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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Kaiji Review

I’m usually never caught without an anime series on my “To-Watch” list, but recently I’ve been slacking off. As such, I found myself speeding through databases searching for anything ranked reasonably high that also looks interesting. And stumble across a little series known as Kaiji I did.

Here’s what I knew about Kaiji before going in. It features some deadbeat street-punk as its protagonist, it centers around underground gambling, and it’s more of a psychological thriller than anything else. Well so far, it’s right up my alley so I gave it a whirl. Nothing could have prepared for what I was in for, however, which is a great metaphor for how the protagonist, Kaiji, feels not more than one episode into this dark, dark series.

Story

Just to hammer it in to the point where I can hear skulls fracturing, Kaiji is a very dark series. And not in the Lain or Paranoia Agent kind of way. Kaiji is ostensibly a show with an extremely pessimistic outlook on life. At the very least, it will be hard to walk away from the series without acknowledging that Knights in Sour Armor are entitled to their viewpoint on how bleak society really is. That’s right; Kaiji explores the very authentic and terrifying darkness that dwells in the hearts of human beings and the center of a brutally stratified society. And it does so by focusing the spotlight on those unfortunate enough to be engulfed by said darkness until nothing left of them remains.

I mentioned that Kaiji is different from something like Paranoia Agent, which arguably attempts to convey similar messages. The difference lies in the presentation. Kaiji is far less cerebral and symbolic, preferring to go for “show” rather than “intimate.” Some might say Kaiji is wholly Anvilcious in its approach, but a straightforward, no-nonsense method of delivery works tremendously to Kaiji’s advantage. It allows the series to bathe the audience in an unrelenting tempest of raw, unfettered emotions, ranging from paranoia to fear to despair to courage. And since Kaiji is so direct, the sense of connection to the series and its characters is unparalleled.

The story starts off with the introduction of our hero, Kaiji, a downtrodden, useless bum who has no place in society whatsoever. He barely manages to make ends meet by gambling on a daily basis. One day, he is approached by a Yakuza member who forces to pay off a debt of nearly 4 million yen, which he had consigned for one of his gambling partners. The man offers him a choice: work tirelessly for the next 11 years to pay off the debt in monthly installments, or enter an underground gambling competition aboard a luxury cruise ship where it’s possible to completely wipe out his debt over the course of a single four-hour game. However, there’s much more at stake than an increased debt if Kaiji loses. In fact, he has no idea that what awaits him on this ship is far less of a tournament and more of a struggle to survive. The path to freedom, it seems, is littered with pitfalls that lead straight into the abyss of complete destruction.

Who knew Rock-Paper-Scissors could be so intense? Much like how Poker champions come out on top every time, the game itself is not where the battle is fought. Kaiji quickly realizes that the key to victory lies entirely in psychological warfare. It may seem that the outcome is determined by luck, but no one in their right mind would entrust their entire life to a game of chance. Thus, the stage is set for a mind game like no other. It’s much more like a free-for-all deathmatch than a bit of back-and-forth psychological dissection.

Despite all appearances, Kaiji is much more than just “I know that you know I know” repeated ad nauseum. It becomes quickly apparent to Kaiji just how far a person can manipulate this “game of chance.” It’s not just about a player’s ability to perform some fancy mental footwork to get his opponent to deal scissors; it’s about being able to look at the big picture. For example, teaming up can be incredibly beneficial as it allows for pre-determined matches where neither person takes a loss, ensuring safety for both players.

Or does it? How confident can you be that your “friend” will play as discussed? Is he planning stab you in the back? And if so, when, and how can it avoided? Wait, what if you stab him in the back first? After all, betrayal is inevitable, right? But if you do, will that mar your reputation? And how severely? Being ostracized means that you’ll be marked as an outcast and everyone else will be mercilessly gunning for you, meaning you’ll never get a chance to befriend anyone else…and use them as a stepping stone to salvation. These are all questions that Kaiji faces every second he spends on this nightmarish cruise that he voluntarily booked.

Animation

The animation in Kaiji is appropriately dirty and grungy. Super-thick lines result in very rugged and gnarly character designs, but also allow for exaggerated character expressions. And boy, are these guys ever expressive. Perfectly understandable when one is gambling with one’s life. Every ounce of anguish, grief, or deviousness is etched firmly and horrifyingly clearly on their accentuated faces.

Sound

The music for the most part is extremely subdued and is used to help create an unsettling atmosphere. The voice-acting is superb as Masato Hagiwara really breathes life into Kaiji as he sweeps the extremes of the emotional spectrum more than a few times and usually over the course of a few minutes. I have to admit, however, that I really hate Norio Wakamoto’s incessant, booming narration as he is prone to thunderously interjecting at the most inappropriate of times, thus ruining the mood.

Characters

What is the defining feature of Kaiji? Two words: emotional investment. This is the sole reason why every moment of the series is so heart-poundingly intense. The connection with Kaiji himself is undeniable. You might as well be right there at his side every step of the way. Every step he takes, you take. Every card he plays, you play. Every time he wins, you cheer just as loudly as he does. And, of course, every time he falls, it feels like your heart has just shattered into a thousand pieces. It’s as if your fates are intertwined. He is such an iron woobie with a heart of gold that you want him to succeed as much he does. Now if that doesn’t define unapologetically deep emotional investment, then what does?

Kaiji is the series, hence the title. The rest of the characters pale in comparison to him, although anyone he befriends is adequately sympathetic (unless they betray him, in which case they are adequately contemptible), and the villains Kaiji faces are sufficiently smug bastards just asking to be taught a lesson.

Overall

Here’s the deal. Life is not all sunshine and flowers. Sure, you could make the argument that Kaiji’s overall Aesop is “don’t gamble.” But it’s so much more than that. Kaiji seeks to shine light onto just how unforgivingly harsh life can be and does an impeccable job. The series demonstrates just how oppressive money can be and the lengths people will go to for a chance to restart their failed lives. It shows the depths of depravity and treachery that the higher-ups who strive to keep the dregs of society groveling at their feet will sink to. And it raises the question of whether or not it is the fault of society that these poor people turned out the way they did and have consequently been denied a fair shot at redemption. For nail-biting suspense and psychological showdowns splashed with corrupt cynicism, look no further than Kaiji.

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