A cult hit on its release in 2007, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor! has, if anything, become even more relevant for these tough economic times, telling a blackly comic tale of a hopeless gambling addict, forced into ever more bizarre (and often lethal) gaming scenarios for the amusement of his mob-boss masters.
Kaiji Itou is an overqualified, underemployed 20-something loser with a gambling problem and a penchant for venting his frustrations by vandalising expensive foreign cars. Unfortunately for him, one such car belongs to Endo, a yakuza loan shark looking for repayment of cash borrowed by one of Kaiji’s missing pals, now compounded into a small fortune. As Kaiji witnessed the loan application, the debt is now legally his. Endo, however, offers him a choice. He could work hard at his dead-end job for the next decade or so, scrimping and saving every penny and, eventually, pay off the loan as an honest man. Or, he could wipe the debt out in one stroke, if he will bet his life in a mob-run gaming cruise for serial debtors, facing years of forced labour and almost certain death if he fails. Needless to say, Kaiji does not turn up for work the next day.
Although the game facing him onboard the ‘Ship of Hope’ is little more than an elaborate, card-based version of scissors-paper-stone, Kaiji is taken to the cleaners by an opportunist rival within the first few minutes. Retreating into a room full of listless, failed gamblers in the same situation as him, he then faces a simple choice; accept his miserable fate like everyone else, or do absolutely whatever it takes to claw his way back out again.
It is a little difficult to talk about the plot of Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji without giving away its ever more ridiculous twists and turns, but what really sets it apart from most other gambling anime is its fundamental simplicity. Rather than rely on the minutiae of complicated, casino-friendly games that only seasoned gamblers would really appreciate, most of the trials facing Kaiji are little more than playground pastimes elevated to horrifically high-stakes. You don’t need to know all the hands for mahjong to immediately get why Kaiji is utterly stuffed if he can’t draw a card with the scissors on it.
Kaiji himself is also a very entertaining and even quite unusual protagonist. As he is put ever more violently through the emotional wringer, he discovers a knack for thinking clearly whenever all hope is lost, becoming an unlikely champion for the downtrodden debtors. Unfortunately for him though, that is the one and only time he can flourish. Like the proud soldier unable to adjust to civvie street, Kaiji’s particular skills become worthless whenever the series throws him back into ordinary life, giving him a strange degree of pathos. We the viewers can appreciate that he is a hero, but to everyone else, he is still a lousy bum with no prospects and a crippling addiction he can’t break free from.
Visually, the show will not be to everyone’s tastes. The art is a far cry from what you might usually expect of anime, bearing a chunky, angular look, vaguely reminiscent of Cartoon Network fare such as Dexter’s Laboratory and Johnny Bravo, but with pointier chins and noses. This does work for the show, however; the caricaturish character art and glitzy, gameshow-esque surroundings helping to keep the tone from getting overly dark. The lustre does rather fade during the second season (Maverick Arc), however, as the lower-key games on offer lack the same sense of spectacle.
This also brings me onto my main complaint with the series; in order to make the source material fill a second 26 episode season, the pacing feels far more dragged out and padded than the first. Unlike the first season with four main gambles, the second season sees Kaiji only participate in two, a dice throwing game called Chinchirorin, and the very Japanese pinball game, Pachinko, neither of which really recapture the audacious spectacle of his earlier misadventures. This is arguably less of a problem now that the series is complete and it’s possible to skip through parts or watch several episodes in one sitting, but having followed the series as it was coming out, it was at times, infuriatingly slow.
Nevertheless, Kaiji is not a series I regret watching to completion and not one I would have any hesitation in recommending. Even if you don’t have the patience to stick it to the very end, watching its lovably awful protagonist stagger through its deranged games of chance offers an experience arguably still unique to anime as a medium.