The Five Moments that made Joker Game work for me

Joker Game is a show that drew some mixed reactions over its run. Early on, the dark and stylish atmosphere of the promotional videos drew attention, presumably because that’s an aesthetic that Western viewers want to see more of. Given the setting, a number of voices also expressed hopes that we’d finally have a series that seriously tackles the question of what Japan did in the first half of last century.

Joker-Game

As the season wore on, however, most people started to complain about a range of things they didn’t like. From the explanatory monologues to the unexplained reasoning that some of the spies used to solve their cases1—I was quite bemused by these contrasting views—and the episodic nature that prevented us from even recognising which of the spies we were watching, much less form some kind of emotional attachment with any of them. Some soon rationalised the latter, in particular, as being reflective of the nature of these men: we’re not meant to get to know any of them because they’re meant to blend in and take on any role required of them. Whilst this worked for viewers interested in learning about techniques and tools of espionage, others found the lack of handles for engagement problematic.

Personally, I found Joker Game to be one of the more compelling shows I followed in the Spring season. Part of it undoubtedly has to do with the veteran voice actors, all of whom have distinctive voices. I picked out five of the eight spies from the PV itself, as well as Seki Tomokazu, and I’m sure fans of each of the other three would have recognised them immediately, too. In any case, that’s how I knew who was whom, especially after I sat down one evening to match each voice to a name and appearance. What can I say? I’m first and foremost a seiyuu fan, after all.

But the main reason that this show will make it onto my 12 Days of Anime list this year is actually due to the writing. Yeah, I know: what the heck is ‘writing’, right? But after months of reading interviews and listening to podcasts about screenwriting, I do have an answer for that, at least for the purposes of this post. Here, I’ll be talking about five character moments that got me completely invested in Joker Game. In fact, these five moments suggest that the show’s writers had a very clear idea of what the show was about: Yuuki, the spymaster holding the strings.

(1) Yuuki’s “You’re welcome to stay” to Hatano in episode 3

The first of these moments came in episode 3, “Miscalculation.” Admittedly, although I find the world of Joker Game and the attitudes of the characters within it quite interesting, the first two episodes felt like a bit of a letdown the first time I saw them. I wasn’t particularly keen on the number of voiceover explanations of what was going on. The third episode did not really let up on this, though I did appreciate how they did not explain what Hatano did as he entered the church (covered one eye so as to make sure that he could adjust quickly to the darkness). And I’ll also admit to liking that I understood how Hatano had caused the explosion before his companions asked him to explain.

But there is one scene in this episode that really gets to me:

In particular, the line that sticks is Yuuki’s “You’re welcome to stay.” Upon informing his subordinate that Japan would soon be going to war against the Allied powers, the colonel observes Hatano’s stunned expression, and quietly suggests that he can remain in France if he so wishes, seemingly realising that his spy may have formed a bond with some of the people that he had been sent to investigate. Whilst the show doesn’t confirm this reading of the scene, Hatano’s flashback to his final exchange with Alain suggests that he did appreciate the friendship and trust that he’d been offered. This was not how I read the scene the first time around; in fact, it was only after the final episode that I came to this interpretation of Yuuki’s line. I may be completely wrong about this, but I like how ambiguous the line is, and I look forward to reading the novel to see if it reveals anything more about the spymaster’s thoughts in that scene.

(2) Tazaki’s monologue about how difficult it is to use the intel they’d obtained

The second moment—Tazaki’s monologue at the end of the sixth episode, “Asia Express”—is easily the weakest one that I’ve chosen. Since we have the spy narrating to us directly what the intel will be used for and the challenges that Yuuki faces in making use of it, most other viewers probably see it as yet another example of the show breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule. But whilst that is a valid critique, Tazaki’s monologue actually provides a vague glimpse of Yuuki’s own motivations in this ‘game’. The show seems to drive home again and again that the spies we’re watching are ‘monsters’ who do what they do because they enjoy the challenge, because they love coming out on top in this game of wits and resourcefulness. But is that all? To me, what Tazaki says here points to Yuuki’s underlying desire to help his country in a world where every single country is acting for its own benefit. This is the driving force behind each and every mission that he assigns to his charges. Hence, far from being a simple ‘tell’, this monologue is one of the pieces that helped me understand what kind of man the spymaster was.

(3) The “man with a cane” who showed a wife the way to her husband

The third moment that has stayed with me was in episode 10, when the English spy’s wife related how “a man with a cane” had directed her to him. It’s a bit of a strange moment—Price spent the entire episode chasing after who Yuuki really was, and ended up being soundly defeated. But having obtained the intel he wanted, the spymaster then set him free, and even gave him an opportunity to leave the game and live on. He could easily have had him killed, or locked him up forever for activities that would have been against the interests of Japan, which Yuuki himself is working for. And that is probably the fate of many spies that were captured, whichever country they were active in. The decisions Yuuki took in this episode thus humanise him…even as we are left wondering just how much of his ‘discovered’ past was actually true.

(4) Yuuki’s reaction to Miyoshi’s death

The events covered in episode 11 further served to humanise Yuuki. His main motivation for rushing to Berlin may have been to retrieve the microfilm containing Miyoshi’s list of contacts. However, the pause before he closed Miyoshi’s eyes, and the quick disappearance of the slight smile he gave to the nurse upon his departure spoke volumes about what he may have been feeling.

I believe that many other viewers saw this as another episode that expounded just on what a consummate spy is, for, as the German spymaster pointed out, Miyoshi was so proficient that he left no evidence of his true identity and allegiance despite meeting such an unexpected accident. However, this episode drove home to me just how much trust each of his spies has in Yuuki, and he in them. There is a slight mistranslation that may have prevented most others from coming to this interpretation:

Joker-Game-2
This line should read: “Maki was sure that his list wouldn’t fall into enemy hands.”

In any case, all of these little details showed me just how much Yuuki actually cared for his men, and set the stage for the final story, an episode that is actually set just after the opening tale of the show.

(5) Yuuki’s last words to Odagiri

The final moment that I’ve picked out, I would argue, illustrates this central theme in a single, powerful scene. From the finale, “Double Cross,” I present Yuuki’s final conversation with Odagiri:

The first line, “Don’t die,” is powerful not only because of Odagiri’s own story, but also because of Yuuki’s reaction to Miyoshi’s death in the previous episode. Throughout the series, this mantra that Yuuki has drilled into his men is presented as the logical way for spies to operate, for a death will raise suspicions that can jeopardise their mission. However, given that Odagiri has resigned and is being deployed to Manchuria, why should Yuuki be concerned about his wellbeing if it were merely about ‘ensuring the success of the mission’?

But then another line comes in and raises questions about how that “Don’t die” should be interpreted. “Who bows while wearing a business suit?,” is interesting because it could have a range of meanings. At one end, it could simply indicate Yuuki’s acknowledgement that Odagiri—or rather, Tobisaki Hiroyuki—was not cut out to be a spy. In other words, it could be his way of reaffirming to Tobisaki that he’s made the correct choice for himself. But on another level, it left me thinking about what Yuuki really is like. Does he really care about the people he feels a connection to, be they spies under his charge or people from the same background? Does he care about people in general living useful and fulfilling lives, which would be one of the reasons for his contempt for the Imperial Army leaders and their arrogant pride? Or is he really the consummate spy, a person willing to throw away his heart in order to excel at the Joker Game?

These two final lines in the series thus encapsulate precisely what this story—as put together by the writers of the anime series—was about. Although there are hints that Yuuki does indeed care for the men he has recruited and trained, I was still left wondering just how sincere he was on that front. Were the words he said to Hatano in episode 3 and Odagiri in episode 12 an indication of how much he cared, or were they born of a consideration that they would not be able to succeed as spies because of the human connections they could not abandon? To put it another way, does Yuuki himself belie the apparent message that “spies are monsters without real human connections,” or does he completely embody it? What do you think?


  1. To be frank, I felt that the latter complaint was unsupported, because the ‘lack of information’ that those viewers were complaining about could actually be deduced from what we were shown on screen. 

About karice
MAG fan, amateur translator and political scientist in training. I also love musicals, photography, travel and believe it or not, the game of cricket. よろしく!

6 Responses to The Five Moments that made Joker Game work for me

  1. Robert Black says:

    Count me among those who “found the lack of handles for engagement problematic.” The individual episodes worked for me, including (but not limited to) the scenes you mention, but beyond the opening two-parter, the episodes themselves felt random and arbitrary. It might as well have been an anthology show.

    Are you ready for Hibike! Season 2? It’s going to have some tough competition for my attention from Natsume Yuujinchou Season 5.

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    • karice says:

      Joker Game definitely wasn’t a show for everyone. One of the reasons I wanted to write about it was that I think my experience with it was quite rare amongst people who watch anime for anime. But I found that people who watch anime for other reasons — such as the voice actors — were far more likely to enjoy it. In any case, I don’t think it’s a bad thing…although I’m guessing you’d have preferred to have watched something else instead.

      Are you ready for Hibike! Season 2? It’s going to have some tough competition for my attention from Natsume Yuujinchou Season 5.

      No, most definitely not. I’ve got several more Eupho posts that need to be written in the lead-up to S2 (not to mention a few interviews to read), so I’m desperately trying to whittle down the list of anime I’m watching this season. I suspect that Arslan, Food Wars and Mob Psycho 100 are the ones that are going to go. Battery might, too. In any case, I’m glad that the show I’ve been invested in for the past season and a half will probably end this season, so that Kumiko and co. will have my full attention!!

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  2. saras says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Karice. I have criticisms and mixed feelings for Joker Game but ultimately I think it’s a really good series. Since it lacked clear sociopolitical criticism, overarching plot, and relatable characters, the hook or reward that Joker Game had was a glimpse into the work of a spymaster, Yuuki, and he was a very intriguing man. Which is why it’s great to see you elaborate on his best moments here. Those moments when we get to see hints into his motives and true nature. And yet in the end we still don’t know him at all. IMHO, I cannot like Yuuki as a character but I always see him with a mixture of awe and…discomfort. He’s intelligent, capable, and calculating. But you just can’t get a handle on this guy and his motives. Which may be partly why Joker Game is hard to like. But I still appreciate the character and the writing tremendously! Episodes 4 and 5 will always be memorable to me.

    I agree that most of Yuuki’s actions were ambiguous. As you’ve said – does he really have some heart for his spies? Or are his actions totally utilitarian? Why does he dedicate himself to a nation that has only disappointed him? In ep 10 Yuuki made the decision to not kill the English spy. To me, I saw that as more of him sticking to his “Don’t die, don’t kill” principle and not really caring what happens to that spy since he’s become useless. The last episode though! I felt so mixed about his last comments. It felt like Yuuki was belittling Odagiri by comparing him to women. When he said “Don’t die” I wondered if it meant he really cared about Tobisaki, but it also felt like a joke saying that to a soldier about to be sent to a terrible place. And while “Who bows while wearing a business suit?” is a very cool line and creates full circle with the first episode, as you’ve pointed out, it can also have other meanings so…

    Hmm. I don’t know any other anime that makes me do a double take and question everything as much as this one…

    PS. sorry for the rant😉

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    • karice says:

      It’s interesting also that those of us who appreciate the series will have different favourite episodes. I didn’t particular care for #4…but at the same time, I thought it was a really smart one to place at that point, because unless viewers recognised the voice actor, then who the spy was and how he went about his mission probably caught them off guard.

      In ep 10 Yuuki made the decision to not kill the English spy. To me, I saw that as more of him sticking to his “Don’t die, don’t kill” principle and not really caring what happens to that spy since he’s become useless.

      Hm…to me, the “Don’t die, don’t kill” kill mantra makes sense when they’re operating overseas–does it really have that much bearing in Japan? If D-Agency wanted use Price’s network of contacts fro something, then true, killing him would have been stupid; but his sudden departure from Japan would also be a warning sign, I’d have thought. Unless letting his wife find him would ensure that it is less suspicious, because they’d find some kind of explanation…well, if the British spy service let him go despite him failing that mission… So true, this was yet another example with several possible interpretations of Yuuki’s actions…

      The last episode though! I felt so mixed about his last comments. It felt like Yuuki was belittling Odagiri by comparing him to women. When he said “Don’t die” I wondered if it meant he really cared about Tobisaki, but it also felt like a joke saying that to a soldier about to be sent to a terrible place.

      I didn’t register the comment about women as something about belittlement: though I guess it can be seen that way, I felt that the more pertinent point was what Odagiri commented on afterwards–that to become a spy meant getting rid of those emotional holds on yourself. There is a degree of truth about this in intelligence organisations even today, from what I’ve heard from people who’ve interacted with or belong to them.

      On the other hand, I felt that the “don’t die” was genuine on Yuuki’s part. Partially because of the way the episode was framed–Yuuki would have known all about the disciplinary incident at the start of the episode–and partly because of the tone of his voice. But well, as I wrote above, the show does leave you wondering just what to think!

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