Twenty-two year old Itou Kaiji is a bit of a loser- an unemployed bum, he amuses himself by slashing tyres and stealing the emblems from cars. All that changes, however, when his friend defaults on a loan and the yakuza come to collect from the guarantor- namely Kaiji himself. With no other way of paying back a three million yen debt, Kaiji signs up to a night of gambling that could earn him the money he needs, little realising that it is just the beginning of a dangerous series of high stakes games where to lose is to risk not only your money, but also your very life.
Having enjoyed the GAR MANLINESS of Akagi, a Studio Madhouse of the mangaka’s earlier work Kaiji seemed just the ticket for 2007-8, a series that would combine all sorts of unlikely elements to make a compelling whole. And indeed, whilst it didn’t quite score as highly as its brother series, Kaiji was to prove itself one of the standouts of its season, offering a welcome outing for Akagi fans whilst retaining its own identity.
The main difference arises, unsurprisingly, from the attitude and personality of our heroes. Akagi was the cold embodiment of GAR, a man to whom life held so little to interest and challenge him that he was able to risk everything in a game of mahjongg. Even when he appeared to be losing, it was usually because he was seeing a different game to everyone else, picking up on connections that no one else would notice- and besides, if the worst came to the worst, he had the balls to cheat his opponent, yakuza or not.
Kaiji, however, was a man cut from a different cloth; lacking in Akagi’s instinct and lust to push himself to the brink, Kaiji’s fighting spirit arises from his strong desire to live, yet at the same time he starts off as something of a weak person. Despite his discontent with his lot, Kaiji prefers to languish in his situation, blaming others and only really beginning to take responsibility for himself over the course of the series. In the first arc, we see how easily Kaiji is repeatedly conned because he puts his faith in others to help fight his battles, but even though he becomes warier and less naïve as the series progresses, his connection with others is also a powerful force in shaping both his conduct and his strategies.
The Espoir, a Nice Gambling Boat of Hope
As we see right from the start, the games played in Kaiji aren’t particularly complex, because the focus is always primarily on the psychology. Still, when you aren’t prepared for it, it can come as something of a shock to realise that the entire first arc will effectively be dedicated to a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, albeit one where millions of yen are at stake. The idea of the game is to use up all one’s cards (representing rock, paper and scissors) in matches before four hours is up- but with the added proviso that one must walk away with at least three of the ‘star chips’ that are wagered on each game.
Being the beginner that he is, Kaiji manages get conned within the space of minutes, leaving him in the traditional hero’s position of having to claw his way back from a major disadvantage. From then on, it is a game of strategies and counter-strategies, where allies can be both a vital strength and a great weakness. Ultimately, of course, our hero prevails, but it isn’t an easy road, with adversaries, betrayals and a disturbing stint in a Room of Naked Men. Unlike Akagi, Kaiji isn’t playing the game from a higher perspective, but when pushed into a corner he discards his apathy and becomes a schemer and a fighter who is driven to struggle until the bitter end.
The Human Derby, where balance is important
Unfortunately, hot-headed as he is, Kaiji isn’t one to plan for the future, instead throwing away much of his excess cash and even using his brief wealth to buy the freedom of another man, Ishida. The upshot of all this is that both Kaiji and Ishida survive the game but retain massive debts, forcing them to participate in the next night of gambling- the Human Derby.
In the Human Derby, the object of the game is to make one’s way across an increasingly narrow metal bar suspended above a drop- simple enough, until you learn that touching the bar with your hands means you forfeit the game. There are multiple bars to choose from, but if you end up on the same bar as someone else there’s no overtaking- to get ahead and win the elusive prize money, you have to push off anyone who is in front of you. It’s a game designed to titillate the rich and jaded, but even this is only the prologue for the main event.
For those who make it through part one of the Human Derby, a rather displeasing revelation awaits- instead of getting a cash prize straightaway, they are given a ticket that must be redeemed that night, in a room that can only be reached by walking across a thin metal pole suspended twenty-two stories above the ground. Yes, it’s the Human Derby on a grander scale, with electrification for anyone who touches the pole and certain death for all who fall. And yet, for all that it is the same game, putting your life one the line makes it that much harder to achieve success.
Nonetheless, Kaiji tries to rally himself, Ishida, co-worker Sahara and various other generics to attempt the crossing, but with his own confidence wavering, it isn’t easy to inspire others once they reach the point of no return. Whilst the extremely rich, decadent and jaded watch and laugh, man after man falls to his doom, their balance and confidence destroyed. Eventually, only named characters remain, but for Ishida, the end is near. Realising that he lacks the strength to go on, he entrusts his ticket to Kaiji, hoping that the money will at least get his wife out of debt. Then, in complete contrast to the seeming weakness of his character, he drops without a word, so that it is only when Kaiji looks back that he realises Ishida has gone. What a powerful moment, turning back to see that eerily empty pole where Ishida was standing seconds before- “ISHIDAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!” indeed.
By this point, only Sahara and Kaiji are left, but when Sahara reaches the end of the pole and opens the window to let himself in, he is blown back by the pressure difference. Fortunately for out hero, however, in the depths of despair he spots another route- an almost invisible glass pathway that he can use to reach his goal. But on the other side, he learns that all the anguish and sacrifice has been for nothing, for the match was declared forfeit when Kaiji previously asked for the electrification to be turned off.
E-card, because card games are still in
Even so, after all he had been through, the sadistic chairman in charge of the games decided to give him one more chance- a free game of E-card, the latest gaming sensation to take hold of kids across the nation. Much like Rock-Paper-Scissors, E-card has a circular hierarchy, but with a difference- a full hand consists of four Citizens, but just one of either Emperor or Slave (Emperor beats Citizen, Citizen beats Slave, Slave beats Emperor). Despite the presence of various other rules to regulate play, it’s another straightforward game, but one in which everything hangs on reading the psychology of your opponent. What’s more, to win big, you must wager either your eye or ear- nice.
The interesting thing about this arc is that while the overall story follows narrative convention almost to the letter (Kaiji wins a few rounds, opponent starts crushing him, opponent is discovered to be cheating, Kaiji makes a triumphant comeback), the pacing is slow enough to ensure that you have time to start doubting the outcome. The tension and suspense simply build up so much that you begin to question everything; did Kaiji really pick the right card? Of course, ultimately he does, claiming victory against opponent Tonegawa, but for our hero, this is not enough. If there’s one thing Kaiji and Akagi share, it’s an inability to walk away while they still have something to wager, and so it is that Kaiji hatches a plan for one last gamble.
Tissue box raffle, and how not to cheat
After an arc which featured copious amounts of blood, a ripped off ear and an episode in which poor Tonegawa had to kneel face down on a hotplate, Kaiji was ready for one more gamble in the simplest game of all- pulling a marked lot out of a tissue box filled with blank lots. As a game of chance, it might not seem too exciting even by Rock-Paper-Scissors standards, but obviously there was going to be more to it than that- Kaiji was going to cheat.
Unfortunately, even though watching Kaiji plan out how not to get caught was rather interesting, the idea of him walking away with an easy victory through cheating was a little anti-climactic- where was the suspense, the uncertainty? For several episodes, it seemed as if it was all going to be too easy; after all, the hero never loses in the last arc- or does he? For in fact, the series had one more ace up its sleeve, abandoning the easy ending for one in which Kaiji is outplayed by the chairman and loses not only all the money he won, but also a rather grisly four fingers from one hand. Could the fingers be reattached? Would Kaiji ever get a chance for revenge and a rematch? Perhaps the manga could tell us, but for the anime, episode 26 had been reached, and it was time to disembark.
***END SPOILERIFIC RAMBLINGS***
Visually, Kaiji follows the same aesthetic as Kaiji- the thick lines and pointy foreheads aren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but they are GAR, MANLY and dripping with testosterone- and unsurprisingly for a Studio Madhouse produced series, the animation is technically competent. Music is limited and used sparingly- the OP and ED are the typical MANLY ballads, whilst the most important sound effect is the tension-setting “zawa”, a staple of the series.
Even I don’t know quite why I had to write so much about Kaiji, but perhaps that’s just another effect of this compelling series. The slow pacing and overflowing testosterone may be a little too much for some, but as with Akagi, it’s well worth giving it a chance for the sake of the absorbing tension and suspense that each arc brings. Here’s hoping for a second season.