Kaiji has had a rough life. Because of his eccentric disposition and the 1990's recession, he can't hold a steady job and has no hope of a better future. He's become bitter and withdrawn, and sometimes, when the stress and worry of life becomes too much, he'll slash tires from foriegn cars and steal their decals. But his life is about to get worse; one of his friends owe the Yakuza a lot of money, and after that friend skipped town, the Yakuza is expecting Kaiji to cough up 3,850,000 yen. He has one of two options: he can either spend forty years of his life paying off the debt, or he can pay off the debt and make millions of dollars from a single night of gambling. But if he loses that gamble, he will face a fate worse than death....
I had made a small mistake in my review of Akagi a while back. In it, I had said that Akagi was a shounen sports anime, when in fact, it turns out that gambling manga and anime are a popular genre all by themselves. And as the character designs suggests, this is another one of those gambling anime. Madhouse has reunited the crew that worked on Akagi for another project based on a manga by Nobuyuki Futomota. This time, they are tackling Nobuyuki's magnum opus, Kaiji, or more appropriately, Kaiji: The Suffering Pariah! The Ultimate Survivor! That is a title that begs to be read by Orson Welles while thunder rumbles in the background. In fact, that would aptly describe the mood of this entire anime. Nobuyuki's manga, and any anime adaptations, are known for many things, but first and foremost is that they all have a tangible feeling of pulpish melodrama. Kaiji the anime does an especially good job with this, and in fact, the entire anime is an enjoyable experience that avoids all the mistakes of Akagi. It's one of the most unique anime I've ever seen, and I don't expect to see anything like it again.
Part of what makes Kaiji so good are the ingenious games Noboyuki cooked up for this series. While I can't tell you what any of them are because that would spoil the surprise, I can tell you that they are simple games of chance with only a few rules that are easy to follow. They are also devilishly clever and depend as much on the psychology of the players as it does strategy. Part of the fun for me when I watched this was trying to imagine what I would do if I was in Kaiji's shoes. And sometimes I was able to guess "the plan," but most of the time, Kaiji comes up with something so off-the-wall that I'm almost always surprised. This series knows how to keep you on your toes and keep you guessing as the stakes get higher and the games become more absurd, before culminating in an ingenious finale with a game inside a game inside a game. This is an anime you have to see to believe.
A lot of the suspense comes not only from watching the games unfold, but also from who runs the games. Kaiji is a social dropout who has been benevolently given a second chance by the Yakuza to not only pay off his debts, but also make millions of yen. But does the Yakuza really do anything benevolently? If Kaiji loses the games he plays, he could end up with even more debt. And in the worst cases, he might be sold into slavery to pay off his debts, or lose a limb...or his life. Part of the reason the Yakuza seem to host these games is because they enjoy watching Kaiji and people like him do humiliating and dangerous things for money. They are sadistic fat cats who mock and sneer at the people crawling at the bottom of society. And their remarks cut deeply, because there is some truth to them.
That brings me to the theme of Kaiji: the rich always screw over the poor. And this series is not subtle about what it's saying. Most of the games can be seen as a direct form social commentary, and we know this because the characters say so. This is also an anime with a lot of passionate speeches and manly tears. Whenever Kaiji speaks to rally his teammates or preach about the evils of the upper class, the waterworks flow. And while I normally like anime to be a little more subtle, Kaiji commits itself so much that this theme that it became charming. The cynical critic inside me was silenced, and my bleeding liberal heart was moved. And it probably doesn't hurt that it feels very relevant.
Kaiji is the sort of series that's as much fun to talk about as it is to watch it. I've been writing for eight hundred words, and I could go on for another eight hundred. Or I could say this: the series is still unlicensed and fansubs of it are everywhere. Go watch it. Or I will be forced to cry manly tears.
Good stuff. I can also see this anime working well when watched in a group, and we don't have nearly enough of those. Subtract a star or two if you have a low tolerance for manly tears and comically long, bloated speeches. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: This is a dark anime with some langauge and violence. Appropriate for teenagers and up.
Version(s) Viewed: Prerelease fansub
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Kaiji © 2007 Madhouse, NTV
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