Surrounded by pop culture and media, what most people think of when they hear the word “spy” is probably someone like James Bond: Her Majesty’s suave covert badass, with his signature cocktail and high-tech gizmos, kicking ass, taking names, and saving the world from shadow organizations and their maniacal plots. Watching JOKER GAME, I came to realize that .007 is, in fact, a terrible spy.
JOKER GAME is a collection of stories about spy agents of the D agency, a secretive Japanese spy agency created shortly before World War II. To the casual viewer, the series may seem simplistic in nature. There’s no overarching plot throughout the series. Most episodes are standalone, with a jumping of locations and time periods from episode to episode. It’s not much of a character study either. In fact, most of the characters are completely unmemorable. All of the major players are introduced in the first couple of episodes, but you’ll be lucky if you remember any of their names, save for the spymaster who heads the agency, by the end of the series.
And that is entirely the point.
JOKER GAME is about spies and spying. What do spies do? They infiltrate societies, melt in with the populace, and conduct espionage unseen from the world at large. A spy that you can see and identify is not a spy: It’s an idiot who’s picked the wrong profession. While the individual episodes may, for the most part, seem fairly straightforward in their composition, the entire series as a whole is very poignant. In the end, I found myself constantly reflecting over the series and the nature of spying in and of itself.
One of the major themes of JOKER GAME is laid out in the very first episode: Spies should not kill and spies should not die. A spy who has done either has failed at his mission. This notion permeates the entire series. Indeed, for what the series covers, it’s overall very tame in terms of violence.
Even when enemy spies are discovered, they’re rarely eliminated. Instead, they’re let go to be used as pawns in an intricate game of lies and deceit. It’s fascinating. One’s immediate instinct on the discovery of a spy would be to eliminate that threat. But, as JOKER GAME points out, killing a spy simply informs the spy’s handlers that they’ve been discovered and must pull out, covering their tracks as they go. It is far more useful in the long run to play ignorant and use their spy and the information they obtain against them.
Thinking back over it, the series made me think about how I’ve been conditioned by movies and TV shows to think of spies as smooth action heroes–assassinating targets, obtaining vital documents, infiltrating and destroying enemy strongholds, and leaving a body count that would make the bubonic plague jealous. JOKER GAME openly laughs at that notion.
Actually, it doesn’t. It quietly smiles to itself when no one is looking.
Compared with the spies depicted in the series, James Bond is a bumbling buffoon who broadcasts his movements to his enemies by spreading mayhem wherever he goes. He may be a kickass agent, but there’s nothing secret in what he does.
Of course, the .007 movies would probably be much more boring if they depicted realistic spies doing realistic espionage. As it stands, however, I’ll never be able to view spy movies the same way again. Watching JOKER GAME has forever changed how I think of the world of spies. It’s quite an eye-opening experience. And I don’t even remember any of the characters’ names.
JOKER GAME can be viewed for free and with English subtitles in the US on Crunchyroll.