In addition to the normal rules, one must predict how their opponent may break them. Unfortunately, these tricks only work by blindsiding the viewer with unexplained serendipity or off screen set-ups. More than ever, if there was a show that could benefit from the main character experiencing setbacks it would be Kakegurui.
“So, let’s go all in!”
Think Food Wars by way of No Game No Life with the gambling focus of Kaiji. That should give you an idea of the kind of show Kakegurui is. Tournament style gambling battles see groups of characters getting wrapped up in some wild, deviant games. But does it capitalize on the what’s good about Kakegurui that influenced it? Back to that in a second, let’s talk about what Kakegurui does well first. The first episode starts off strong with gorgeous looking, expressive and detailed character designs with thoughtful animation flourishes. Yuri on Ice’s Saya Yamamoto animated the OP with sex and style and is one of the best this season and much of that style translates into the show proper. The studio seems to understand the source material, being very unsubtle about how insane and twisted this show is. It prefers to highlight and accentuate this insanity as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist. There is a lot of sexuality bubbling beneath the surface. Unflinchingly proud to have its fan service, Kakegurui attempts to sell you on it being thematically warranted and, through some finagling, works for its money on that sale.
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jul 1, 2017 to Sep 23, 2017
- Genres: Game, Psychological, Drama, School
- Studio: MAPPA
Let’s get back to some of those other similarities from earlier. It’s hard to think of other shows like Kaiji or No Game No Life while watching this and I can’t help but enjoy those shows more for a few simple reasons. First is the protagonist or in Kakegurui’s case the “protagonist?”. You see, these kinds of shows really benefit from an unexpected hero with new smart ideas that will revolutionize their world and help change the corrupted status quo. As high schools go, Hyakkaou Private Academy is a nightmare where actual professors both were allowed to and thought it was a good idea to work gambling into the school curriculum. There are still regular classes but that barely matters when your success is determined by how much money you make through being a corrupt cheating jackass. Yumeko seemed to discover this school’s gambling scene by accident so it’s understood that other students wouldn’t have come to this school because of the gambling. This begs the question “why would they stay after realizing how messed up everything is?”.
Teachers have no presence in the school and everything is just run by a student council, which is not uncommon (in fantasy high school anime) but they probably couldn’t figure out a way to make any of this work while having teachers at this school and not have a logical reason why everyone couldn’t be arrested. Students practically become slaves (“livestock” as they call it) to the whims of the elite, if they lose money. If we ever saw what society outside this school would look like, I would expect to see desolation and despair on the same twisted scale as Dangan Ronpa. Even if that were the next level twist everything else is far too normal for that satisfy the unnervingly evil nonsense the school allows to be commonplace.
Compare that to Tootsuki, an elite high school where cooking is everything and also integrated into school grades and school life in a way that makes sense. People are super strict about cooking in a way that’s unfair but can be argued as “tough love” and part of the system’s rigorous curriculum to make sure only the best of the best can remain enrolled. A bit ridiculous but not distracting from the reality of Kakegurui’s own situation. Or when Kill La Kill drove it’s clear “fascist school” idea home, it’s hyperbole reflected the tone, imagery, and story on every level, helped by it feeling far more fictional and otherworldly. Kakegurui is planted too close to reality to make that play as effectively.
In many a show about psychological warfare, there’s this thing called the Xanatos Gambit that’s used as a sort of tool to ensure that the main hero can never lose because they can’t for the narrative of the story to work (plot armor so to speak). Light from Death Note uses it, Lelouch from Code Geass uses it, and Sora from No Game No Life uses it constantly. This Gambit ensures that the main character has secured a plan for victory every step of the way. Even if he/she loses he/she still wins because of something that has been planned for every foreseeable calculated probability. This takes some tension out of moments where it is all but ensured the audience knows the main character will succeed.
All these characters find some exciting way to deceive the audience into how successful they will really be. In Light and Lelouch’s case, it’s never guaranteed that their plans have to go their way because they’re not true heroes. There are chinks in the plot armor and not everything has to go their way to keep things interesting. Then there’s Sora who always stakes his victory on absolutely everything so if he were to fail then the story would be over. Now it’s no longer a matter of if they win, but how. In its own right that could be interesting, but gambling highschoolers lack the same creativity of a magical game empire.
As far as Yumeko’s concerned, the how and why is effective the first time but on repeating matches feels like the same clever trick over and over again just with a different coat of paint. It wasn’t until the fifth episode that everything from the introduction of the villain to the formula of the match to the match’s aftermath felt no longer felt predictable and the episode ended feeling like I saw something new. By the time cheating is common and all parties that are involved are assumed to be cheating the game of bluffs becomes more interesting. In addition to the normal rules, one must predict how their opponent may break them. Unfortunately, these tricks only work by blindsiding the viewer with unexplained serendipity or off screen set-ups. More than ever, if there was a show that could benefit from the main character experiencing setbacks it would be Kakegurui. Look at Kaiji, a show where you know tension and stakes exist because characters themselves experience the horrors those stakes. Not once, even when Yumeko loses, does she suffer or worry or learn or regret.
Going back, remember when I was talking about the main character needing to revolutionize their world and help change the corrupted status quo was important to this kind of story? Normally, heroic characters are taught by reasonable people or know what it’s like to be the best but still have respect for the little guy. They are relatable and easy to root for despite their character flaws because they’re established. These shows capitalize on the feeling of dragging scum of the earth characters down from their high horse and having the protagonist impart a crucial lesson about what makes them the better person and deserving of such victory. Yumeko has none of this. She is impulsive and chaotic. She is as sadistic as the rest of her opponents and shows absolutely zero sympathy towards the downtrodden, failing to separate her from the evils she’s up against. After her first and second match, it’s clear as day that Yumeko is untethered to sanity. She is unbreakable, unbendable, a machine programmed to never waver, never lose.
She is unable to have, what I deem, the “essentials” of relatability in a story surrounding a vice used by villains for evil. If Yumeko is never concerned about the theoretical minefield she sprints through by constantly playing these games, then why should I be? Most of the characters, the villains, fall squarely into this design. However, when it comes down to this type of portrayal, the overembellishing hinders the effectiveness of which the villains feel like they can actually cause harm.
When the games attempt to shake things up they ramp it up a bit too far. I appreciated the theatrics of something like the Russian Roulette game. However, what’s the purpose of showing Yumeko’s cocky confidence in a scenario where if she loses she gets shot in the face? She died where would the satisfaction be in seeing that cockiness get the best of her? There isn’t really any room for Kakegurui to analyze things like mental illness either because the way mental health is portrayed isn’t tactful enough to broach the topic.
When she goes into her savage mode this is supposed to be satisfying to the audience. It is in a way that her opponent’s own savagery was merely boastful and largely ineffective compared to her own. This is effective for a second but her wild demon-eyed craziness overstays this feeling. Kakegurui merely pretends that’s not the case by occasionally making her chummy with her “friends” (or convenient no-longer-villains she just happened to hang out with and never have any common goals with). She makes her ambition clear from the start how she wants to rule over the school and reign supreme.
She doesn’t want to tear down the student council, she wants to replace it with the same establishment but with her at the top. In a way, Yumeko gets to be slightly more modest in her deviant tendencies over the villains by not trotting upon the less powerful and sometimes even granting others liberation. Her way of doing so isn’t so much by rescuing them from the evils they’re bond to but rather convincing them to break away from their chains and self-aggrandizement. It borders on manipulation but in the end, their life is better off at the expense of those less deserving so that is something. However, the gap between hero and villain is widened by virtue of comparing a lesser evil to a greater one. The line is often too blurred to tell the difference and I constantly question the motives of Yumeko’s “heroics”.
After her third match and first loss, she resolves unshaken despite the disgrace she’s suffered. Seemingly absent of any emotional weakness, this Yumeko. Although by reveling in the humiliation she manages to take away her victor’s power over her. This is only satisfying because of how simple and cartoonish I found that power-hold to be in the first place. This demonstrates the commitment to downplay perceived danger in order to create more grandiose stakes later down the line. Although said stakes have yet to cement themselves. This isn’t the most relatable approach and I can’t find it in myself to want to route for this kind of person. None of her emotions can ever be trusted as genuine, which is standard sociopath fare. It’s disconcerting for surrounding characters that continue to interact with her as if she might be normal. Maybe she’s not in danger anyway. One dollar in debt or one million you are still considered livestock.
One such character is Ryouta, a fellow classmate, and clear audience surrogate. His surprise and utter disbelief at Yumeko’s actions accurately summates the audience’s initial reaction. Much like myself, he wants to be the voice of reason in her clearly unstable gambling-complex lifestyle. However, after each match (incidentally the point where Yumeko’s personality gets reset at the beginning of each episode) he becomes friendly with her in a way that makes it seem like Yumeko’s personality disorder didn’t exist the day prior. I don’t think Ryouta ever learned about sociopathic tendencies or schizophrenics. All this may very well change as I’m sure manga readers would be aware. However, as far as Yumeko’s story arc so far, it goes nowhere fast. Ryouta is more likely to become a more independent individual in the future and preferable main character. Should the story focus more on him and his growth as a competent member of the team then the more interested I’ll be.
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Also, after the first episode, the audience instantly knows the type of stake-raising competition anime this is going to be. When Yumeko unsurprisingly resumes her role as the local amped-up crazy chick by challenging her next victim, Ryouta acts all surprised as if he didn’t quite catch on yet. Despite her opponent being on the student council, we’re two episodes in and she’s yet to be challenged. She loses the next match in the third episode because of dumb luck but not before realizing her opponents trick and utterly winning the psychological warfare portion of the match; a fair win/not-win kind of move. The fact that she can win the “game” but lose the match because of this luck factor doesn’t instill much confidence.
How will they continue to handle these losses while continuing to make the victories feel deserved? This is something No Game No Life has no problem doing because luck is either of little importance or a variable that can be manipulated magically. She takes her loss in stride because when you’re the protagonist of this type of story what do you have to fear? I guess her and I are on the same wavelength in that regard. It would be worse if the show pretended she was actually in trouble. Which it does do later, and boy does the absence of stakes ruin the forced drama of those scenes. Yumeko’s lack of personal attachment to the characters or the game is a minor problem but big tension-killer.
I want to note that while I write about these issues, the length that I discuss them isn’t completely equivalent to the amount trouble they cause. The problems that arise from Kakegurui’s squandered potential is more interesting to discuss than what it does well. Using gambling as an outlet to explore sexuality is darkly humorous. Its great production value is captivating and insane characters’ fun to watch go wild, especially when the adrenaline junkie Midari comes on screen; her personality had the most grounded logic for her outlandish behavior. I find the show’s commitment to its insanity somewhat admirable even if I wish it went a bit further in its efforts; or at least didn’t use it in substitute for a more compelling story.
I don’t like the term guilty pleasure but I found myself laughing at the sheer stupidity even if at the show’s expense. However, these characters are far from having no appeal. Each villain’s quirk is a tragic vice that flirts with power fantasies: control, fear-mongering, dignity, adrenaline all ways to domineer themselves over their subjects and fuel their senses of sick superiority. The concept of self-destruction to gain self-gratification goes on in full force, which is both a great allusion to gambling as it is lust.
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In the end, there are still enough enjoyable moments to keep me attached. Studio Mappa’s animation style has a lot of visual hooks as well as interesting shot composition and editing. The character designs are also very strong. The excellent jazzy OP, rich in detail and meaning, made me want to come back to Kakegurui once a week despite my gripes but may just have been Kakegurui’s strongest aspect anyway. Kakegurui is as perfect as you could get for a setup to expose the villainy of institutionalized gambling in a fun, goofy power fantasy kind of way.
However, Yumeko as a character embraces too much of that villainy to make such a feat possible. The characterization had nothing to show for like other anime anti-establishment heroes or the far more engaging Kaiji. After twelve whole episodes, nothing really changed other than some characters were defeated and appeared to bigger pushovers than I thought and same ugly façade of superiority and insanity are still as present as ever in the characters that had the most to gain by removing those masks and show some depth. The zany and fun twists on classic gambling matches were the true stars of Kakegurui. Also, the overdramatic escalation was probably worth to see through once.