Let’s not bother with an intro this time and just get right into it. We’re set up with a strikingly simple premise: Kaiji is a down on his luck bum, gambling away his time and slicing tires as a kind of entertainment. Thanks to his friends’ bad decisions, Kaiji also ends up in a lot of debt, and once the loan sharks come calling, his only chance to pay it off is through high-stakes gambling. The sharks most graciously offer to bring Kaiji on a cruise, where he could wipe his slate clean with just one lucky night. Nothing suspicious about that — but left with no recourse, Kaiji takes them up on the offer, and thus begins a tumultuous roller coaster of a journey, one whose sudden highs are only tempered by its crippling lows.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Kaiji (the series, not the character) is a show of conniving and trickery, psychology and bluffs, schemes upon schemes. The moment he sets foot on that cruise, Kaiji is time and again forced into all manner of games. These may be card games, dice, racing, pachinko, but each one carries the danger of extraordinary risk and the chance for extraordinary reward. It’s easy to view gambling as purely a test of luck, an arena where skill and planning has no place, but the series very quickly sets out to prove this wrong. Every game Kaiji enters holds very clearly defined rules and boundaries, and he attempts to approach each one with a very rational methodology, basing his decisions primarily on benefits and logic (as long as he doesn’t cross any ethical boundaries). In short, Kaiji’s a smart guy, and that’s part of the fun of the series. He’ll try to read his opponents, try to play the long con, try to do everything he can to set himself up for victory because, in his own words, “you can’t depend on luck to give you a big win.
But despite those words, this is gambling. Luck must play a role. The best-laid plans can be shot down by random chance. If you’re dealt a bad hand, and your opponent a great one, there’s only so much you can actually do. And it is this unpredictable nature that does a fantastic job of keeping the tension tight at all times, because Kaiji’s victory is absolutely never assured — I mean, it kind of is, ‘cause it’s fiction and there are certain immutable rules of storytelling but that’s unimportant. The great shows like this manage to keep you guessing anyway, because just when you think “surely this terrible thing can’t happen”, it makes it happen, and we keep going further and further down the rabbit hole.
This show really hits every beat of the gambling playbook. It acknowledges, for instance, that the opponents may be just as much of a challenge as Lady Luck. No one’s going to roll over and let Kaiji march over them; every other player has their own tactics and strategy, and while some may be easy to psychologically analyze and counter, others may come out of nowhere. It often forces the characters to choose between short-term impulse and potential long-term gain, highlighting that sometimes, the moment to decide has arrived, and you just have to take a leap without necessarily being fully prepared.
In effect, this is all a way of saying that Kaiji is just a really great thriller. Every episode has new twists and turns, ups and downs. It’s unpredictable and addictive, but not off-puttingly so. It gets your heart in your throat, masterfully building suspense, then subsides just enough that you can’t wait to do it all over again. (Sitting here as I type that, I realize it’s perhaps an encapsulation of the gambler’s mindset itself. The highs are so intoxicating, and the twists so exhilarating, that you just keep coming back.)
Which is not to say the show is always perfect. On occasion, the insights and planning are admittedly founded on total bullsh*t. Kaiji might receive unfounded flashes of inspiration, work though strained reasoning to reach out-there assumptions that just don’t make for bulletproof logic, but this is very rare. Nine times out of ten, the conclusions Kaiji comes to, and the plans he creates out of them, are believable enough to swallow but subtle enough to impress.
Now “believable” is of course a matter of context. Something that’s believable in Gurren Lagann would likely not be in Monster. With Kaiji, the show has this view of reality that’s certainly over-the-top, but grounded just enough that it discourages character pulling things out of their ass. It’s rarely the plans themselves that are over-the-top, but moreso the situations and general attitude. This is the kind of show where the narrator will say after a loss, with a straight face (er, straight tone of voice) “They won nothing. What they gained, was only despair.” So it knows it’s over-the-top, and it’s kinda tongue-in-cheek about it. Similarly, the show is not much one for moral ambiguity. The characters are pretty cleanly split into “good guys” and “bad guys”, but that’s perfectly alright. It’s a perfect fit for the eclectic, dramatic essence of the story.
But interestingly enough, simply being over-the-top does not mean that the show is necessarily “silly”. If anything, it’s the opposite; it’s almost crushing. The series focuses on games with such high risk that loss could literally mean death, so as these situations play out, they often highlight the worst aspects of humanity. “Painfully cynical”, I would say. One of the biggest evils on display is also one of the simplest, that of greed. “Money, the most dangerous yet sweetest of evils.” The show goes out of its way to make clear how far people will go in the pursuit of greed, how foolish it can be to blindly place your faith in another, and when Kaiji himself feels the bitter sting of betrayal — god, the emotion, the rage and the sorrow, are palpable and overwhelming. We, the audience — like Kaiji, we want to believe that the world is just, and that people are good. The viewer especially assumes “things will work out, friends will be friends, how could Kaiji possibly not make it?”. But then he doesn’t, because people are shit.
It can at times feel like the show has nothing more to say than that, that this world beats and tramples good men, and this worldview could not be made plainer by Kaiji’s style. Standing in stark contrast to the rounded, sleek, and even blobbish look of most other modern anime, Kaiji’s aesthetics have a distinctively harsh and ugly feel, characterized by thick, angular lines and at times grotesque facial expressions. And I thought this was great. It’s true that looking different doesn’t necessarily equate to looking good, and it could be argued that Kaiji does not look “good” — in the sense that it’s hardly a traditionally appealing aesthetic — but that is the whole point. It lays bare the nature of the world as Kaiji (the series, not the character) sees it: a hostile place dripping with malice.
The flipside to this is that these designs are not exactly made for motion. They look great when stationary, but rigid, blocky characters are antithetical to the very point of animation, when thrives on its breadth of flexibility and motion — and because of that, the show is seldom animated all that well. There are of course exceptions, usually in a huge climax, but most of Kaiji’s animation cuts are not particularly technically impressive. That certainly didn’t bother me, because this was the cost of having such a memorable visual style to begin with, but it is something at least worth noting.
Also worth noting when it comes to the visuals is the series’ use of metaphor. While I greatly appreciated the general metaphor, the characters’ ugliness mirroring the world’s, some of the show’s more direct metaphor was a little too on the nose for my taste. It just can’t help feeling somewhat laughable, when, say, Kaiji is in a precarious situation so we cut to a mental image of him crossing a flimsy bridge. Yeah sure, it’s a reasonable comparison, but it’s just a little too simplistic in my opinion.
But getting back to the story, I may have left you on the impression that this series is crushingly pessimistic about people, which is not entirely wrong, but neither is it entirely right, for in the face of it all, Kaiji himself refuses to let go of his beliefs. He refuses to give in and sink to the level of the villains he faces, and he does this in spite of the pain and suffering constantly thrown at him, which is what makes Kaiji really truly commendable. He’s not a perfect human being, he can get emotional, he can get caught up in the moment — hell, he’s addicted to gambling, that much is made perfectly clear by the end of the series — but he refuses to let the world shape him into something he’s not, and while he might not come out with untold riches for his commitment, I still ultimately found that part of him inspiring.
And that would honestly be pretty much my entire review (“an addictive roller coaster of a thriller packed with psychology, cynicism and all that good stuff”)... if I was only talking about Season 1. Because while Season 2 is still very good, it begins to exacerbate some minor problems the series had always had. In particular, the final arc of the second season — which takes up approximately the entire latter half — stumbles hard in some key areas.
Number one, the pacing. Even before this point, Kaiji’s pacing had been a little slow. By nature of the series, each plot point and plan of attack had to be deliberated and sussed out in every way possible, such that the total plot progression over the span of a single episode occasionally suffered. But the only point where I felt it started to get intolerable was this last arc of the second season. This arc, which lasts from the end of episode 9 until the finale at episode 26 details Kaiji’s confrontation with an oversized pachinko machine. Even when we cut out the episodes of buildup and planning, and leave just the actual playing of the machine, we’re still left with ten episodes — ten whole episodes of Kaiji sitting in front of this same pachinko machine doing his best to overcome whatever obstacles it throws his way. And as thrilling as any show is, if you lock one character into the same fight in the same location for hours like that, the thrill is going to subside, and it did. At a point, I couldn’t help but feel like “alright, I get the idea, let’s get on with it” and ultimately this issue was compounded by the second problem.
Number two is the… I guess you would say the suspension of disbelief. Pachinko is by nature much more of a game of luck than cards or dice, where you have some degree of direct control. With pachinko you can try to fix the machine as best you can, and Kaiji does, but at the end of the day, his entire role in this battle is still just cranking the knob releasing the balls. He has no way to actively circumvent unforeseen issues, and because of this, the plot leans uncomfortably hard on pure luck. Every game in season 1, Kaiji had a plan and a chance. Even those he lost, he lost because his opponent was smarter, or because he panicked and lost his cool, not because it was out of his hands and entirely down to luck.
But by the last five episodes of this pachinko fight, there’s no more strategy involved, no more planning left to do. Kaiji just sits there, having already played every card in his deck, as the situation time and again by pure chance turns to his favor. The show becomes an exercise in praying for a good outcome, rather than actively pursuing it, and needless to say, I found that disappointing. It was still at times gut wrenching, watching Kaiji’s fortunes teeter on the edge of a cliff only to regain their balance at the last second, but without Kaiji’s own agency in the situation, it felt stunted.
And I know that leaves us off on a sour note, so to offset that before we head into the verdict, the show’s soundtrack was pretty strong. It had atmosphere, ominous and unsettling just as easily as driving and triumphant, whenever the mood struck. It sometimes had an exaggerated bent, but that was perfectly in line with the show’s attitude at large. (You’ll notice I rarely have much to specifically say on a soundtrack because to be entirely honest, music just isn’t my forte.)
Anywho, I’ve said my piece, so after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… Kaiji is such an A. It’s a great time. I had my complaints, and those hold it back from an S, but when it hits just right — awgh, once you pick it up, you won’t be able to put it down.
Which makes me happy to report that you can watch both seasons of Kaiji, all 52 episodes, right now on Crunchyroll (er... once their site works again). I highly recommend that you give it a shot if you haven’t already.