Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. Indeed, it is a cardinal sin to leave good works of art unappreciated. I held off on seeing “Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor” for so long, and only recently did I watch it and discover that it is a sublime masterpiece. My only path to redemption now is to spread the good word and tell you about it.
Adapted from the original manga of the same name by Nobuyoki Fukumoto,“Kaiji” is an anime series that tells the tale of the titular protagonist Kaiji (Masato Hagiwara), a Japanese youth who has basically given up on life. He can’t seem to find a job after moving to Tokyo in an era of economic downturn known as the “Lost Decade.” He gambles away what little money he has and slashes tires of expensive cars to vent his frustration. But everything changes when a high-interest loan he had cosigned for an ex-coworker, who is nowhere to be found, now leaves him in crippling debt. Thankfully, a major financing conglomerate is hosting a “charity event” for losers like Kaiji to wipe the slate clean and maybe even make some big bucks. All they have to do is gamble with borrowed money and play cruel games against each other. Now, you’re probably familiar with a premise like this, and perhaps you’re expecting this to be a show about the dark side of human nature and the evils of capitalism. Well, they’re there, but “Kaiji” goes way beyond those boring cliches.
One major highlight is of course the games themselves, though I don’t want to give too many specifics to avoid spoiling things. Some games are entirely original creations. Some are twists on games we’re familiar with. Some are dangerous physical challenges that threaten to kill the participant. The show constantly reinvents itself and presents a new puzzle for Kaiji and the viewer, but two things are certain. One: nothing is as it seems. What appears to be a simple game of chance can contain so many hidden rules and mechanisms that allow the players to manipulate the outcomes. The show is extremely meticulous in laying out all these complexities. Kaiji and his adversaries theorize deeply about possible interactions and scenarios and evaluate the effectiveness of different strategies as much as an intelligent viewer would, and it is so satisfying to watch Kaiji gradually figure out the path to victory after several failed attempts. Brilliantly, sometimes it is the characters’ own overthinking that leads to their defeat. Two: no matter how trivial the game may look, every encounter feels like a desperate fight for survival because the stakes are so damn high. Watching these small moments of gameplay, like drawing from a lottery or dice rolling around in a bowl, is somehow way more intense than any action-packed fight scene. It is incredibly exhilarating to see Kaiji finally get the win after so much struggle, and conversely, utterly shocking when he does lose.
If the games are the show’s body, then its soul must be the realistic, yet imaginative portrayal of human psychology. For one, the show perfectly captures what it’s like to be a gambling addict. We may scream at Kaiji for wanting to continue playing when he has already won big, but a gambler’s greed is insatiable; once he has tasted victory, he can never stop until he has lost everything again. In fact, Kaiji becomes so accustomed to the risk of losing everything that he feels compelled to bet with higher stakes in order to enjoy the games. We also witness how the sunk cost fallacy can destroy someone. After spending almost 50 million yen, which is all he has, a character (I’m making this as vague as possible to avoid spoilers) is still unwilling to give up even though he knows the game is rigged to be impossible to win. At last, as his desperation grows more intense and the money starts to dry up, he pees himself and almost passes out. The narrator dramatically describes that feeling as if he is having non-stop ejaculations—talk about colorful descriptions. The show loves vivid metaphors like this. The characters often have these imaginative thoughts on how they perceive the situation, and we see these thoughts visualized in a surreal fashion. My favorite instance of this is when a cheater who gets caught suddenly comes up with an excuse to prove his innocence: everyone else suddenly appears to be stopped in time and a narrow thread slowly descends towards him. He pathetically climbs his way up it and cries: “I’m saved! I’m saved!”
Of course, for a show to be a masterpiece, it must excel not just in its writing, but in other technical aspects as well, so I will talk about a few of them here. The voice acting is wildly entertaining, especially for Kaiji and the narrator. In a show that pays so much attention to depicting specific emotions and mental states, Kaiji’s voice actor Masato Hagiwara is so versatile and nailed the part so well. There’s this scene where Kaiji finally gets to enjoy a can of beer, and you can just hear the sheer euphoria in the delivery of Kaiji’s monologue! On the other hand, the narrator, played by Fumihiko Tachiki, is a dramatic, bombastic character who makes whatever is happening on screen a hundred times more exciting, probably the best narration in any story ever.
The art style is very distinct from the typical, easy-on-the-eyes anime art style. In fact, most people will probably think it’s downright ugly. But I love it precisely because I’d never seen anything like it before—it’s what made me want to watch the show in the first place. And the style is absolutely perfect for exaggerated facial expressions that emit raw, intense emotions. You can almost feel what the characters are feeling just by looking at their faces.
The original soundtrack sets the tone perfectly. Take the track “Despair” for instance. It starts with a heavy bassline and a fast tempo that underscores the intensity and heavy atmosphere of the show, but then it devolves into distorted guitar notes that sound like the wailing of the damned, symbolizing those poor souls who are hopelessly stuck in life and heavily in debt. Mwah! It’s sublime.
I must admit, “Kaiji” is one of the few shows that managed to squeeze a tear or two out of my unflinching eyes when the ending hit. It’s a masterpiece that I’m glad to have finally experienced (though the sad thing is that now I won’t be able to appreciate most other shows, which will no doubt be inferior). And now that you have heard of “Kaiji,” you also have a moral obligation to go and watch it immediately. Remember, it is a sin to leave good works of art unappreciated.