Reasons You Should Watch Kaiji

I had initially wanted to write this mid-season in a bid to get people to catch the new season of Kaiji while it was still fresh. That said, despite the season having been over for about a month or so at this point, any time is a good time to remind people of why Kaiji’s a pretty swell show, and how it works.

Everyone who likes this show has more or less bestowed similar praise upon it, but it doesn’t hurt to add another voice to the sparsely populated choir. This ain’t Evangelion, or anything.

The Games

Kaiji’s shtick is all about exposing the psychological underpinnings of otherwise simple gambles in a big way. It’s also about breaking these games down and manipulating their simple rules in unorthodox ways. This is probably best exemplified in the series’ first gamble, Restricted Rock, Paper, Scissors. It’s been over four years since I’ve seen the original show, but the amount of calculation and focus that went into every move Kaiji made still comes through loud in clear in my memory. The show makes use of charts and diagrams matched to detailed explanations, making even the most ridiculous moments seem somewhat plausible. It’s pretty well thought-out.

However, given how simple some of the games can be, Kaiji’s manipulation of rules can simply turn into cheating. But cheats make for fine plot twists, and the way these plot twists are presented are always shocking and entertaining. So the fact that Kaiji effectively cheats in the E-Card gamble isn’t a huge deal. The other side started it, anyway!

But even more important than the show’s dissection of rules is its dissection of characters’ psychies. Every move is made with characters’ lives on the line, and the show breaks down the anxiety that is a result of this grave concern hanging over their heads and demonstrates how these feelings come into play during a gamble. The show also does a good job of demonstrating how reading these feelings in an opponent goes a long way towards winning.

The Presentation

The “big way” mentioned in the section above refers to Kaiji’s presentation. It’s big. Kaiji is all about tension, and a lot of that comes through in how the show carries itself. On the base level, Kaiji makes good use of an intense and somewhat overbearing soundtrack to keep the moments of intense calculating and move making appropriately spellbinding. To further draw you into its dark world, Kaiji calls upon the talents of Tachiki Fumihiko (Eva’s Gendou) for its thunderous ever-present narration. His voice, matched with the show’s wild character designs and ardent direction, make watching Kaiji a wonderfully visceral experience.

However, the show reaches its most fantastic heights with its visual metaphors. They appear often, but not often enough to wear out their welcome. They are of course also narrated by the unequaled Tachiki Fumihiko, making them all the more powerful.

The Grit

The first thing a newcomer to Kaiji–or any Fukumoto comic–is faced with is the artwork. While the anime version of Kaiji does its best to make these designs look more intentionally stylized, they’re still pretty ugly. And I love them. Kaiji’s jagged and angular people alone help to paint the show’s picture of a dirty and twisted world where no one can be trusted. The villains look awful, but the good guys don’t look much better. Everyone in this show is guilty of something, and they look like the natural result of the world they live in.

Of course, that world they live in is another aspect of Kaiji that contributes to its ever present grit. Kaiji’s world is one of money grubbing gangsters and the cheap suckers who fall for their tricks. It’s a world of ridiculous gambles with livelihoods on the line, and incredible levels of scheming on both the sides of Kaiji and the villains. It can get pretty cartoony at times, but let’s not forget what this is, right?

If any of this sounded interesting to you, and you have little aversion to unorthodox character designs, I highly recommend you watch Kaiji. Just make sure it’s a long weekend or something. Once you start, you’re not going to want to stop for something like… work, which is incidentally something Kaiji is in dire need of!

While I’m here I’ll note down a few short thoughts about Kaiji 2 for readers who have seen the show.

The dice gamble was stronger than I expected. Rather than simply focusing on what is really quite a simple gamble completely dependent on chance, I enjoyed how Kaiji’s plan involved slowly chipping away at the psychological shells of his opponents outside of the gamble, and using his reading of their reactions to get his way. Of course, the small element of cheating greatly helped things as well. I thought it was pretty solid.

I was down with the pachinko arc for most of its run, but it did feel pretty stretched out by the last few episodes. The episodes that focused on the operation to take down the machine were good in how they left certain things vague, only for them to come to light during the match. While seeing Kaiji’s plan come through in the final act was extremely satisfying, they could have stood to tighten up the pacing a bit. I know they can breeze through those 10 volumes or so of manga if they want, but that 26 episode run is a tricky thing to deal with. I think they did their best, but after a while the twists weren’t quite good enough to merit sitting through 20 minutes of intense staring at a machine just to get to them. It was still fun, though!

12 thoughts on “Reasons You Should Watch Kaiji

  1. I felt like The Bog was really the wrong way to go. The most exciting aspect about Kaiji for me is the head to head interaction between individuals. That’s where the real genius of interplay between psychology and tension and scheming takes place. With The Bog, all of the real scheming happens off camera and there’s no direct conflict between Kaiji and Ichijou. Whoever lined up their set of cheats better wins in the end. That’s that. Deprived of the kind of intimate competition showcased in literally every other gamble, I ended up dropping Kaiji 2 around episode twenty-two or so. I just didn’t care to see how Kaiji outwitted Ichijou, because it already happened, even if it isn’t yet immediately clear how.

    Losing that immediacy and spontaneity to his victory also frayed the plot’s plausibility. We didn’t really see Kaiji coming up with all of those plans, and, frankly, they’re so beyond the scope of what he’s accomplished in his other gambles that I really needed to see that process to believe it. Kaiji’s victories have always had some small element of preparation but have otherwise relied largely on psychology and manipulation in the moment. Two of the biggest cheats that Kaiji uses in The Bog are like something out of Ocean’s 11; they required large amounts of planning and coordination that he just hasn’t really exhibited in the past. They’ve hinted at his abilities, but it’s a big jump to actually realizing them, and, again, we don’t get to see that jump.

    I’ve read a bit of Minefield Mahjong, and I think that’s a good step back in the right direction, but there’s no way we’ll be seeing THAT animated for like ten years.

    1. Those are fair points, and I understand dropping it. There is a bit of spontaneity near the end, but yeah, like you said, a lot of it is planned in advance. But I like seeing a plan come together, so I enjoyed that aspect. I just thought it dragged on for too long.

      While I personally enjoyed the tension between Kaiji and Ichijou, I can also see where you’re coming from on that angle, too.

    2. All I can say is, Minefield Mahjong is awesome.

      There’s a touhou game where you play it. Not sure how that came about but whatever. There’s a lot of tension in trying to figure out how to avoid playing into your opponent’s hand, but it’s also a bit of a pain trying to figure out how to build a mangan hand.

      I don’t remember what the rules were for what tiles you had access to for building your hand and discard pile in Minefield Mahjong in the manga, but in 17walk (the aforementioned game I’ve been playing), your tiles are randomly decided.

  2. Glad to see the Kaiji post is finally up! I started watching the show about a week ago and HAVE BEEN LOVING IT. Currently I’m at episode 21 of season 2. I’m really digging Daisuke Namikawa as Ichijou.

    It’s funny you mention Tachiki Fumihiko because to me it’s like the show is being narrated by Madao;

  3. I’ve heard the complaints leveled at this show that it deals too much with Deus Ex Machina and that the set-up can have a pay-off that’s disappointing or unrealistic even within the context of the show. They’re related issues although I never much understood the first complaint, as the show tends to really strive to deliver a way out engineered by Kaiji himself. An overarching theme of Kaiji is that Kaiji reaps what he sows and delivering him from that punishment free defeats the purpose of the show. The pay-off being dissapointing does happen sometimes though, I remember being thoroughly unimpressed by Season 1’s glass staircase. Luckily it doesn’t happen often enough to ruin the show, and it could even be considered a compliment that Kaiji’s suspense and ZAWA gets you so invested that if the pay-off is disappointing it just hurts.

    I have to agree with your entire last paragraph regarding Season 2 though. They really did try but it was stretched thin, like butter over too much bread. Not having read the manga I’m not sure what kind of steps they could’ve taken to tighten it up, but I will say this: It wasn’t Washizu Mahjong.

    Anyway if this convinces at least one person to watch Kaiji you’ve done your job.

    1. Oh god Washizu Mahjong. Fun idea, but holy crap is the pacing on that just insane. Both for the show and the manga.

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