Joker Game and Whitewashing Imperial Japan
by Andrew Erickson
On paper, Joker Game has a lot going for it: an espionage thriller set between the world wars, based on Koji Yanagi’s mystery novels and animated by Production I.G, it looked to be exactly the kind of series I’d write a disappointed postmortem about. What I ended up with was a fun but unexceptional story mostly notable for its excursions into alternate history.
The major divergence from reality is probably a necessary one. The series follows D-Agency, a fictional spy bureau entrusted with both gathering intelligence on foreign powers and thwarting enemy spies within Japan. This role as militarized secret police would seem to affiliate the protagonists with the Kempeitai, the arm of the Japanese army responsible for suppressing dissidents, managing prisoner of war camps, enacting reprisals against enemy civilians, and exchanging information with Italian and German agents. A story glorifying the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo would be problematic, and so the fictional D-Agency was concocted to lend plausible deniability to the characters’ actions. To reinforce the point, it operates under the motto, “don’t kill, don’t die,” eschewing both the Kempeitai’s brutality and the suicidal tendencies that afflicted the Japanese military as a whole. Even with this concession to propriety, one of the central characters, Sakuma, refers to his comrades as monsters. Granted, his distaste mostly stems from a conviction that spies are cowardly compared to regular combatants, but there is an awareness on the staff’s part that the show isn’t about morally upstanding people.
As for the story itself, Joker Game is broken up into a series of vignettes, each lasting no longer than two episodes, following an agent pursuing his mission in a different part of the world. Along the way they tangle with Americans, Soviets, MI5, Wehrmacht, the French resistance, and traitorous Japanese. The chronology is unclear (one episode is set in France just after the onset of occupation, in 1940, while another features a conflict with SMERSH, an organization that didn’t exist until 1942) and I often wondered about the context of D-Agency’s missions. When the subject is anti-Japanese terrorism in Shanghai, it might help to know whether China and Japan are at war. Taken in isolation, the episodes work as short mystery stories, but without a definite overarching story to connect them (beyond the premise of D-Agency being globetrotting wonder-spies, that is) the background has to be filled in with real history. This presents several issues for the narrative.
Despite D-Agency explicitly operating under the aegis of the Imperial Japanese Army, the show pointedly avoids any mention of the intense inter-service rivalry between the army and navy, which sometimes escalated into assassination. Knowing the contours of this dispute within Japan’s military establishment is vital for understanding the country’s foreign policy during Joker Game’s time frame. This is not to say the show would have been improved by occasionally cutting to Diet sessions in the style of the Star Wars prequels; but knowing, say, why it’s so important to discern the ratio of French collaborators to resistance fighters would have made me more invested. A series of vignettes can still weave a larger story by tying the characters’ actions into a wider context, but when that context is absent or flimsy then there’s no particular reason to focus on one character or incident over another.
That said, Joker Game isn’t even close to being the worst historical anime I’ve seen. It never reduces its premise to masturbation fodder like Strike Witches or Fate/Stay Night; it lacks the revisionist propaganda of Grave of the Fireflies and the self-aggrandizing treacle of The Wind Rises. It’s a comparatively subtle work; more than what’s stated, Joker Game’s relationship with history is defined by what’s omitted.
The second episode opens with a quote from the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, a proclamation by Emperor Meiji that cautioned military personnel to avoid politics and reserve absolute loyalty for the emperor. It is perhaps most well-known for the maxim, “duty is heavier than a mountain, while death is lighter than a feather.” Within the context of the show, the quote serves to reinforce Yuuki’s preference for avoiding death whenever possible. Its historical legacy is less commendable. Meiji’s edict fostered an institutional culture that disdained parliamentary democracy. During the 1930s, political murders and attempted coups were so common that a strangely blunt euphemism – “government by assassination” – was coined to describe the phenomenon. Joker Game’s criticism of the military at large is limited to harsh treatment of recruits.
Such violence was often committed with the aim of deciding in which direction Japan would expand, taking for granted that it would carve out a colonial empire somewhere. The IJA preferred war on the Asian mainland, against China and the USSR (the northern strategy), while the IJN agitated for seizing the western colonial empires in Southeast Asia and the Pacific (the southern strategy). A low-ranking army officer appeared to force the issue in 1937 by provoking a frontier battle with China that the government refused to back down from, causing full-scale war. Plans to invade Siberia were only forestalled by the crushing defeat inflicted on Japanese forces at Khalkhin Gol. The oil embargo imposed by America in 1940 pushed Japan toward the southern strategy; the exigencies of Japan’s resource shortages demanded action on one front or another, and the army’s credibility was severely tarnished by 1941, when plans were drawn up for a preemptive attack on America. The relevance of this background to Joker Game lies in the fact that D-Agency, an army operation, seems to focus most of its energies on western powers and not the IJA’s preferred targets. D-Agency is presented in an apolitical light, with the exception of a single scene in which Yuuki dismisses IJA strategic planning as incoherent. For a rough American equivalent, imagine a story about CIA agents fighting to outmaneuver the KGB that fails to mention communism or the Cold War even once.
Then there are the historical parallels to D-Agency’s fictional exploits. In the first two episodes our protagonists realize a foreign spy is hiding sensitive information about Japanese encryption machines behind a portrait of the emperor. Rather than commit an act of lèse-majesté D-Agency allows him to leave with the intelligence. They can now change their codes and use the compromised encryption scheme to feed false intelligence to Japan’s enemies. The vulnerability of Japanese communications was in fact known at the time, and Yuuki directly mentions the cracking of the Red cipher by American cryptanalysts. A newer cipher machine, Purple, debuted early in WWII and was broken by the US without Japanese knowledge. Messages intercepted and decrypted by Magic (the espionage project, which unfortunately did not employ actual wizards) enabled the crippling of Kido Butai at Midway and the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto. Midway in particular revealed the shortcomings of Japanese military intelligence; knowing an attack was being prepared against a target code-named AF, American commanders instructed the garrison at Midway to broadcast an uncoded message about a breakdown in the island’s water purification equipment. A subsequent Japanese message that AF was short on water confirmed Midway as the offensive’s objective. There’s a hint of wish fulfillment in Joker Game’s ahistorical turning of the tables.
To be clear, I’m not criticizing Joker Game simply for taking creative liberties with the historical record. Where I take issue is with the fact that it doesn’t do anything with those divergences. It takes a historical setting, introduces a potentially fascinating new element, and then aimlessly meanders until it ends without any apparent reason or resolution. There isn’t even an implication that D-Agency has had some impact on the war effort, which had been the story’s framing device. I’m not asking for scholarship worthy of an academic journal, just that if a historical setting is chosen for a work, it be for a reason. The Man in the High Castle has the United States lose WWII because the books themes deal with the nature of truth and historical objectivity. It isn’t intended to be accurate; that’s the point. So why does Joker Game self-consciously take the worst aspects of Japan’s intelligence apparatus -incompetence, casual arrogance, wanton cruelty- turn them on their head, and proceed to have this anti-Kempeitai walk all over the rest of the world like Solid Snake sneaking past a blind quadriplegic? It would make sense if the point were to criticize Japan’s historical course by implication: D-Agency is more humane, less obsessed with face, more sane than the actual IJA. At the same time, the rest of history remains unchanged. A sane Japan wouldn’t have invaded China or joined the Axis Powers. It’s the very need for D-Agency that highlights its impossibility. An agency based on the principle “don’t kill, don’t die” wouldn’t have existed because of its fundamental incompatibility with the national ethos that had been deliberately cultivated for nearly a century by the time of WWII. An author might as well invent a kinder, softer NKVD while preserving the rest of Stalinism intact.
There are similar points I could bring up, but it would just belabor the same point: Joker Game is myopic to the point that it name-drops Herbert Yardley and the Black Chamber while keeping quiet about why the Japanese military would be intensely interested in France’s political situation in summer and autumn of 1940. Is it because Japan was planning to occupy French colonies in Asia? Probably. Does the show go out of its way not to bring this up? Absolutely. Maybe the reason behind the insistent refusal to examine the big picture is because once the camera pulls away, it becomes obvious that there are a lot of dead Chinese, British, and Americans just out of frame. Pull out a little further and there are millions of dead Japanese as well, and no number of repetitions of “don’t kill, don’t die” alters the fact that actively participating in a war enables those deaths. A more introspective story would have examined that dissonance, but Joker Game doesn’t. It’s more concerned with inventing victories where in reality Japan suffered humiliating defeats.
I’m not dismissing all of D-Agency’s victories, though. Given that German military intelligence was run by a member of the anti-Nazi resistance, I’ll grant that D-Agency running circles around the Abwehr is completely plausible as well as entertaining. It also offers one of the glimmers of a more personal, and much more interesting, story, delving into the background of D-Agency’s founder Lieutenant-colonel Yuuki. The episode’s antagonist is a German veteran who crossed paths with Yuuki during World War I and now sees him as a nemesis. In any other story a scarred, eyepatch-wearing Nazi with a vendetta would be a major antagonist, but in Joker Game he’s ignominiously shuffled offstage after only 20 minutes. It’s the squandering of its potential to be a larger story of international intrigue, not the historical liberties taken, that’s the biggest mark against Joker Game.