Society, Gambling, And The Emotional Turmoil of ‘Kaiji’

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Imagine a gambling anime so suspenseful that the creator had to invent a new word to describe it.  Kaiji is one of many series created by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, who is also well known for other gambling manga, such as Akagi. Kaiji keeps the suspense strong with high stakes and deadly games, but it also explores the motivation behind the gambles.  The protagonist, a gambler with an immense debt, has to survive and face billionaires who see his struggle as entertainment.

Kaiji Himself – The “Ultimate Survivor”

The series follows Kaiji Itō, a young, unemployed man in his early 20s living during Japan’s 1990s economic recession. Depressed and frustrated, Kaiji’s life revolves around gambling, drinking, and vandalizing. He has no future in sight, and is aware of it. A loan shark easily swindles Kaiji into signing up for a chance to gamble away all of his debt.  Kaiji then embarks on a series of increasingly dangerous gambles while chasing the opportunity to repay his growing debt.    

Close up of Kaiji smirking.
Kaiji. Credit: Madhouse

Kaiji is great at surviving but terrible at thriving. But while not gifted in any way, Kaiji’s strengths lie in his ability to adapt to the unpredictable nature of gambling, and his unwillingness to give up when all seems lost.  Though temperamental, Kaiji shows his true colors with his tendency to rally other seemingly hopeless characters. But Kaiji is also a force when solo, being patient and strategic, as shown with some of his one-on-one gambles.  

Kaiji is a stressful as a character to follow, but somehow that frustration is exciting to watch. He frequently gets into avoidable trouble and bets beyond his means. But this keeps the games intense. Kaiji’s vulnerability is appealing as well.  He openly cries, curses, and expresses his constant inner struggles.  This makes his moments of tenacity and strength all the more compelling, as the viewer sees all of the inner fear that Kaiji has to overcome.

Kaiji‘s Unique Style Illustrates Suspense

With bold lines and sharp angles, Kaiji does not have a typical anime style. The art style is very “love it or hate it,” and can take some time to get used to. This style perfectly encapsulates the dark world of Kaiji though by distorting faces to show inner anguish. As even the strongest characters have break downs throughout both seasons of the anime (Kaiji himself having many), the art does not shy away from showing extreme anguish, fear, and anxiety.

Close up of Kaiji with a distorted, wobbly outline to show anxiety.
Credit: Madhouse

The art style matches the intensity of the voice acting, making a tremendously emotional experience.  The voice acting is raw, utilizing authentic-sounding sobs and screams.  It is a perfect combination to convey intense feelings appropriate to some of the harshest parts of the plot.  

Visual Metaphors and “Zawa”

As gambling does not lend to a lot of interesting imagery, the anime utilizes visual metaphors and narration to convey the stakes and keep the games engaging. The visualized metaphors illustrate anxiety and panic during the dangerous games with imagery such as gusting winds, drowning, and grim reapers. Rather than talking about fear, the anime goes into the perspective of panicking characters. Fukumoto even coined a sound effect in the manga for the feeling of dreadful suspense, written out as “Zawa.”

Kaiji at a tilted angle surrounded by "Zawas" that are written out around him in Japanese.
Credit: Madhouse

The Zawas, besides becoming a fandom meme of sorts, appears in the anime both visually and audibly, with distorted voices that whisper “Zawa … Zawa” during unsettling moments. They add a real feeling of distress and creepiness on top of the anime’s already exaggerated style.

Speaking of Zawas… Let’s Discuss Kaiji‘s Intense Gambling

Kaiji features different gambles, most of which are simple games with enormous stakes attached.  The games always come with some sort of catch that makes them deadly, as they are set up to put debtors in situations where they risk their lives for the entertainment of the wealthy elite.  While Kaiji doesn’t punish the viewer with unexpected deaths for shock value, no character ever feels safe, so it never pays to celebrate too early.

The Rock, Paper, Scissor cards that the characters use to gamble with. The cards have skeletal hands printed on them in different positions to stand for the rock, paper, or scissors.
High Stakes “Restricted Rock Paper Scissors” is played with cards. Credit: Madhouse

The anime features card games, Pachinko, and dice games, as well as some original concepts; the first gamble is high stakes rock paper scissors.  While it may seem an odd, underwhelming choice for a high stakes gamble, the format of the game is where the drama unfolds. The gamblers are all pitted against one another for the chance at clearing their debt.  From there, the games continue to get darker and more complicated as Kaiji accumulates more debt.  Eventually, Kaiji is having to bet body-parts, and even his life to stay in this cycle of gambling. 

The characters or narrator always explain the strategies, which sometimes become quite complicated despite the simple nature of the games.  Characters use psychological means to work in and around the system of rules each game provides.  One of Kaiji’s main strengths as a character is his ability to find loopholes that confident gamblers would overlook.

Beyond The Games

Through the gambles, the series features characters from different walks of life and economic standing.  What keeps the debtors coming back is the prospect of a clean slate, something none of them would be able to achieve without working for decades. The temptation for that comfort is a vice that the anime portrays as the downfall for many of these sympathetic characters. The anime additionally features characters that hold power and money and explores how these ultra-wealthy feel invincible, a stark construct to the constant helplessness of the debtors within the show.

Kaiji and Tonegawa playing a card game.
Tonegawa and Kaiji. Credit: Madhouse

Tonegawa, a middle manager often in charge of hosting games for his superior, provides a neutral point between the extremely wealthy people over him, and the debtors under him. Tonegawa often reflects on the bleak reality of gamblers, as well as the wealth’s tendencies to exploit their suffering. As a spectator and mini-boss of sorts, he is one of the most interesting characters that the anime utilizes to explore dark themes of class stratification.

Debt, Class, & Identity in Kaiji

Beyond the gambling games, the real meat of the series is its portrayal of the debtors trying to survive against a corrupt, abusive system. Like Kaiji, many of the debtors are down on their luck and lost in life.  With comfort out of reach, the allure of winning a jackpot to clear away debts is clearly appealing to these characters. Money leads to many characters putting themselves in situations that risk their well-being and their lives for the chance at being finally “free.”

Hyōdō grinning sinisterly, depicted with fire around him.
Hyōdō, owner of a multi-billion dollar company. Credit: Madhouse

The anime explores the dehumanization of the lower class with its inclusion of billionaires.  The wealthy exploit the poor’s chance at economic freedom, particularly the billionaire who is orchestrating the games, Hyōdō.  As long as he provides the chance of money, and therefore freedom, the debtors continue to risk their lives and be degraded for his entertainment.  Hyōdō’s understanding of this relationship has never failed him, and the cycle of exploitation continues.

As a member of the lower class, Kaiji falls into a rigged system, and Hyōdō’s games reinforce the power imbalance that comes with money. The series is an uphill battle for Kaiji in hopes of clearing his debt, but it also becomes a battle of humanity.

Kaiji Is The Perfect Introduction Into The World Of Gambling Anime

Kaiji is a dramatic and emotional gambling anime that explores the complicated cycle of classism and debt. It is a great gambling anime for any viewer in that the games are simple, but the stakes are enormous.  The viewer doesn’t need to know a lot of game rules or do any quick math to follow. However, the series also remains creative in its types of gambling and has many twists. 

With a dynamic art style, intense games, and complex themes of morality, Kaiji stands strong in its unique genre. Kaiji currently has two anime seasons (Ultimate Survivor, followed by Against All Rules) available to watch on Crunchyroll. There is also an ongoing manga and three live-action films.