Ever wondered what life would be like if there were no rules of honour or even common decency? Me neither - the consequences of such a world would just be too horrible to contemplate, let alone enjoy. So the fact that I have remained enticed throughout this dark and sadistic title can only be due to Kaiji's indisputable skill at spinning a good yarn. Despite every cringe suffered and every ‘Oh my God, that did not just happen!' uttered along the way, I have nevertheless been unable to tear my eyes away.
Kaiji is an anime with a complete disregard for fluffy notions of fairness, justice, and decency; hardly anyone here learns the error of their ways, and tendencies towards domination, greed, and betrayal are shamelessly flaunted as virtues. With this Machiavellian stance on the world, and populated with thoroughly deplorable personalities, Kaiji's events move in a fashion quite unlike what we are used to. More often than not, the games are designed to be physically and mentally tortuous and proceed in such a twisty way that the outcomes are difficult to predict. Thus, while the premise looks simple on the face of it (i.e. Kaiji gets himself into various games whereby he continually gambles everything dear to him), the plot progression is full of nasty surprises.
Furthermore, the often convoluted strategies Kaiji comes up with in order to survive easily cross the boundaries between genius and insanity. On the one hand, this means that, a bit like a madman trying to prove to the world that he can fly off a cliff, Kaiji has been able to keep my undivided attention throughout. On the other hand, such extreme creativity means that the developments occasionally turn out to be logically tenuous at best. One moment Kaiji is in the throes of panic, weeping uncontrollably and cursing his own stupidity, when, suddenly, remembering a random phrase spoken by his opponent fifteen minutes ago will trigger a bold new plan! On the whole, though, this approach is well suited to Kaiji's dramatic tone and thus largely forgivable.
While overtly ugly, the character designs are also unquestioningly perfect. I say this because anything more pleasant to look at would have failed to capture the inherently monstrous personalities on offer. With thick lines and sharp, exaggerated features, the cast of Kaiji have a unique look that, for some reason, makes them seem more expressive than normal. When a devious character grins in delight, my stomach turns in genuine revulsion.
Generally speaking, Kaiji utilises rich, dark tones highly reminiscent of Death Note - in fact, the animation provides for a very similar atmosphere. Still, there are technical aspects which Kaiji could improve, including the fact that the characters' mouths just open and close rather than move in distinct shapes, motion is far from fluid, and minor uses of CGI are obvious here and there. However, although noticeable enough to keep Kaiji from a perfect score, this title is not an action show, and so these issues do little to ruin its overall effectiveness.
The opening and ending themes are thoroughly enjoyable and highly suitable to boot; if you happen to have a punk-rock music collection with a smattering of blues, then you might even find the themes worth owning. The rest of the score is instrumental mood-setter which enhances the dark atmosphere very well while the episode is playing, but is forgettable as soon as you close your player.
As for the performances, Kaiji's voice actor is superb; during the moments when his frustration drives him to tears, I truly believe he is grief-stricken. Moreover, his is a surprisingly pleasant voice, full of potential strength and sincerity despite belonging to an initially pathetic man. All the others also do a fantastic job and are flawlessly fitting to their roles. The only person I actively dislike is the narrator, who thinks the best way to generate tension is to shout the obvious in a manner better suited to Takeshi's Castle; his excited babbling actually manages to ruin the atmosphere on occasion.
Nearly all of the cast are short-lived and nearly all of them are users, bullies, cowards, weasels, or just downright evil; although interesting in that transient sort of way, few apart from Kaiji can be said to be particularly complex, likeable, or even memorable. They do just enough to raise the emotional stakes when important to the plot, but once their part in the story is over with, they disappear off the radar never to be seen or heard of again.
Kaiji stands out as the admirable loser who learns to outwit them all; although, it should be noted that his growth is very one-dimensional. Every one of his problems requires learning to be harder, craftier, and luckier than his opponents, which leaves very little room for any other kind of growing; there are no warm romances, no instances of comic relief, no moments of innocent joys, and certainly no contexts outside of the ‘games' to soften the blows of Kaiji's experience. Since his past is only fleetingly touched upon, I find it impossible to imagine him forming normal relationships and engaging normally with others. In fact, he is really nothing more than a cipher until the events on the Espoir kick off; and even then, he develops in ways so removed from anything resembling normalcy, that he remains difficult to relate to. What that means is that, while a believable and generally admirable character to follow, Kaiji is not a typical hero who stirs any deep or lasting emotions.
Kaiji gets in trouble after co-signing his friend's yakuza loan. Said gangsters offer him the chance to pay off the debt with a 4-hour gamblathon on a cruise ship. It turns out to be much nastier than he expects, and leads to other, similar gambles.
It's good, and I recommend you watch it. Regardless, this review will mainly pick on the things I didn't like.
The main problem with Kaiji as a series is that we ultimately know he is going to win. We know that he will think he’s on top, get crushed, then defiantly battle against the odds until one of his theories is powerful enough to allow him to succeed (always at the last minute). There’s never any doubt. It’s as bad as Dexter in that respect. And we know that at the end something unexpected will probably have to happen to make all that waiting worth it.
Worse, is the way in which the episodes drag. And I do mean drag. Endless convoluted riffs on the same idea or theory, explained over and over in mildly different ways. That weird voiceover could be used to compress Kaiji’s muddling, but instead it only repeats it.
I was also less than satisfied by the relentless nature of the gambles. There was no break between the challenges. I would have liked to have seen time for Kaiji to reflect on his own life more. He always berates himself for being such a lowly soul, but doesn’t really acknowledge that his extreme situation isn’t his own fault. That’s an interesting angle – he hates himself regardless of the whole yakuza mess. I wanted to see that explored.
Also, he has a severe gambling problem, as is expressed through his comments during the E-Cards game (“If I leave with this much money, I am setting myself this limit. I will never have this much again” etc). We needed more of that.
But, on the whole I enjoyed it. It was original, lively, pretty mature. Not your average anime. It made me think, and not just about the things which I didn’t think were done well. It's way too long, though. Way too long.
The style here is refreshing. It’s basic (very), but fun all the same. In fact I’d say it’s too fun. Some pretty horrible things happen in this series which are not suited to the animation style at all. The character designs are rough and grisly, as they should be, but their movement is too cartoon-like to convey the emotions literally dripping out of them. It’s a shame, because it could have worked.
Good voice acting and casting, despite the narrator not being sure if he was building tension in a comedic or genuinely tense manner. The music was appropriate.
Kaiji is annoyingly stupid sometimes, and inhumanly sharp at others. His endless stream of theories and tactics are baffling in their complexity, and often plagued with holes.
He’s constantly in tears, as are most of the other characters – each representing a small part of the psyche of an addict. Sure, it works. But kind of annoying sometimes.
The baddies are incapable of any positivity. Not that they should be: the addict battling the world in general will never see any kindness if still under outside control.
All in all, it’s kind of bleak. Even Kaiji has no hope for the future. His dream is to not be chased for money. Every time I go into a convenience store now all I see are people striving for that level of comfort. It’s sad.
So Kaiji is meant to be a nice guy under it all – compassionate and a leader of men despite his problems. But he’s still a ruin. Can we get behind him without seeing something in ourselves which makes us feel uncomfortable?
ANIME EVOLUTION SERIES
Full list of the review series can be found on this page, 3rd post from bottom:
Kaiji is the proof GAR is not dead yet. Kaiji is an oasis in a desert of fruitless moe and wimp protagonists. Kaiji is so cool it is animated by the king of anime studios, Madhouse itself. Kaiji is so special, it is a category of its own. Kaiji is awesome.
… and this review covers both seasons because Kaiji is too GAR to deserve an identical wall of text regarding its manliness.
Now before I start I must clarify that I am a fan of macho protagonists (you don’t say!), as well as unorthodox presentations, unique sensations, uncommon tropes, and so on. So you can imagine how awesome this looks when you try to compare it with any other similar titles out there. No, seriously, how many anime like this can you think of? Akagi? It is from the same guy and has the same artwork and concept so it doesn’t count as something different. One Outs? Got boring fast. Death Note? Went under after SOMEBODY important died. The original Yugioh series? DON’T MAKE ME LAUGH! So as you can see, this is a truly special anime in all accounts. You can’t find something like it, not even in old retro titles. It is THAT good. Before I proceed (yeah, I am going to torture you more) I must point out how I like it a lot more than Akagi for having variety in its games instead of just being about Mahjong, as well for the protagonist not being uber smart and perfect. It is much more likable to have a hero who makes mistakes and loses control from time to time.
Now about the series itself (finally) it has a very simple to understand concept, yet very thrilling to follow through. The world moves with money, and some are willing to gamble a lot in order to get rich, or in case they are in dept just to get rid of it. Thus every player in this series is there for a good reason; he is highly motivated to play and win, with the result being him scoring big or ruining his life. As weird as it sounds at first (even for me) the series makes constant remarks to how they are all thinking while going after something that can ruin their lives. As they put it, they’d rather risk everything for a life of luxury instead of wasting their time as nobodies. And if they fail, at least they tried. And if they get ruined, their lives were insignificant to begin with. So yeah, this life or death business really strikes a cord with its direct explanation.
And thus we have Kaiji and his occasional friends and foes, having a big dept to moneylenders and other yakuza members, and all taking part in games that can eradicate either the dept or their lives. The old man who is in charge of all this establishment is by far the greediest bastard I have ever set my eyes on and his logic is “make money for the sake of making more money”. And as cost-unworthy as it seems to make all these games, eventually he gains lots of slaves who work all their lives practically for free, while the few winners usually are gamblers who return just for the gamble and get ruined as well. In his eyes, it is a win-win situation and all the money eventually returns back to him. He is a great adversary, both despised yet prized for his way of thinking.
What makes this show even more interesting, is the games themselves. Their rules are always easy to understand and they appear to be based on pure luck, yet eventually the smart mind can find more strategy than luck into winning the game. Even through cheating if possible. So it is highly ironic to have so many card game anime like Yugioh, each one with thousands of different cards and numerous strategies, and yet none of them are as exciting or strategic as a simplistic rock/paper/scissors game played with cards. Later on more games are introduced to keep the interest from going stale, as different strategies are needed for completely different games. And although all of them are usually based on cheating, the means through which they are revealed or countered makes it all the more exciting.
Speaking of excitement, the whole series is basically a mind game of itself. Various cinematics are used to portrait how the characters are feeling, and most of the duration is actually about them sweating, getting close to a heart-attack, or crying from joy when an obstacle is overcome. The background constantly changes to tsunamis and castles and beasts as means to depict all that, while the endless kanji for ZAWA ZAWA make you feel anxious as well. Even the narrator contributes to all that by mentioning some really overblown with drama monologues around life and death. And the BGM is full of unresting tunes, while the main songs are preparing you for some really blood-boiling situations. So yeah, you are watching men playing card games and you are made to feel THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END! The show does a great job at maintaining the anxiety and sucking you into it.
Now, the truth is that I have heard a lot of complaints regarding this aspect of the show. Some for example nag about the slow pacing of the plot, or how the narrator keeps wasting time in describing the obvious instead of just letting us see what will happen. All I can say for this is that the feeling of anxiety is maintained better when it is teasing you with its slow pacing. It is like watching Dragonball Z as a kid; a whole episode would be spent at just power-uping and you would be jumping from anxiety to finally see the showdown. BUT NO, you would have to wait a whole week for the next episode, and the days wouldn’t pass fast enough until that fateful moment! On the other hand, if you happened to watch the Kai version as an adult who just downloaded or streamed the whole thing, then the excitement is not there. Because the plot would be too fast and you wouldn’t have to wait for anything. That is the beauty of the slow plot in Kaiji; those willing to go along with it will enjoy it tenfold.
Another complaint is how the theme of the series is the same all the time (gamble and life threatening situations) to the point it becomes simplistic, repetitive, and boring. Hm, that’s strange, how many anime have a constant theme to them all the way? … HOW ABOUT MOST OF THEM? Would you like an anime about fishing that midway swifts to a murder mystery? In fact, an anime goes under only when it changes themes or slows down, something that Kaiji NEVER DOES! So this minus is actually a major plus.
Some others complained how the characters are drawn totally ugly, or how women are practically non-existent in the whole show. All I have to say to these people is SCREW YOU MOE FAPPERS! GO BACK TO YOUR FAN SERVICES AND BALL-LESS PROTAGONISTS! THIS IS GAR!
There is another issue about the context of the dialogues. Many found them to be immature and repetitive, all full of people saying and doing some really juvenile things. Well HELLO we are talking about lowlifes who gamble their very souls here; of course and they all talk and act stupid. If they were smart/handsome/mature/charismatic they wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. It would be like expecting to see fish in the middle of a desert.
So in all I loved this anime. It was exciting, different, thrilling, GAR, and did things right all the way. It was both portraying its characters’ mentality AND had mind games worth looking into. It had moral messages AND honest depiction of human greed. It was both about pathos and catharsis, desperation and hope, emotions and cold-heartingness. IT WAS LIFE ITSELF!
… and it was GAR.
And if you want more, try the Liar Game manga.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 9/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well done)
Character Figures 2/2 (they seem ugly but are very distinctive)
Backgrounds 2/2 (basic but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 2/2 (you see lots of trippy allusions)
SOUND SECTION: 8/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (corny but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 3/4 (not great but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Sound Effects 3/3 (ZAWA ZAWA)
STORY SECTION: 9/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 2/2 (deliberately slow to the point it becomes exciting)
Complexity 2/2 (interesting themes)
Plausibility 2/2 (very excused strategies)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 7/10
Presence 2/2 (strong)
Personality 2/2 (cheesy but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (generic and simplistic but it’s there)
Development 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 9/10
Historical Value 3/3 (all-known)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high but you will skip lots of parts)
Memorability 4/4 (extremely awesome to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 9/10
May feel a bit irritating and slow at times but overall it’s awesome.