Joker Game

In the years leading up to World War II, a shadowy figure known as Lt. Colonel Yūki establishes a clandestine spy force known as “D-Agency”. Yūki himself has something of a mysterious past, a man who may – or may not – be the adopted son of a Meiji-era aristocrat, a drop-out from the Japanese Imperial Military Academy and a former spymaster who escaped the clutches of his German captors during World War I. The formation of “D-Agency” is bitterly opposed by the Japanese General Headquarters, who regard its existence as an insult to the “bushido” spirit of militarism and – more relevantly – a threat to the armed forces’ control over Japanese society. Nonetheless, Yūki manages to bring together an elite team of operatives, whom he trains in the various aspects of espionage before setting them loose both within Japan and overseas. Locally, “D-Agency” uncovers both the incompetence and corruption of the Japanese military leadership, while also sabotaging several attempts by foreign spies and Japanese sympathisers to convey top secret information out of the country.  Abroad, the operatives keep tabs on foreign powers as well as Japan’s supposed ally, Germany, whom Yūki does not really trust. Inevitably, “D-Agency’s” ability to reveal inconvenient truths invites retribution: and when the military establishes its own rival espionage group, the so-called “Wind Agency”, this sets up a confrontation to establish once and for all how – and by whom – the work of intelligence gathering shall be done, even as the brooding clouds of war gather over Japan and the world…

Based on the interconnected short stories by Koji Yanagi, “Joker Game” was produced by anime giant Production I.G. and first aired on Japanese television from April to June 2016. Animated with a sepia-washed art deco aesthetic that provides authentic period atmospherics, “Joker Game” possesses a coolly cynical mood that enables it to avoid plunging into either nationalistic hyperbole or historical sentimentalism. In the world inhabited by Lt. Colonel Yūki and his operatives, the deadly serious business of information acquisition occurs against a background of moral ambiguity and shifting realities; this is not the simplistic “good vs evil” dichotomy of the James Bond movies, but a far more complex landscape in which the identities of “ally” and “enemy” remain perpetually unclear. To survive in this world requires a certain amount of depersonalisation; and one of the themes explored in “Joker Game” is the price which survival exacts on those who thrive within this toxic environment. Other themes include the nature of loyalty, the uses and limits of force, and the basis of relationships – both between individual humans and entire societies. Reliant less on clever gadgetry and thrilling action scenes than on an exploration of human psychology and the logic of mistrust, “Joker Game” will probably not satisfy those who prefer their spy stories fast-paced and explosively violent; it will, however, provide less adrenalin-reliant viewers with a thoughtful – if occasionally inconsistent – trip through the twilight world of espionage, and the distorted mirror-image world which its denizens inhabit.

Text © Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.