With all the genres that are afforded to anime, the spy thriller is one that is badly underplayed. Perhaps someone feels that they can’t compete with a James Bond or a Jason Bourne, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the only other spy series I saw, “Night Raid 1931” was more of a fantasy/supernatural, as those people had special powers and abilities. What if we take a special caliber of person, one with a clear idea as to what is expected of them, and mold them into a strong agency? Thus, the idea behind “Joker Game” (“Jōkā Gēmu”).
The year is 1937 and the clouds of war are on the horizon. Lieutenant Colonel Yuuki (that’s the entire name you get) is a master spy and puts together the D-Agency, under the guise of the ‘Greater East Asia Cultural Society’. There, he assembles this cast of folks, chosen because of their bland and vague nature. Remember, a good spy does not draw attention to themselves. Japan does not fully trusts her ‘allies’ and the D-Agency is determined to root out spies on her homeland, as well as finding out what the other side knows. Do keep in mind that, in a broad sense of the word, you are rooting for the enemy. Japan in the 1930s was very militaristic, so every success they achieve in getting something on their ‘friends’ put them that much closer to going to full-out war.
But you do see all the machinations and tricks that this staff employs to achieve what they can achieve. We need to explain ‘the joker game’ a bit better. This can be better seen as using a stooge. Not only are the other members of the team looking for whatever spy or agent is out there, they have no qualms in setting you up as the fall guy. So as the mark is being played, so are you. This is never more seen than in the first episode when, in looking for a spy, Sakuma (upper row, far right) is forced to put his life on the line to flush that person out. If they do guess wrong, Sakuma is dead. Rather high stakes indeed.
The series plays out over two years, as a variety of people are investigated as being threats to Japan. This is one of those shows that the 12 episodes seem rather brief and it could have gone on for much longer, looking at all of the assignments that these folks had to undertake. It would also allow for a better character arc, as the job and the requirements placed upon them forced a severe change in both attitude and decency. It could also benefit from a type of follow-up show, to see what happened to these people between 1939 and 1946.
An artistic decision was made that the colors are muted, like you are looking at old photos from another time and place and, in a broad sense, you are. I feel it helps the series, as you get the sense that, overall, you are listening to one of these people who lived through those turbulent times and this is what they remember, whether it is the truth or not. It is nice to see a change-up from the usual high school rom-com, giant fighting robots and the latest gore fest placed before us. The episodes unfold at a calculated pace, so there is no rushing to a conclusion. As it does this, it challenges you to see what clues are out there that help these agents make like and death decision that have far-reaching effects.
The actual end is a bit abrupt. But when it happens, we are maybe six to eight weeks away from the outbreak of World War II. Although the conclusion lets us know the run is over, there is enough of a dangler to allow for something more, whether it turns into an ‘in-between days’ or if they take up my suggestion and follow them through the war years. In any case, this is a series worthy of your time and consideration.
There is also a two-run OVA that merely adds to the overall tale. It is not really dependent on the show and just allows for a minor crisis to rise, as the two parts combined don’t even hit 12 minutes. It’s just that when it came out, it gives the impression that a potential second season might be in the offing, but it is just too early to tell.
On a scale of 1 to 10:
Artwork 8 (Serviceable but effective)
Plot 7 (More or less consistent)
Pacing 8 (Very deliberate in how it unspools)
Effectiveness 7 (Too episodic)
Conclusion 2 (It reaches a ‘coupler point’, but hasn’t ended)
Fan Service 0 (A similar show would be “Honey and Clover”)
Overall 8 (Nice entry in the genre)
And remember, it’s first run until you’ve seen it. A good spy never kills themselves.