It’s a quiet night in 1937 and a group of young men are sat around a table playing poker. When they reach the end of their game, one of the men realises the others have been cheating. Appalled, he stands up and demands to know why. The men reveal that the game they’ve really been playing is the “joker game”, in which they use subtle gestures to signal to each other and attempt to get men onside to help them win. No one can tell who is deceiving who, or who they can really trust.
Yep, this is all one handy metaphor for the eponymous opening of this anime. These are not just any men, they are spies, working covertly for “D-Agency”, a secret Japanese organisation that places them all over the world to gather intel which will help Japan gain the upper hand politically. With a world on the brink of war, this information is becoming more crucial than ever.
Each episode of Joker Game follows the men working individually on cases. They must use their rigorous training and their wits to master tense, even life-or-death situations, gathering intel whilst ensuring no civilians come to harm or uncover their mission and true identity.
In keeping with the historical, political and spy thriller genre, the anime adopts a noir style, with a muted colour palette and angular drawn characters. Joker Game is always serious in tone, and character’s personalities are much more subtle and pared back in light of the plot. There are often no over the top facial expressions, and when there are they are of horror or maniacal evil, and used to powerful dramatic effect. Whilst the spies’ emotions would have to be relatively controlled in keeping with their training, some facial hints such as a closeup of a sweating forehead or a twitching mouth might have helped to create some added tension and invest the audience in them further.
Unfortunately, where Joker Game often delivers in action, tension and mystery, it lets itself down with a lack of character development. Episodes focus on individual spies, and never tie them together by creating relationships to each other, or any kind of relationship to an overarching story. This means you could easily pick any episode at random to watch as they pretty much work as stand alone stories. This is fun in its own way but does limit the emotional investment and opportunity for narrative build-up.
Joker Game is definitely a plot and not character driven anime, with clever twists, turns and deductions that will have you trying to absorb every little detail in an attempt to figure out what’s going on. I really enjoyed waiting to see what shock twist or reveal would happen next, and the aspects of the early twentieth century are beautifully animated, with wonderful attention to detail. Alongside the darker colour palette and ominous musical backing this really helps to cement the spy theme. My main issue with this show is that the majority of the characters are young, dark haired men, and the simplicity of the animation style combined with the subtlety of the plot can make it more confusing to remember who is who. Joker Game plays every scene straight, but some character development alongside a larger story would have really taken this anime from decent to excellent. Nonetheless if you’re looking for a 1930s spy story, this is a sophisticated and intelligent watch.
Two feature length Joker Game animations are also due for release in July and September this year, so if you enjoyed this series you should keep a lookout for those.