What They Say:
Surpassing rigorous physical and mental training, eight Japanese men live as spies in the years before World War II. Whether they’re caught in clever mysteries or enduring torture, blowing their cover is not an option, and murder and suicide are out of the question. Inspired by real events in history, this is a recollection of their endeavors.
The audio presentation for this series brings us the original Japanese language track in stereo along with the English language dub that gets the 5.1 boost to it. The show has some decent action along the way with a couple of very solid scenes that make out well from the sound design, but it is by and large more focused on the dialogue side of things and the little bits of nuance from there. There’s a lot to like in this with placement, breathing, and how some of the quieter scenes work to deliver an engaging performance from the actors, especially with the music accenting it without overpowering it. The end result is a strong show that fits the material very well and is problem free as we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2016, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The twelve episodes are spread across two discs with nine on the first and three on the second which also has the two OVAs on it. Animated by Production I.G., the visual quality is definitely here as we get something that delivers a strong period piece with all the detail needed to sell it, but it does it with a muted color palette for the most part that adds the right kind of feeling. A lot of it has a sense of grays and other earth tones that feels like like everything is worn down and that just adds to the period feeling really well. When it does shift brighter, such as the ocean based episode, it dials it up a few notches without it feeling out of place or too vibrant. The encoding captures this look really well with what it does with clean colors, no noise, and smooth animation during the higher motion sequences we get from time to time.
The packaging design for this release comes in a slightly thicker than normal Blu-ray case that holds the four discs from both formats on hinges and also has an o-card that replicates the case artwork. The front cover uses the familiar key visual of the main cast and their various styles that factor into their stories and with it set against a white and gray background it lets them stand out well. It’s a familiar placement piece but with the designs, the all-male approach, and the fluttering cards throughout it the whole thing works really well for me. The back cover does some nice stylish things that I wish more releases would try and do as it plays out like a newspaper with the headlines and then the premise being mixed into different parts along with a few good looking shots from the show. The extras are clearly listed as well and the whole thing just clicks really, really, well for me. With the case artwork mirroring it, we do get artwork on the reverse side that shows off some of the Japanese artwork of the characters against the back backgrounds with a breakdown of the extras on the left panel. It’s a nice piece that works well to use as the main cover while keeping the o-card wrapped around it all.
The menu design for this release is very simple with just a basic black background for most of it where we get some character artwork along the right which is brighter in some ways than the show itself feels. It’s nicely detailed and shows off the characters well but I wish it had involved more of the locations to highlight the period better. The logo is kept to the left with a lot of empty space while the navigation along the bottom is simply too big, too bright, and doesn’t flow well with how it overlays the character artwork. In terms of functionality, everything is spot on here and it’s easy to move about and functions well for both the top level menu and as the pop-up menu during playback.
In a sense, the extras are minimal here with just the clean versions of the opening and closing sequences. But we also get the two OVAs that were released included here in the extras that tell a complete story and that’s not something I really consider an extra. That said, this two-parter definitely works well and is a great way to close out the series after all the other events with it following about ten minutes worth of story involving a cat..
Based on the novels from Koji Yanagi that ran for four volumes between 2008 and 2016, Joker Game is a twelve episode anime series that aired during the spring 2016 season. The novels spawned several manga adaptations over the years from other creators and we also had a live-action film in 2015 that didn’t get a whole lot of attention. I went into the show knowing little about it but the series from Production I.G. tickles a certain fancy very well, though it’s at the same time very superficial and keeps itself from getting too into the dirt with the past and actions that happened there. Which isn’t a surprise in general but it does kind of color things a bit. That said, Joker Game is the kind of show that will definitely find its audience as good spy series, especially one that’s essentially an anthology series, are hard to come by.
The opening installment sets up the basics of what to expect as we learn about the D-Agency established in 1937 to essentially get a more formal spy agency underway. There are those within the government and military that aren’t keen on this and some small acts of sabotage are placed into the series as the years progress as well. The opening episode shows how things work with the whittling down of candidates and how there’s only one with military training among them but that they’re all definitely skilled in many ways. Through this we follow how Sakuma struggles with what he’s trying to do as a kind of army liaison here and coming to understand the importance of what this agency will do. But at the same time it also shows the mindset of those in power as they point back to a previous armistice where the Japanese government got screwed by not realizing there was a game being played by other nations that took advantage of them, hence wanting to set up sleeper agents throughout the world to ensure they were partaking in the game proper.
What the show does from there is what allows it to work. The basic idea is that the eight or so men of this organization all go off to their own tales with their spymaster occasionally getting involved from time to time. Honestly, it’s not even important to really remember their names because their tales are largely self contained and there’s only some minor reconnect later on. What works is that we see them being spread out to different locations and involved in very different stories. An early on involves one of them spending time in occupied France and trying to discover what’s going on with the resistance. Another focuses on some time in Shanghai where one is ferreting out a potentially troublesome traitor in the command structure to be dealt with. These tales showcase the foreign lands well and how these Japanese men find themselves dealing with a range of reactions to their presence.
A particularly fun one for me involved Amari as he’s on a large cruise ship heading toward Hawaii with a mission of assassination. It’s the most visually different episode in a way as it’s almost all outdoors and has a brighter look to the more murky and earthy stories elsewhere but it was fun simply because of how the assassination plays out and his need to backtrack to find the actual killer and why, and determine what to do with that information. These guys are all dealing with small stories in the face of the larger war that’s underway But my favorite story is the one that focuses on Yuuki, the spymaster that runs the group, as we get the story of his past told to a reporter that’s investigating the man based on other information. There’s that curiosity as to what’s true and what isn’t because you know that these guys all had their histories wiped before coming into the organization so someone like Yuuki likely has an even more convoluted past to allow for shenanigans. But watching as it unfolds, grasping at what makes sense and what you want to be true, while the twists and turns come is simply delightful.
While the stories are cleaner than they should be in a lot of ways, Joker Game engages in some of the morality aspects of what these men do and why they do it. It’s not focused on their pasts and stories but on the missions themselves and how they handle it, some of which ties into the events that are aligned against the agency’s existence. The show has some great production qualities that you’d expect from this studio and with it being about the shadowy movements and less on action – though there is plenty- it sets a great and engaging mood. The dub cast definitely has fun engaging in this world and it’s a very welcome change of pace from what we usually get. I definitely recommend watching this in smaller batches, if not singly for the most part, to allow each little drama stand on its own and connect with it. Very good stuff.
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English subtitles, The Adventures of Night, the Black Cat (Part 1), The Adventures of Night, the Black Cat (Part 2), Trailers
Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B
Released By: Funimation
Release Date: September 26th, 2017
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.