- Positive: inspirational; thematically relevant to its target audience (20s-30s).
- Negative: can be slow at times; some predictability.
- Neutral: art style might be off putting for some.
- Final verdict: more good than bad; a unique show that constantly had my attention; characters face real world struggles.
Kaiji is a show about gambling, but only on the surface; to be more accurate, it is about the lowest cohort of society trying to break free from their shackles called ‘crippling debt.’ Coerced into gambling by shady loan sharks, Kaiji goes on a challenge that will pit him against society’s most privileged individuals.
The first episode sets the protagonist, Kaiji, as a 20-something, unemployed, unmotivated, and depressed guy trying to survive in the concrete jungle of Tokyo. He passes the time by stealing car emblems from expensive luxury cars. One day, he is visited by a strange man. This man tells him that Kaiji co-signed a loan for a friend, and that friend disappeared. That loan, of 300,000 ($2,850 as of June 1st 2008) yen with a 20% interest rate applied monthly, has ballooned into 3,850,000 yen ($36,575 as of June 1st 2008). Because Kaiji co-signed the loan and now his friend has disappeared, Kaiji is now solely responsible for all 3,850,000 yen. The man then offers him a choice: Kaiji can either work and pay it off, or he can go into a special program for debtors like him. He could work it off, but he is unemployed; however, even if he could find a job, it would take him 11 years of putting every single penny into repaying it.
Young, unemployed, financially crippled, and depressed? Does that sound familiar? While watching it, I could not help but feel how aware this show is of its target audience. Kaiji is representative of the average contemporary 20-something: heavily in-debt, alone, unemployed, unmotivated, and depressed. I fortunately do not match all of those molds, but I know plenty of people my age that do match them. Kaiji, unlike most anime, is aimed at an audience older than high school age. It most likely was meant to capture the helplessness of the people that grew up (and are still growing up) in Japan’s “Lost Decade,” but I do feel that his struggles are relevant to the average American that are still struggling with the aftershocks of the Great Recession.
Kaiji is not a depressing show, however, because it is pretty damn inspiring. Visual metaphors are constantly employed to show the hurdles that Kaiji faces. In the first episode, the show compares Kaiji’s situation to someone trying to throw a basketball into a basket 100 feet above him. Other visual metaphors are employed as well, such as the ground breaking in front of him that separates him from his goal. Kaiji is an underdog, and he is climbing Mount Everest with his bare hands; the show constantly reminds us that despite him being a loser he could climb Mount Everest with his bare hands if he really wanted to.
Kaiji’s vigilance and determination are special, but Kaiji will sometimes push aside the visual metaphors to be oddly profound. Perhaps the most enduring speech from Kaiji was given by Tonegawa, the right-hand man of the big boss of the series. In this speech, Tonegawa talks about the delusions people face, “They live meaningless lives. They waste their precious days over nothing. No matter how old they get, they’ll continue to say, ‘My real life hasn’t started yet. The real me is still asleep, so that is why my life is such garbage.’ They continue to tell themselves that. And they age. And on their deathbeds, they will finally realize: the life they lived was the real thing.” That speech was quite a treat.
Aside from working, Kaiji is given another option to make it big, which is to go on a cruise ship for one night of gambling. Gambling? He is naturally reluctant at first, but the loan shark is a shrewd businessman; in fact, Kaiji does not agree to it on his own reasoning, but he is tricked into going by the loan shark. “If you go on this cruise , you could make pay off your debt and make some money,” the loan shark tells him. “This is a special program for people like you.” When he leaves, the loan shark compares this situation to selling someone real estate; this whole situation was, in fact, nothing more than a business sale.
These sort of cat-and-mouse games are much of what takes the time in Kaiji. Kaiji did not realize it then, but he agreed to gamble his way out because the loan shark was running circles around him. The loan shark employed selling strategies to get him to go. When he first starts out on the cruise ship, he realizes quickly that the only way to win is to play tricks on his opponents. That whole scene, really, is so intense, because it is like this huge epiphany Kaiji has. At this point, it becomes obvious that Kaiji is less about gambling and more about how Kaiji can outsmart his opponents.
It focuses on both the micro and macro of it, too. Not only does Kaiji focus on a person versus person game, but it also focuses on the big picture too. Kaiji is not only facing off against his most immediate opponent, but he is also competing with a 100 different people, many of whom are also employing tricks and mental games into their strategy. He has a specific goal to accomplish, and not everyone on the cruise ship has what he needs to accomplish. He looks at the big picture and deducts who has what he needs, then he challenges them and hopefully wins. We are given a view of the big picture (Kaiji versus everyone) and the specific (Kaiji versus a single person).
Where do the faults lie? Kaiji likes to be extremely clear about the type of gambling it uses. The games they play are not typical games such as poker or bridge; in fact, some of them are made up. The show goes into every little detail regarding the rules of the game, which means that a lot of time passes but nothing much goes on. I do not think this is much of a problem in the first half, but it starts to become a problem towards the end. On the plus side, when Kaiji takes advantage of the rules, the audience is not left wondering what happened. In fact, it would be hard to not see where the logical conclusion is when the show discusses the rules of the game.
The show is roughly split into a first half and second half plot. The first half is about Kaiji’s struggles on the cruise ship; the second half is more diverse, and some of it is more like watching a Japanese game show. The beginning of the second half involves a lot of physical challenges, but once those are done we are back to the cat-and-mouse games that were in the first half. I would say that the physical challenges were my least favorite part.
Finally, the art style is a matter of taste. I personally think it is fine, although it is a bit weird for such cartoonish faces to have anatomically correct bodies. It is definitely left up entirely to personal taste.