Juni Taisen: Zodiac War – A Solid Battle Royale Anime That Tackles Meaning and Purpose

    I’m a fan of complete stories, and stories with consequences. This goes for shows, books, films, etc. If I start something, I want to finish it. That is what lead me to this series, and one of the reasons I love Battle Royale animes. Battle Royale is a style of anime where a group of characters are in a tournament, fighting to the death, and there can only be one team or one person left alive. Think “Hunger Games” in terms of scale.

“Juni Taisen: Zodiac War” is an anime based off a light novel (interactive book), by Nisio Isin, which was illustrated by Hikaru Nakamura. It takes place in the modern day where a war rages between 12 families, named after the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac fight (Ox, Dragon, Snake, Monkey, etc.). World Leaders bet on who will win, and the winner has a wish granted as their reward.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is full of magic and technology, and each family has a power or ability that is passed down through blood. This makes the wars between them fascinating and adds a darker element to it all, as each ability is used to maximize killing. The world is full of constant war and political intrigue, and this plays into the characters chosen to fight in the tournament.

Characters – Not all the characters are strong or interesting. I couldn’t stand Snake and Dragon as they were just like Beavis and Butthead. Horse needed more character development. How women are objectified ends up taking away from a few backstories, too. There are a few characters that do manage to carry this 12 episode series though.

Boar – Boar is our introduction to this world. She is the daughter of the winner of the last tournament. She wants to be the best more than anything and to be loved by her father. This leads to her driving her sister insane when her father chooses her sister over her. The reasons behind this are never fully explored, but given how sociopathic her father is, he turned sister against sister to see who he could make the most ruthless. She’s a broken character, but she loves the rage of battle. We see how her father’s views shape her, making her vulnerable, which is contrasted by the hard, collected exterior she presents to others.

Monkey – Monkey is the peacemaker, driven by the desire to bring about world peace. She is a planner and has a way of disarming people with her kindness. She is one of the most powerful members in the tournament, as she controls the elements. She only dies when Rabbit uses the others he has killed to catch her off guard. Monkey is the only good person in the tournament, as many are driven by much more selfish means.

Tiger – Tiger fights in a drunken rage. Having to fight in the wars that the families take part in breaks her spirit, and makes her a nihilist. This leads to her drinking and fighting, which leads to her forgetting herself, getting kicked out of her family and living by instinct. Her arc is about finding herself again, as when Ox rescues her one of the days she is drunk prior to the tournament, and that drives her to be better. Her story is touching. In the end she sacrifices herself to save Ox from Rabbit, and is the only member of the tournament to die happy.

Ox – Ox is the Samurai archetype. This is a man who fights for honor and in defense of others. He has no abilities, but is methodical in his killing, becoming known as the “Genius of Slaughter.” He chooses not to kill in the end, in regards to Tiger. We see him as someone who has lived his entire life killing and found no purpose beyond how he kills. It is in his final act of risking his life, so Rat can defeat Rabbit, that we see that he finally finds purpose, just as his friend Tiger did.

Rabbit – Rabbit is an insane necromantist whose soul desires to make everyone his “friends,” as in kill them and make them his minions. He is unpredictable and the main antagonist of the series, as he outmatches every single character. His winning means the end of the world. It takes multiple characters working together, starting with Monkey and ending with the actions of Ox and Tiger, that lead to Rat finally being able to defeat him. The final fights are amazing, and that is mostly due to just how impressive Rabbit is as an enemy.

Shaped by Trauma – One of the major themes of the series is how trauma shapes you. Chicken was abused as a child so they learn to use vulnerability as a tool, Tiger’s trauma shapes her into a weapon, Horse’s trauma leads to him pumping himself full of drugs to be the strongest, and Monkey’s trauma drives her to try and bring about peace. These are a few examples of what makes the characters, who drive the story, so compelling. All of them were born out of conflict and their actions are shaped by it.

Character Contrast – Each of the characters has another aspect about themselves that is contrasted with the face they wear during the tournament. Ox is a brutal unfeeling killer, yet dies for another. Tiger is reckless and violent but her final actions are driven by love, Rabbit brings people back to life because he is lonely and wants to be with people, Horse is a powerful soldier but in the end dies afraid and trapped, unable move past his fear.

The Cons:

Dragon and Snake – I hated Dragon and Snake. These two are thieves who present themselves as helping the poor, but will take any contract, even killing the very people they were helping. We never find out why though. They have no clear motivation in their actions, and it just makes them bland. These characters just act bored or crazy, and it does nothing to develop them. These two received two episodes to explore their backstory, which really should have gone to Ox or Rabbit. The writer didn’t care about these characters, and in the end, we don’t either.

How the Show Presents Women – Women in this are presented as victims only. Monkey is a victim of failed treaties she made, Chicken from abusive parents, Tiger from War, and Boar by her father. On top of this most of them are presented as sexual objects. Where the men get outfits that would function in combat or cover most of their body. With the exception of Boar and Monkey, everyone else is in underwear or less. This was so stupid, especially in regards to Tiger, who is a soldier, and Chicken, who is a spy. This is a common trope in anime and one I really hope is changed. Every character deserves full development and respectful presentation. Objectification does nothing but cheapen the character.

The Ending – Rat wins because of his ability to see up to 100 different possibilities and choose the best path to take. So what does he do? What did he learn from all these characters, their motivations, and wishes? Nothing, seriously… the ending is awful. Rat chooses to forget he ever took part in the tournament, which is problematic given it makes all the deaths meaningless, and it doesn’t keep him from being put back into another tournament. He doesn’t help anyone and he doesn’t solve the problem of the tournament’s existence. I hated the ending, and it is one reason I can’t really call this series good.

If you are fan of Battle Royale animes you should check this one out. It is entertaining and there are some great character moments, the animation and action are fantastic too. What brings it down is the common anime trope of the objectification of women, and certain character arcs having no payoff; as well as, an ending that isn’t worth your time. Seriously if you want the best of this anime, watch everything but the last episode, and skip the Dragon and Snake episodes. Besides that, this was entertaining but extremely flawed.

Final Score: 7 / 10

 

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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): A Masterpiece of Animation With an Unforgettable Story

Kubo and the Two Strings

  “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my favorite movie of the year. Whether it was hold that place remains to be seen but thus far, it is the most perfect film I have watched this year. Not only is the stop-motion animation and soundtrack amazing but the story and characters kept me involved through the entire story, and the story starts out slow to let know become familiar with the world. You should see this film, I want more films like this to be made and it needs all the support it can get, given it is only Laika studios that is keeping this form of art alive.

   The film was directed by Travis Knight, who was also one of the producers, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler with the other producer being Marc Haimes.

    The story involves Kubo (Art Parkinson), whose eye was stolen by his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and must not go out at night unless his grandfather finds him and takes his other eye. During the village’s festival he stays out too late and finds himself hunted by his two Aunts (Rooney Mara) who have come to take his other eye at his Grandfather’s behest. He must collect his father’s armor, sword and helmet in order to stop the Moon King and is helped by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former samurai turned into Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) along the way.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and full of amazing monsters! From a Garden of Eyes, Witches and Gods to a Ten Foot Skeleton…this is a world that is lived in and all the powerful for it as it embraces Japanese mythology while creating a mythology all it’s own.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful, Dario Marianelli manages to create a soundtrack infused with magic that is full of power in depth, where you feel each loss and the power behind each action or fight.

The Writing – Marc Haimes and Chris Butler did a fantastic job on the writing! There is powerful drama and humor that gives it a balance that doesn’t really exist in “Deadpool”(which is a favorite film). It is their mixture of humor and drama mixed with a powerful message and characters are what made it my favorite film this year thus far.

 The Animation – “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my first Laika film. Suffice to say after this I plan on watching the rest of the films they’ve made. Stop-motion animation is a lost art that they keep alive and continue to improve upon.

The Characters – The characters are extremely memorable! Each of them is an archetype to some degree, but also manage to get beyond those archetypes in how they are written. They have humanity and flaws and it makes them worth rooting for or makes them feel threatening.

Hosato – George Takei plays one of the people in the village who takes care of his daughter who is Kubo’s biggest fan. He’s a nice solid presence in the film and in a way reminds Kubo of the fact that he believes his father to be dead at the beginning of the story and his mom is only lucidly present of him…

Kameyo – Kameyo is the older woman who is a beggar in town and the soul of the town. She is a mother figure to Kubo a bit as she is one who looks out for him and helps him with his storytelling. Brenda Vaccaro is fantastic.

The Sisters – The Sisters, who are Kubo’s Aunts are amazing! Rooney Mara gives a haunting performance as these two mask wearing witches who are so powerful that they kill both Kubo’s mother and father. They are one of the best animated threats I’ve ever seen.

Beetle/Hanzo – McConaughey is wonderful in the role of Beetle, who we learn was turned into a Beetle by the Sisters and the Moon King to punish him for leading their sister out of immortality. He has a lot of humor to him and isn’t very bright but his heart is in the right spot and he has great humor. His death is powerful too as he risks his life to protect Monkey/his wife Sariatu.

Monkey/Sariatu – Theron plays my favorite character in the film. Monkey and her Sisters are the best parts of the film. In Monkey we get the strength of her personality and her love for her son and husband while as Sariatu she is a traumatized shell destroyed by her family being cared for by her son. The dichotomy is powerful and gives her humanity and depth. She was a God and gave it up to protect Hanzo from her family…She is the best part of this film.

Kubo – Kubo is a great protagonist who feels very much like Link a Zelda game but has so much more depth and layers to him as we see him finally allowed to be a kid after he leaves the village and is collecting his father’s sword and armor. Before that he is forced to be an adult caring for his mother and making money for food. He had no childhood until his life was at risk and seeing how they explore it is something you have to see for yourself.

Facing Loss – He loses both his mother and father twice, both times as they protect him and in the story we see him face that loss and remember the memories as well as honoring them with the lantern ceremony the village does as who they both are live on in him. The missing of another never goes away, but those we lose become a part of us like the strings on Kubo’s instrument.

The Power of Story – Story is a major theme as the Grandfather is trying to force his story upon his Grandson and make him like him, the village story of his Father’s past is never finished until he becomes a literal part of it when myth (his grandfather the Moon and his Aunts) hunt him and the stories of the dead are interwoven through the film. The self and it’s connection to story is powerful…how a story can change or be erased is captured in the story of his family as at different points they lose their story.

The Hero’s Journey – Kubo’s Hero’s journey is powerful as he discovers connections only to lose them and has to adapt to change all around him. From his mother becoming Monkey, his father being a live and Beetle…to losing them both and in the end having to care for his Grandfather who loses his memory as well. Even as he discovers joy and childhood circumstances force him to lose it and from it find himself.

Okay/Pro: Raiden the Moon King – Raiden has great minions in his daughters and I liked the fact that he is like a sympathetic old man until he turns into a monster…in the story it is left open too if he ascended to Godhood and was once human or was forced into humanity by Kubo…there is so much possibility in this character that I can’t just put him as okay as he is interesting in what they do with him.

    Minus the fact that Raiden is a bit underdeveloped (though still interesting)…this is  a film that I can’t really find any faults with. Kubo doesn’t really get his happy ending, his parents are dead and he has to face it. This is a film that is well worth your time and you should really see it if you have the chance. Give strength to these stories that don’t exist as franchises and are timeless and powerful. This is the best film of the year I have seen thus far and is well worth your time, it is in the timeless stories that we are reminded of our own and this story does it with unforgettable power and beauty.

Final Score: 10 / 10. First perfect film of the year.