「アジア・エクスプレス」 (Ajia Ekusupuresu)
In my capacity as an anime blogger, I take notes while blogging. Otherwise I’d never remember all the things that I want to write about—even if the ‘notes’ are often just pages of snark. A specific commendation I can give for this episode of Joker Game is that somewhere in the middle of the episode I found that I had stopped taking notes and let the show carry me. I don’t do that for a lot of anime, and it’s a testament to the consistent immersive quality of Joker Game. Or maybe I’m just tired today and got lazy with the notes. Both are valid interpretations.
I admit to a fair amount of bias coming into this episode, though, since I love trains. I’m no son of a railway company who can rattle off statistics like this kid; I’m just smitten with the romance of steam (which is my reason for watching Koutesujou no Kabeneri this season). And I also love myself a good murder mystery, so a murder on a train is an instant sell for me. It’s not exactly Murder on the Orient Express, still less a puzzle and more a thriller, but it was a good mystery all the same, laced with the Joker Game flavour. Unlike the previous murder in China of episode 04, Asia Express has much more of the spy vs spy maneuverings going on (look, gadgets!), which is great, making use of a milder form of the tension in Robinson except this time with the D Agency against SMERSH instead of against a British spymaster. For those of you keeping track of the history, SMERSH was the real (and rather infamous) Soviet counter-intelligence organisation, though I don’t think it was actually officially acknowledged until 1942, so we’re getting them a bit early. The disclaimer (‘these organisations are not related to real life’) is still there, so I can forgive Joker Game playing things loose here. I’m not sure if the Asia was a real train though, but the South Manchurian Express was definitely a thing; it was initially part of a Russian project called the Chinese Eastern Railway until the Japanese took over. Quite a few wars were fought around it, so I’m glad Joker Game managed to have an episode on it. Also, did I mention that I liked trains?
My fascination with locomotives aside, what Asia Express was really about, on a thematic level, was manipulations, as the preview from last week should make obvious. It’s apt that we had Tazaki (Sakurai Takahiro) on hand to demonstrate, since he’s ostensibly a bit of a magician. A good mystery is very similar to a magic trick, in that the solution is hidden by drawing attention away from the pertinent details—misdirection is the key. For example, I didn’t anticipate our mystery man was in fact the woman, because we’ve had all these male spies so far and I had subconsciously assumed this was just another one. And throughout the episode people were being manipulated one way or another; our spy manipulates the boys to be his Baker Street Irregulars, he manipulates a new recruitment, and let’s not forget how this all started, with the Russian leaker manipulated into what I assume to be a SMERSH honey trap. This is the essence of the Joker Game
Perhaps this is why the Imperial Japanese Army brass don’t like the D Agency, because they diverge so much from this warrior code they consider sacrosanct. While the spies do fight, they really aren’t about confrontations, and are explicitly trained not to kill, something which the army folks seem to be disgusted by. The D Agency certainly show none of the requisite patriotism towards the war effort; our spy this episode explicitly notes that their purposes was expended once war breaks out (and we should remember that, by the Joker Game analogy in episode 01, D Agency was founded to make up for Japan’s diplomatic shortcomings). For those of you looking for an overarching narrative in Joker Game, this may be it at last. A rival intelligence agency, this one loyal to the army and its tenants. The internal politics of the very first arc returns. Intrigues within intrigues!