touch on the other ‘horror’ I started this season: Evil or Live. I use quotations for a reason on that horror because other than the fact that it is listed as such, I so far haven’t seen any evidence of it being a horror (unless you count the writing as being horrific and maybe that does scare you). While the characters are horrible and in a horrendous situation, the show is far more teen drama than horror. A very dark teen drama where rape is a possibility and vomiting in someone’s mouth is potentially supposed to be a comedic moment (possibly?). Maybe it will later shift things up a gear but all things considered, I somehow doubt it is going to hit the mark if you look at it being a horror.

Okay, handing over to you and your thoughts on characters in horror and whether they can make or break your enjoyment of a horror story.


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Juni Taisen: Zodiac War Episode 2: Dead Boar Walking

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Review – Minor Spoiler:

After episode 2, I’m still pretty underwhelmed by this one. It looks fantastic, I have no complaints about the visuals or animation. Yet, I was bored during a lot of this episode.

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The Boar was dead at the end of the previous episode and is now shuffling about in true zombie fashion, marching to the beat of the crazy rabbit’s drum. Therefore we go into this second episode pretty much knowing nothing about anyone else, save the Boar’s opinion of them and then things begin. We chop and change from character to character spending time with the Monkey and the Rat who are hiding out in the sewers, also the Ox gets a few lines of monologue on, the Horse has a brief appearance, the old guy who’s animal I’ve forgotten entirely sits on a step and plots, some girl who has some tail sticking out as an easily grabbed accessory meanders by in a shot, and then we sort of focus on the Dog and Chicken as they team up.

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The issue of course being that we already know that any alliance here is going to be incredibly short lived and we know nothing about either character save a brief flash back we get of the Dog which just made me suspect he was going to be the next designated victim. Then he starts narrating much the same way the Boar did and he also has some incredible confidence. He kind of walked into that death flag. But again, we don’t know enough about him to care or the Chicken girl and the Ox’s encounter with the Horse is all but completely meaningless to us given they are but names at this stage and have no substance.

It is interesting in that they haven’t even told me enough about the characters to make me dislike them. They are just nothing at this point and time. As a result, it doesn’t matter how hard this show tries to shock with gore, betrayals, twists, or super powers because I have no reason to be invested. I still don’t know why this war is happening because no one ever bothered to explain it. I don’t know why these characters are participating or even bothered to show up and none of them have really been given a motive save the Monkey who may be trying to stop it but joining a death match doesn’t seem the best way to end it. I still don’t know who organised it or what they get out of it.

Basically, if you can simply enjoy watching the characters roam around and kill each other I guess there’s something here and maybe sooner or later they’ll get around to explanations, but right now it all just seems like they expect that killing someone dramatically will make for interesting viewing regardless of who that someone is and what reason there is for their death.


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