Overall = A
Story = A
Video = B
Audio = B
Itou Kaiji is a bum who steals car emblems and slashes tires on what seems to be a regular basis. This routine changes one day when he is paid a visit by a man in a trench-coat. Once the two get talking, it seems that the visitor (Calling himself Endou) is a debt collector. The reason for his visit is an unpaid loan which kaiji had previously co-signed for a work-mate (Furuhata Takeshi). The original loan was 30000 yen and once Takeshi had disappeared, the loan then fell on Kaiji. Kaiji is then told of a way to clear the interest compounded debt (which stood at 3,850,000 yen), which involved getting on a boat with others in his position. Once on the boat the debtors would then have to gamble with loaned money, which would end with a few winning, and others getting into deeper debt and having to work to pay of their debts. After some coercing kaiji accepts a position on the boat, in order to clear himself and make a bit of money as well... (Source: ANN)When I first heard about Kaiji, I figured I'd give it a try because I'd always been curious about gambling anime. I enjoy shows that involve strategy and I figured that a series about gaming would include plenty of it. Kaiji does certainly include much of scheming amongst the players, but there is a lot about it that I did not expect in both style and content, with over-the-top intensity, tears flowing like waterfalls, and possibly the greatest narrator of all time.
Ito Kaiji is both the luckiest and unluckiest person in the world. He cosigned a loan with a co-worker Takeshi Furuhata as a favor; but unbeknownst to him, the loan was made through the Yakuza; so when Furuhata disappears, the loan sharks turn to Kaiji to collect. As a lazy bum who can barely support himself, Kaiji can't pay up. But instead of beating him senseless or forcing him into slave labor, they offer him a chance to take part in a clandestine gambling operation that pays huge rewards and could wipe out his debt, but could also put him so deep in the hole that he may never be able to crawl out. Kaiji accepts, but it's only when he gets to the gambling boat that he learns the first game on which he'll be staking his life: Rock, Paper, Scissors.
As you can probably tell, this is not your run-of-the-mill World Championship Poker type of gambling. Each of the six types of games played throughout the show's two seasons is deceptively simplistic and familiar. But each has unique twist and involve a surprising amount of strategy.
As expected, the level of strategic thinking involved in the games is what really started to draw me into the show. The rules force the characters to weigh their options with their goals and come up with creative solutions to their problems, including building alliances with other players to gain the upper hand. It's the anticipation and unveiling of the players' techniques and waiting to see if it actually works that give the show much of it's dramatic impact. But Kaiji fails as much as (or maybe more than) he succeeds especially because his foes don't necessarily have the same moral code or level of loyalty that Kaiji strives to maintain.
All of these factors: the stakes he is playing for, the questionable alliances he makes with others amid competing stategies, and the unpredictable nature if the games themselves, all swirl together to make some of the most dramatically intense moments I've experienced in anime. The level of risk Kaiji takes on becomes greater and more immediate to the point where he eventually is in danger of being maimed or outright killed if he fails.
And if there is ever any doubt as to the perilous nature of Kaiji's situation; the excitable narrator chimes in to overpower you with an impassioned speech describing exactly how much Kaiji is freaking out of the situation, and backing it up with fiery visual analogies. What drives the point home is not just what he says but how he says it. He doesn't scream, but he pushes his voice to the limits so you can just imaging him getting red-faced and sweaty and delivers his epic descriptions. His awesomeness is as much what makes this show great as anything, as he blasts away any remote sense subtlety in the drama.
The strangest thing is that beyond all of this craziness, the themes that the show explores make it surprisingly relevant: that being the control that money has over our lives. I'm not really purposely analyze symbolism in a story, but as I watched I kept thinking that the key player in this story was the almighty dollar. Those that had it had supreme power over those that did not. And each game seems to explore the different effects that money has on people including greed, obsession, sacrifice, and the seemingly impossibility of succeeding over the rich. A huge part of what drives Kaiji and makes him successful is his persistent will to survive. Since money is inseparably tied to survival, he will do anything to get it, even sacrifice his physical well being.
Now, as much as I loved this show, it did have one small annoyance: a little thing called...the entire second season. It was mercilessly drawn out, DBZ-style (not that I've ever watched DBZ, but I've heard the jokes). I usually take notes after watching an episode, and for the first season I would write up a good paragraph for each, but in the second season I could get away with writing maybe a sentence or two. That's because there would usually be only one plot development per episode that moved the story forward and the rest of the time characters were just freaking out about the situation. That second season could have probably been cut to half the number of episodes and still had plenty of time to tell the full story. It was almost physically painful that, in a show where you are constantly anticipating what is going to happen next, you have to wait so long for any real developments. But, still, I watched through it all and think it was well worth it.
The other issue that the show had — again mostly in the second season — was its reliance on deux ex machine to resolve situation, where the author would add something not previously foreshadowed or something based purely on luck that would get Kaiji out of a situation. I was able to reason that Kaiji gets as much bad luck as he does good luck, so it's just as well that in games based on chance, he would get a break now and then. But regardless, that didn't bother me much and by the end I thought that everything came to a very satisfying conclusion.
Overall, it is both a mental torture and pleasure to watch this show. The moments of tension and anticipation are painful but the payoffs, just like in Kaiji's gambling are exceptional. Highly recommended.
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