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.
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 “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 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!