December 14, 2023
By Zoe Crombie.
Kaiji Ito has fallen so far on hard times that he is reduced to stealing the logos off cars and slashing tyres. Japan is in the middle of a recession, and there are no opportunities for a new arrival in Tokyo… until he is made an offer he can’t refuse, about a problem he didn’t even know he had. At some point in the past, he was the co-signee on an acquaintance’s loan, and now that the original borrower has disappeared, the debt collectors are coming for Kaiji. He can spend the next decade working off the debt, or he can borrow even more money to enter a gambling competition on a cruise ship packed with similar unfortunates. Once he gets swept up in a world of loan sharks and deadly bets, he’s surrounded by swathes of men exactly like him – average guys whose desperation has led them to places they never could have imagined.
Kaiji’s unexpected debt has already risen into the millions, so he goes all-in, in an anime arc adapted from Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s long-running series about hard-core gambling. The tense gambling tournament aboard the Starside ship is merely the first of Kaiji’s misadventures in a gangster-run wainscot society of high stakes and big returns, which continues in a hotel contest that is literally threatening to life and limbs, and a scrappy fight for freedom to game his way out of a forced labour camp.
Such tribulations have made Kaiji a manga hero for Japan’s disaffected young salarymen, shifting more than 30 million copies of the manga since if first appeared in 1996, and leading to a live-action movie trilogy in Japan, and a 2018 Chinese remake, Animal World, that featured Michael Douglas (yes, him) as Kaiji’s debt-collecting nemesis.
The anime series Gyakkyō Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor was made by the prolific and still popular Madhouse studio. This show, usually known simply as Kaiji (like its source material), lives up to this legacy, and remains one of many feathers in Madhouse’s well decorated cap.
Though it can be considered the prototypical gambling anime, Kaiji remains separate from many of its peers, largely because of the protagonist and the version of Japan he occupies. This isn’t Akagi with its genius lead who practically begins the series as a master of mahjong, or Kakegurui with its childish dealings and stylish high school setting more reminiscent of Danganronpa than anything resembling the real world. The stakes and many of the games in Kaiji may occupy the realm of the absurd, but the man himself remains grounded in desperation and an average intelligence that grants him much more relatability than many of his peers. This might also be the reason why the original manga series has been cited as one of the inspirations for the 2020 phenomenon Squid Game, a show that similarly grounds absurd games and stakes in real human emotions and situations – creator Hwang Dong-hyuk has confessed to devouring it in a Korean comics café before he came up with his deadly gaming story.
Visually, Kaiji also stands out from contemporary releases, utilising a graphic style of sharp noses and harsh outlines that remains loyal to the renderings of its source manga while contributing to the dynamism of its newly moving images. You wouldn’t describe it as an especially pretty aesthetic, but it’s certainly forceful, and pairs well with the intensity injected into each and every gambling scenario. It’s a testament to both the writing and presentation of Kaiji that the show can make a concept as simple as a rock paper scissors card game gripping – it’s the kind of gloriously self-serious attitude that anime like Ping Pong would use in transforming simple games into something you can’t tear your eyes from. This devil may care vibe also kicks off each episode with the fantastic first opening theme ‘The Future is in Your Hands’ by Masato Hagiwara, a Ramones-esque track that brings some extra oomph to the proceedings.
While Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor premiered in 2007, the manga serials’ 1996 origins remain clear in the influence of the so called ‘lost decade’. Kaiji is a young man who has been chewed up and spat out by a world that thirteen years of schooling should have prepared him for; at the start of the show, he has been ruined financially and psychologically by a mere three years of living in contemporary Tokyo.
Simultaneously a throwback to the struggles of Japan’s recent past and a series that relies on timeless concepts like gambles, mind games, and strategies, Kaiji is an anime that still holds up more than fifteen years on – and its manga incarnation is still running. Though it only covers around the first quarter of the manga – for the story beats contained in the other 500+ chapters, you’ll have to get reading some volumes on your own – it captures its spirit well, particularly the ingenuity and relatability of its leading man. As far as gambling anime go, this is easily one of the best, and its universal themes and lack of jargon grant it a wide appeal; you’ll have a good time here whether you know your blackjack from your Texas Hold ’Em or you’ve never made a bet in your life.
Zoe Crombie is an associate lecturer and PhD candidate at Lancaster University working on Studio Ghibli. Kaiji is released in the UK by Anime Limited.