There’s no disputing about tastes. Juni Taisen: Zodiac War—one of my favorite anime series this season—has received mixed reviews. Crunchyroll’s viewers (as of this writing) gave it an average of three stars out of five, with almost the same number of people rating it 2 stars (32) as those who rated it 5 stars (37). Karandi awarded it “My Least Favourite Story” of the season, citing a plot that was too predictable and lack of reasons to care for the characters; KimchiSama wrote that “how [the plot] was organized ruined the surprise”. On the other side, Samuru at Beneath the Tangles found it quite enjoyable, on the grounds that they found it quite unpredictable.
I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with the criticisms yet, as I said, also finding it one of my favorites this season, and that’s what I want to explore here: Are these elements with which the critics take issue really weaknesses? What sort of show is Juni Taisen meant to be, and does it succeed as that kind of story (as opposed to the kind of story we might want or expect it to be)?
Naturally, I’m not arguing that the show is flawless, nor that everyone should like it. There’s no disputing about tastes* and no perfect anime.** Rather, I want to call into question the idea that predictability in a story is somehow a flaw.
Surprise and Repeatability
First off, I agree with the critics who found Juni Taisen predictable. It didn’t take long for me to see that every time someone’s back story was given, he or she was the next to fall. And that’s even if you didn’t know the order of the zodiac animals, let alone the myth about how the rat won the zodiac race. But the predictability didn’t bother me.
A good story is one you enjoy once. A great story is one you can enjoy twice. A truly excellent story becomes more enjoyable every time you encounter it. Probably very few people today watch The Empire Strikes Back without knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s father; yet for all that, it remains eminently and repeatably watchable.***
Diverse Ways of Enjoying Stories
I had to read Dante’s Divine Comedy at least four times before I began to make sense of it. Reading Augustine’s Confessions concurrently in three separate classes helped me appreciate it from different perspectives: literary, historical, theological, and philosophical. As Anime-Gataris points out (Episode 2), “You notice things you didn’t notice the first time.
There are many ways to enjoy a story: surprise at the plot is only one of those ways. Without pretending to give a comprehensive account of all the ways one can find a narrative enjoyable, allow me to sketch out some possibilities. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the author gives a list of six elements found in dramatic tragedy, which arguably can be generalized to fit all genres of narrative presentation, including novels or anime (those in quotes are complicated Greek concepts which I’ve tried to briefly summarize):
- “Thought”, i.e., the themes the narrative engages
- “Speech”, i.e., what is said
- “Melody”, i.e. how things are said
- “Spectacle”, i.e., the scenery or other ‘cosmetic’ ornaments
The first two, plot and character, are concepts familiar to us that need no glossing. The other four I’ve put in quotes, because even though they accurately translate the basic Greek words the translated terms don’t communicate to an English-speaking audience what Aristotle was actually talking about.
Any one of these can be enjoyed in multiple ways: being surprised is only one such way. To select a surprising plot as an essential ingredient to a good story leaves out the myriad other possibilities. Sherlock Holmes mysteries are plot-driven, and surprise is essential to them (and to most mystery stories); Jane Austen’s novels are character-driven, and it’s the dynamics of her characters playing and developing off one another that are at the heart of what makes those stories enjoyable. The Ancient Magus’ Bride is beautifully presented visually (‘spectacle’), one of the core elements that produces the sense of wonder, which is at the heart of enjoying that story.****
Whatever “drives” the story is the focus around which the other five elements gather to serve. In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, characters and themes, etc., serve the plot; in Jane Austen, the plots and themes serve the character development.
Juni Taisen is theme-driven. The show raises a certain set of questions, and proposes possible (and conflicting) answers to those questions. Everything else—the setting of a fight to the death, the back stories of the characters, and the combat itself—serves to support the treatment of those themes. These questions include things like:
- What does it mean to act rightly? (Do we buy Ox’s statement that he simply chooses to do the right thing, and then does it? How does he know what is right?)
- What room is there for optimism, idealism, hope, and other positive things, in a world full of pain, death, and bloodshed? (Is Monkey right to keep her ideals in the face of pain, or is Tiger right to submerge that pain in the escape of alcoholism?)
At its core, Juni Taisen asks, “What is good, and what is the proper response to evil? Is there an answer? And if there is, can we know it?” Every character has a different response to these questions.
In Juni Taisen, each person’s answer to these questions defines the type of character they have, i.e., what differentiates them from each other. There’s a genre of literature that consists solely of cataloging different types of people. Today we see something similar in things like the Myers-Briggs personality type theory, the Enneagram, and online quizzes, all of which claim to tell you something about yourself and others if you can just identify which categories you and they fall into. This is hardly a new impulse in human nature: The oldest book that tries to categorize people that I know of is Theophrastus’ Characters, from ancient Greece, and I have no reason to think Theophrastus came up with the idea by himself!
The different people in Juni Taisen are in essence character types written into a story. And each character’s story shows the causes, strengths, and pitfalls of that type. Monkey clung to her idealism and hope, and I really wanted her to win; but she went out kind of pathetically. Her attitude and determination and goodwill did not bring her to success. We as the audience have to recognize that virtue and goodness do not always win in our world; and we have to ask, is there value in them anyway? Tiger suffers pain and heartbreak, and turns to alcohol; we are shown how alcoholism dehumanizes her, but we also have to acknowledge that it turns her into a potent warrior, and that she is perhaps the most successful of all the warriors: She gets her wish (despite losing the combat), and she dies happy. This cannot be said for any of the others.
By showing the light and dark sides of each character’s choices and values, the series puts us in a position where we are asked not to judge the characters, but rather to reflect on them and to judge ourselves in light of them. If you are not an alcoholic, the story that Juni Taisen tells will not encourage you to judge Tiger for being one (and it certainly won’t encourage you to become one!). Nor does the show simply ask for empathy for the characters’ plights (which, as noted at the beginning, is something that critics have taken the series to task on). Instead, it presents us with both the good and the bad in her life and says, “Do you see the value in this way of life? Can you have the good without the bad? Are you like her at all? How do you face the pain in your life? What are the good and bad aspects of your approach?” And so on.
The selection of the animals of the Chinese zodiac to represent the different characters becomes meaningful in this light: The zodiac is sometimes used to differentiate different kinds of people! As the cliché has it, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?”***** In other words, “What type of person are you?” I’m not saying that the story was written to represent the different types of people represented by the signs of the zodiac: that would be a character-driven story, not a theme-driven one; and it would look quite different. Rather, the choice to use these symbols is suitable for a story that has character types as a core part of its theme.
While I feel like I could keep writing for pages and pages on this, I need to wrap up here. I’ve already worked on this for three days and don’t want to make it four, and I certainly don’t want to lose any readers because of sheer length! Let me just conclude with this: Unlike things like plot, character, and spectacle, the thematic dimension of a work requires a high level of intellectual engagement, since it must first be understood in order to be enjoyed. Stories like Juni Taisen that are theme-driven require this intellectual engagement in a way that a character-driven story, say, would not.
This may not be to everyone’s taste. I imagine that most of us do not get home after a long day in the office, fire up Funimation, and say, “Ah, time for a strong dose of intellectual stimulation!” But love it, hate it, or just not care for it, Juni Taisen should be judged—and enjoyed—for what it is.
* Unless you have a taste for disputes.
** Except Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
*** Unlike certain newer installments in the Star Wars franchise.
**** This doesn’t mean that AMB is a spectacle-driven series. I actually think that AMB doesn’t use one of Aristotle’s categories as its central driving principle. The primary focus of the series seems to be to produce a sense of wonder. Building a story around evoking a particular feeling is more akin to the traditional Hindu approach to poetry and drama. Aristotle just wasn’t about the feels, man.
***** Do people actually say this?? I’ve never once heard it at a party or a bar. Enlighten me, dear reader.