Generally, people have certain expectations when it comes to watching a battle royale story. For example, they expect a lot of violence and death. They expect exciting battle scenes, and emotional, tragic ones. Truth be told, people probably watch battle royale stories because they want to see all that. And most of all, when the dust clears and the fighting ends, they want to see the last person standing. Knowing who the winner is and who fell along the way  is the last thing anyone would expect from a show. So thanks, JUNI TAISEN, for completely subverting the biggest thing about the battle royale-watching experience.

Adapted from a light novel by Nisio Isin, JUNI TAISEN: ZODIAC WAR is about as straightforward as it gets. Basically, twelve warriors who represent the Chinese Zodiac fight to the death in a city-wide arena. The winner gets the chance to have any wish granted. This whole ordeal is called, shockingly enough, the Zodiac War, and takes place once every twelve years.

For those unaware, the Chinese Zodiac is a little like the western astrology one. Both divide into twelve sections and place people in a certain section depending on their birth date. However, where western astrology determines sections by birth month and day, the Chinese Zodiac does so by birth year. Each section is represented by a different animal, starting with the Rat and ending with the Boar.

The Chinese Zodiac cycle | Image: Pinterest

So far, we don’t know why exactly the Zodiac War keeps happening in JUNI TAISEN’s world. We also don’t know why certain warriors have to represent a certain animal from the Chinese Zodiac. All we know is that the organizers are powerful people, and getting chosen to participate in it is a big deal. Despite the fact that it’s an all-out fight to the death, none of the warriors actually treat this battle royale with much seriousness. To them, and to the audience, it’s just an excuse for a good, gory time.

Spoilers for JUNI TAISEN up to and including “Cutting a Chicken with a Beef Cleaver” follow.

Enter the Arena

juni taisen intro
Aren’t our lil warriors so cool? | Image: Crunchyroll

A good chunk into its first episode, all expectations for JUNI TAISEN are still in line with any battle royale story. Who will die? When will it happen? Who will win? The warriors are all in the same room when the battle officially begins. They’re all mere feet from one another, and the air is thick with tension. Who will make the first move? How many of them will be eliminated right away? The floor splits and the warriors scatter. Everyone’s first priority is making it out of the building alive. The audience is on the edge of their seats. What will happen next?

Maybe some viewers think that Boar will succeed, or at least make it decently far. After all, she’s the character we’re following, and we already have a good sense of who she is. Events that take place several minutes afterwards eliminate her and that thought entirely. But that’s okay, too. Classic battle royale, right? Taking out the character we initially thought was the main one? That was probably something a lot of other people expected, too. So we wait for the next episode, to see what direction the show will take now that the battle is really starting.

But then we realize we’re getting Dog’s focus episode. And that the entire show is listed for exactly twelve episodes. No way — we know there are a lot of predictable things in a battle royale, but surely not to this extent!

Alas, Dog’s episode ends as we feared, and the next opens with Chicken’s backstory. Heck, the show’s ending sequence basically spells it out for anyone who hasn’t picked up on it yet.

So there we have it — the most predictable battle royale in the world. If you’re still not sure what I’m getting at, take another look at that chart of the Chinese Zodiac from earlier.

So now what?

My first reaction to this realization might have been the same as many others: But doesn’t that make the show boring? If we already know exactly when each character will die, and ultimately who will win, what’s the point of even watching?

Well, I said that after episode two, at least. But I still went ahead to watch episode three. And by now, honestly, I have every intention of going right through the Zodiac alongside the show up until Rat’s probable win. Predictable death order aside, the show still has a lot going for it.

After all, dead characters alone do not a good battle royale story make. In any anime, there are so many aspects to consider. Direction, artistry, writing, an understanding of a viewer’s inevitable expectations one way or another… And I have reason to believe that JUNI TAISEN pulls through in all these aspects. That’s why I’m sticking with it, and why I think you should, too.

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The Art of War

Let’s start with the biggest reason anyone enjoys a visual show: artistry. One of the first things people will notice about JUNI TAISEN from its first episode is its remarkably consistent, high-quality animation. This is especially apparent in the action scenes we see from Boar’s past. JUNI TAISEN pulls out all the stops here, filling its shots with intense, high-speed movement and dynamic fight choreography.

Even the less violent scenes still have lots to admire, particularly in terms of character acting. Small details like Horse pawing the ground in embarrassment and Rabbit’s constant, caffeinated twitching speak more to their personalities than dialogue ever could this early in the show.

There’s also the matter of its general art style. JUNI TAISEN utilizes a sketchy sort of linework. Motion is smooth, but character and object outlines are blocked out more roughly. Combined with the show’s earthy color palette, this lends to a grittier atmosphere that perfectly suits its tone and premise.

juni taisen boar
Warrior of the Boar | Image: Crunchyroll

Novel illustrator Hikaru Nakamura, known for SAINT YOUNG MEN and ARAKAWA UNDER THE BRIDGE, also displays noteworthy work here. Her character designs for JUNI TAISEN demonstrate a ferocity and creativity not often seen in the softer art of her most famous titles.

Each warrior and their battle attire nicely portray individuality while still nodding to the animals they represent. Boar, for example, wears earrings in the shapes of tusks. Dragon and Snake, similarly, don leggings reminiscent of scales. Some are a little more blatant, like Chicken and her ostentatious orange-feathered cape. Still, their clever designs do an excellent job of distinguishing who’s who while sticking to an appropriate level of absurdity for the story.

It’s clear how carefully thought out each visual aspect of the bigger story is. Director Hosoda Naoto of FUTURE DIARY fame is no stranger to ultra-violent anime works or battle royales. Three episodes in, I can at least report that his vision is so far consistent and artful. And, if nothing else, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Classy Greetings

One more thing I want to touch on in terms of artistic vision is the portrayal of character introductions. In the Zodiac War, when two warriors meet, it’s customary for them to introduce themselves in a specific way. The show takes this one step further with a neat little visual aside for each introduction.

juni taisen boar intro
Boar’s introduction | Image: Crunchyroll

Making superb use of typography, texture, and design, the only word I can think of to describe these introductions is cool. Especially when it happens right before a battle, it helps get viewers pumped up and itching for the action only a few seconds away. It truly gives the entire war the feeling of a game, or maybe cheekiness as it salutes its in-world and real-life audiences.

We also learn in episode three that the visuals are not static. During Chicken’s introduction to Dog, she takes on a carefree pose as she speaks. Later, when she’s introducing herself to Ox, her stance is much more panicked and defensive. In other words, these visuals are not entirely separate from the ongoing story and the world the characters are in. They reflect a character’s current state, nicely representing who they are while keeping in line with the almost over-the-top fashion of the show. It’s a great way of briefly taking viewers outside of the world while still expanding on it.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend

The next step to a good battle royale is its writing. Luckily, the author of the original novel is none other than Nisio Isin himself. Known for character dramas like the MONOGATARI series and bizarre comedies like MEDAKA BOX, Nisio Isin might be the best choice for something as oddly fun as JUNI TAISEN.

He’s clever, so we can probably expect great twists. He’s insightful, so we can probably expect some philosophical moments. Most of all, he understands an audience and what they might expect. I’m not so big a fan of him as to say everything he writes is automatically gold. But, I do trust him to know what he’s doing, especially when he puts forth an utterly predictable premise like this one. Let’s explore JUNI TAISEN’s storytelling a little more.

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The Good Kind of Bad

There’s a thin line between fun and garbage when it comes to battle royales. Sure, the main idea is always just going to be a whole bunch of people out to kill each other for one reason or another. But there’s an art to execution.

Fun battle royales take the ridiculousness of the whole situation and just kind of go all out. They involve stupid things, but they’re stupidly cool and entertaining to watch while still maintaining a reasonable standard of storytelling. Garbage battle royales, as you might guess, just take themselves way too seriously.

juni taisen rabbit
Rabbit’s offended that you would even think he killed someone | Image: Crunchyroll

Luckily for us, JUNI TAISEN belongs in the former category. Fun is Rabbit being the most dangerous combatant in the War but wearing a costume straight out of a Playboy Magazine. Fun is Chicken’s fighting style literally revolving around bomb-dropping-birds. It’s absolutely insane, and JUNI TAISEN knows it and embraces it and sells it for all it’s worth.

Just Deep Enough

But don’t worry, that kind of wackiness isn’t all JUNI TAISEN’s writing has going for it. There’s some genuinely interesting development and pieces of foreshadowing sprinkled around as well. The show handles character backstories with a surprising amount of care. We learn who these people were before they became warriors. We learn their motivations and their skills, and we might even end up growing a little fond of them. So, even if we know when each warrior will die, there’s some worth in sticking around to see how their personal lives are presented.

Chicken before she started going around with literal feathers all over her body | Image: Crunchyroll

It’ll also be nice to observe how these loose threads tie together in the end. The story has already planted several mysteries that I, for one, am eager to see resolved. Why does everyone comment on how familiar Rat seems? What is Monkey’s plan for a peaceful resolution?

Plus, I’m just curious in general about the other characters’ skills and powers. I mean,  we have Rabbit bringing people back from the dead and Dog somehow producing poison in his body. Things are already so beyond comprehension that I can’t imagine what else is in store. We may already know the death order, but there are still so many questions that need answering.

True to Heart

Now, for all I’m spouting out, there is still one very big possibility to keep in mind: that JUNI TAISEN’s predictability itself could be the reason to continue.

Maybe Nisio is double-playing us, putting in all these obvious signs that point one way, only to pull the rug out from under us at the last second. Maybe the death order and final outcome aren’t set in stone. That in and of itself would grant JUNI TAISEN the honor of being so predictable that it ultimately isn’t.

Honestly, though, I doubt that things will turn out that way. There’s some merit to the thought that because it’s so predictable there must be something vastly unpredictable hidden somewhere. But I genuinely believe that JUNI TAISEN’s straightforwardness should be taken at face value. It is what it is, and plot twists that subvert the story’s direct approach so far would only hurt it overall, in my opinion.

Besides, there are still plenty of reasons to watch even if you know how it’ll end. From an imaginative artistic style to unexpectedly endearing characters, JUNI TAISEN has a lot of strengths to admire and enjoy. After all, the show is here for a good time, not a tension-filled, mind-bending one.

My advice? Forget expectations. Sit back to watch it for what it is and always has been: a good ol’ fun, simple bloodbath. And I mean, if you already know how it ends, you don’t have much to lose going in, right?

Featured image screenshotted from Crunchyroll.

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