This episode is the most radical departure from the book’s structure. The events haven’t been altered, but we’re seeing things take place in a decidedly different pace. This episode was a mash-up of events from three different chapters from the book, and none of said chapters are resolved in this episode. It’s an interesting choice, because it not only changes up the pattern established in the novel and the first three episodes of the anime, it makes for a potential dramatic midway point if these scenarios resolve the same way as the book (Monkey vs Rabbit, Sheep vs Tiger, Rat vs Dead Snake, Horse panicking, Ox being his bad self, Dragon being completely absent). Said pattern is a great narrative trick for the novel, but it might not make for good week to week episodic TV, so splicing up that narrative to build up tension and all that is a good call. I’d almost say it’s an improvement on the material, but we’ll see how things go down next week.
As for the meat of this episode, there’s two really important bits. The first is the opening sequence. The meeting of the bettors went down a little earlier than it did in the book (one chapter/episode earlier), but it also didn’t quite reveal the entire intent behind the Juni Taisen proper. Yeah, it’s essentially a proxy war so that the real powers that be can “peacefully” resolve their conflicts, rearrange power structures, and in a way amuse themselves. These ultra-powerful, ultra-influential, true rulers of the world bet on competitors, and power shifts depending on where the money falls. Your horse goes farther, you get more payoff. We get to see some actual personalities in the anime take on this scene, since in the book we just get a narration of The Truth once we actually hit the midway point, like an announcer giving the lowdown at halftime or something like that.
Throwing this in there right before we get inside Sheep’s head, rather than at the point where the bets take place, is a good adjustment. It gives more weight to the analysis of the fighters provided by Sheep. While his analysis is coming from the POV of someone trying to exploit his strengths and overcome his relative physical frailty, his take on the fighters isn’t far from those of the bettors. Ox, Monkey, and Rabbit are all the “strongest” by reasonable standards, there are a bunch of middle of the pack types, and then there’s Tiger and Rat– the odd ones out who really don’t belong. It’s a superficial discussion based purely on physical prowess and the like, but it’s also the most logical way to approach the situation if you have no extraordinary awareness and have real stakes in the matter. So pairing these two bits of insight make what were two disparate info drops in the novel into what I’d say is a tightly conceived, if a little slower than usual, episode.
It also does wonders for making Sheep a far more interesting character than he is in the novel.
The overall picture of the dude is the same in the novel. He’s a past winner. He cut his teeth in the arms dealing business. He entered a second time to keep his grandchild from being drafted. He’s lived a fulfilling life and doesn’t have much to lose, but he still wants to win. What we don’t get to see in the novel is that relationship with his grandkid. Much like Boar’s backstory, it’s just a couple of lines of text that get expanded out into an entire scene. Sheep comes off as far more mercenary in the book– a quirky old man who enjoys blowing things up and protects his family because that’s what men like him do. In the anime he comes off as more of a world-weary type. He’s seen a lot, done things he’s likely not proud of, but also doesn’t regret those decisions because it brought him a family he loves. He isn’t just an old goof who plays mobile games because it’s another way to experience the “war” he no longer can directly participate in– he’s delving into that youth culture because it’s how he connects with his grandkid. He’s the product of the wish he won during the 9th Juni Taisen– we get to see what could come of the winner of this tournament, since there is little these types of people could truly wish for that they couldn’t acquire through what would be, by their standards, “normal means.” You can’t guarantee you’ll see you grandchildren grow up through money and firepower. You need the literal Illuminati using their powers to create miracles. That’s what someone fights for, and those are the sorts of dreams someone as powerful as these behind the scenes types manipulate to get their wishes fulfilled.
This is gods-amongst-men, mythical level stuff here– fitting for the Zodiac, since it’s the very heavens that control the fates of the stars.