Genre: Gambling, Grimacing, Paper Towels
Kaiji is an excellent, excellent show. There I said it. Review over.
Wait, that’s not going to convince anyone. Fine, I’ll keep going if you insist. Kaiji is the spiritual successor to Akagi, a show I have admittedly never seen. Both shows are based on manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto who’s works have two notable aspects. 1) They have a really unique look that doesn’t look like anything you’d expect to come out of Japan. 2) They are mostly about the act of gambling. Akagi was about a genius gambler who is capable of outwitting anyone, and his wins over increasingly formidable Yakuza foes.
Kaiji is pretty much the reverse of Akagi. He’s not really all that good at gambling, but he is good at surviving. Infact, one of the show’s many subtitles is ‘Ultimate Survivor’ which is quite apt. But I also like ‘Gambling Apocalypse’ and ‘The Suffering Pariah’. Anyway, Kaiji is a total bum. He lives in squalor, and gambles for a living, while occasionally vandalising cars out of boredom. One day a sinister man knocks on his door (who’s car he vandalised earlier), and tells him he owes the yakuza 3 million yen. A co-worker had asked him to put countersign a loan application, which his co-worker had later defaulted on, so the loan must be paid by Kaiji. Obviously, he’s not in a good position to pay it off being the bum that he is.
Kaiji, looking horrified at the gambling.
The yakuza guy offers Kaiji a night on a GAMBLING BOAT in order to pay off his debts. If he should win, he’ll get enough to pay off all his debts, and more! Although if he should loose he’ll be forced to work slave labour in order to pay them off, which he probably will not survive. So naturally Kaiji agrees to go along with all this. Cut to the boat. He finds himself with about a hundred other losers, and given a hand of cards and millions of yen for bets. The cards have have rock, paper or scissors on them, and he must rock-paper-scissors his way to victory! Of course the game is a lot more complicated than that, and it branches out into strategic alliances, card buying, and betrayal.
The main focus of the show is around these complicated and tense gambling situations in which Kaiji finds himself while struggling to stay out of debt. The rock-paper-scissors arc is just the first of 4 different gambles that Kaiji must survive. In the first arc they are given four hours to complete their gambling, and it plays out in almost real time. I’d describe the pacing as 24-esque, the first arc even has frequent cuts to a large digital clock. Sometimes the twenty-two minute shows seem to only last ten minutes, such is the tension. This is really the main hook of the show. Each episode will have you demanding the next one immedieatly, in order to find out what happens.
The show has a crazy ultra-serious narrator who often stops to explain the situation in detail if it’s getting too complicated, with visual aids! That probably sounds totally ridiculous, but it works really well. The show also often visualises characters torment, like showing them drowning in the sea (of gambling), or leaping over a chasm (of gambling). It also gets quite brutal in places, the most singularly horrible of which is a sequence in which a character is forced to kneel down and prostrate himself on a red hot metal plate. Needless to say the plot gets sort of crazy at times, but this is some sort of gambling obsessed yakuza we are dealing with here so it’s allowed. The Chairman of the Yakuza is probably one of the most insane characters I’ve ever seen. I mean, look at him!
The Chairman is exactly as insane than he looks.
Kaiji is really the only main character in the show. Other minor characters come and go, but it’s mostly just Kaiji, his thoughts, and the aforementioned hilariously serious narrator who I’m not sure is on Kaiji’s side a lot of the time. The villains, from the lowly bums who betray Kaiji to the yazkua chiefs responsible for everything, are all horrible people who you wish to see badly hurt.
I’ll just mention the unusual art style of which looks sort of western to me, you can probably make your own decision from the images. The characters are all really angular in design. Also, everyone constantly has the most horrified expressions glued to their faces which works well with the style. There is quite a bit of 3d usage as most locations in the show are fully 3d so that the camera can do crazy pans all around the rooms in which gambling takes place in all David Fincher style, this stuff works better than you’d probably expect.
Even the background charcters are looking horrified at things, possibly gambling related.
At times the show’s pacing is perhaps a bit slow, as whole episodes pass without significant advancement in plot. The effect is a bit like Gantz, except not nearly as extreme, but even the slow episodes are tense as hell. The second arc of the show is by far the weakest, mainly due to it not being about a gambling game, but rather a much more physical type of gamble. This section doesn’t work nearly as well, but it is a bit shorter than the other arcs, so it’s not too much of a problem and does provide some good setup for the excellent conclusion.
All in all, I highly recommend watching this fine gambling apocalypse. The manga is still being written, and by all accounts the show has followed it quite well, so you should not expect a full conclusion to the story here. There is quite a high possibility of another Kaiji season happening at some point though which is awesome.
Arbitrary Rating: 9 – Paper Towels!