With current popularity of Squid Game, a lot of people have Battle Royale stories on the mind. The idea of a grand competition where there can be only one survivor makes for a compelling narrative. It forces us to engage with moral questions about the cost of victory and survival, and so long as at least some of the characters are sympathetic, it is inevitably going to hurt us when they die. There’s also the unconscious fear that there’s some prophetic truth to it, that in the not-too-distant future, most of us may be forced to compete for survival by the corrupt and powerful. But before this becomes too much of a bummer, I bring all this up to discuss my ambivalent feelings about the 2017 Battle Royale series Juni Taisen: Zodiac War. Caution: this review spoils the ending of the series; however, so do the end credits of the show, so you’ll know most of this by the end of the first episode.
The Premise of Juni Taisen is simple enough: twelve superpowered assassins with powers based on the Chinese zodiac are placed inside an evacuated city and forced to ingest a poison crystal which will kill them in twelve hours. The objective is to gather these crystals from the other assassins. The last killer standing is given not only the antidote, but a wish for whatever they want. The metaphysics or limits of these wishes are never given, but it’s implied that they can defy reality. In the first episode, we’re given a long backstory of the assassin Boar and learn all about her reasons for fighting, only to see her killed at the episode’s end, setting up that no one is safe. There are a lot of interesting characters, such as the creepy necromancer Rabbit, the clever pacifist Monkey, efficient strategist Ox, and the tragic drunkard Tiger. Despite clever planning and alliances and a few major reversals of fortune, however, none of them make it out alive. The winner is the cowardly, indecisive Rat, who uses his power of future prediction to ensure that he avoids every death that awaits him. When he’s granted his wish, he decides, after much deliberation, to simply forget the events of the tournament and live a normal life.
I almost really liked this series. In a lot of ways, I genuinely do enjoy it. The characters are interesting and never quite what you expect, and the action is thrilling. But there’s something about it that never quite sat right with me. The problem with a Battle Royale is it’s an innately evil premise. Forcing people to fight to the death is morally reprehensible, and playing by the rules of such a game means tacitly accepting that evil. In some cases, such as the original Battle Royale, this is more understandable, as the contestants are ordinary kids who have few means to resist, but nevertheless, many do their best anyway. Even if the victory is as small as an extra person or two surviving, that still means something. Lest I appear to be simply moralizing, a good story rarely has passive heroes. It’s important for a protagonist to be active, to willfully transmute the world around them instead of being simply at its mercy. As such, any good protagonist we’re to root for must in some way resist the Battle Royale.
In Juni Taisen, the characters are not quite innocents, but there are implications that they still don’t have a choice when elderly Sheep says he chose to go so his grandchildren wouldn’t have to. Monkey is the only character who seems willing to resist, suggesting that she has a plan.