Hi, all you fine folks out there in the Otakusphere and beyond. Once again, it’s time for me to take another pick from the anime people have submitted to me as I go In Search Of… my next favorite anime.
So what is this feature? Every month, I pick out an anime that has been submitted to me, and I watch it. I tell you what I think about it, and whether I think it’s worth watching again. You can help me by submitting it to my list. Generally, I’m looking for stuff I haven’t watched, but I’m willing to rewatch things I haven’t seen in a while as well.
This month, we’re going In Search of … Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor.
So I’ve heard somewhere that the title also included something about a never-ending suffering pariah, but I couldn’t find any reference when I searched for titles. But, if I was actually remembering that right, I wouldn’t be surprised.
We’ll get to that, though.
When Rose of The Wretched and The Divine blog suggested I watch this, I was surprised. I swore that I had seen all of this series. But I soon realized that while I had watched the first section of the show two times, I had never made it to the E-card arc.
So I promised myself that I would finish it, and I can proudly say that I have seen the end of the first season — minus three episodes. But we’ll get to that too. I want to point out that this show came out in 2007, right around when I first started writing in this blog.
Man, I’m old.
The anime is an adaptation of a Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga that started in 1996 and is still running today. Though, looking at Fukumoto’s works, it seems like there are a few breaks in the middle.
What makes Kaiji unique is that it’s a gambling manga that was turned into a gambling anime. The only other television show I’ve seen in this small subgenre is Akagi, which, strangely enough, was also based on a manga drawn by Fukumoto.
So why did Rose suggest it? I’ll let her say in her own words:
It is the best gambling anime. It is one of the most interesting anime I’ve watched and my second favourite anime. The protagonist, Kaiji, is also one of my favourite anime characters.
So let’s see what happens when we board the ship of hope or climb the Starside Hotel, as we talk about Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor.
A Hero in a World of Anti-heroes
In some ways, it’s hard to know where to start when I’m talking about Kaiji. While I don’t think it’s a particularly complex show, it is undoubtedly more complicated the further you go.
But I think the best place to start is talking about what is really the most fascinating thing about Kaiji, and that is, well, Kaiji.
So who is he? Well, he’s a 21-year-old loser who starts the series slumming it in his apartment. His only source of joy is sticking it to the man by popping the tires of fancy cars and taking their hood emblems.
He’s angry at his lot in life, but he doesn’t seem willing or able to change it, so what he does is lash out.
Well, all of that is going to change when Endo, a local Yakuza, comes knocking at his door. See, Kaiji had cosigned a loan for a former roommate with a loan shark. That roommate then bugged out, sticking Kaiji with the debt. Now he owes 3.8 million yen (or about $35,000 according to today’s exchange rates.) Having been Kaiji levels of poor before, I can understand how that amount of money would seem insurmountable.
Endo has a deal for Kaiji. All he needs to do is board a ship called Espoir, which ironically enough means hope. Endo says if he can survive the night, all of his debt will be wiped clean, and he might even come away with some money.
Thus starts Kaiji’s first challenge: Restricted Rock, Paper and Scissors.
It’s a game where all contestants are given a set of equal numbers of rock, paper and scissors cards and a pocket tag with three stars on it. The goal over the next four hours is to end the night with at least three stars and get rid of all your cards.
Sounds easy, right? Well, so does poker when you start. There is a lot of wheeling and dealing that goes on during these episodes.
I started this section off by saying that Kaiji is the most fascinating thing about Kaiji, but that is a bit misleading. See, in a lot of ways, Kaiji is relatively standard shonen/seinen fare. He’s a nice guy with a head for gambling. He wants his friends to succeed. He wants his enemies to lose, and he generally chooses the selfless option over the selfish one.
Kaiji is a hero.
But, at least in this first arc, he’s in a world of greedy, selfish people. In some ways, the most honest of them are the scamming connivers who cheat or con their way to having multiple stars. Fairly early on, Kaiji runs into one and gets taken for two of his three stars.
On the other side are the losers, who whine and are afraid of taking risks. In the end, they’re just as bad.
Espoir sets a baseline for the world of Kaiji. He is a hero in a world of flawed and fragile anti-heroes. The thing is that above this mob exists another layer. Essentially, the evil that enjoys watching the losers fight over scraps.
This is where Kaiji gets a little more complicated. So let’s talk about The Starside Hotel.
The Nobility of Man
I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but this will come up at some point. This show is not called Ultimate Winner or Super Gambler, or Amazing Kaiji. It is Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor.
Kaiji is never going to come out ahead. Instead, he’s going to eke out a victory and somehow maintain his dignity in the face of loss.
I say this because it has to be clear that Kaiji doesn’t leave Espoir free of his debts, but he does end up escaping a hellish work camp where he would have died.
Our second arc starts with our hero working at a convenience store for barely enough money to keep a roof over his head. He still can’t afford to pay off the crippling debt hanging over his head. Well, Endo returns, and this time he has another get-rich-quick scheme for Kaiji. He could earn 20 million yen or about $181,000 in today’s exchange rates.
Well, that brings us to the Starside Hotel and the human derby. In the first part, groups of 12 need to make it across a balance beam three stories up in the air. All the while, people down on the grounds are betting on them.
Again, I will try to avoid spoilers, so I won’t talk about the fundamental tension. But it further emphasizes that Kaiji is a hero and everyone else is pretty lousy.
Then we get to what is probably my favorite part of the show: The real human derby. See, they are all promised a prize of 10 or 20 million yen if they finish in first or second place during the first race. But to claim that prize, they need to cross a steel beam 74 feet up in the air. And on top of that, the beam is electrified, so if they touch it, then they fall.
Through this point in the series, we are presented with the premise that everyone, except for Kaiji, is pretty crappy. But in this section, we see the nobility of people when faced with nearly unbeatable odds.
It’s not that the series is nice to the people with Kaiji. Still, we finally see them as humans faced with an impossible task for the amusement of silent billionaires who are just drinking their wine and basking in the pleas of the helpless people before them.
There is one scene in particular with a character named Ishida that was the most singular moving thing in this show. I feel like I need to spoil it, so if you don’t want to know, skip down a paragraph or two.
Ishida tells Kaiji that he isn’t going to make it. He knows that he’s been a lousy father and husband and saddled his kid and wife with his debts. He came to the hotel as a way to hopefully repay those debts. But he knows that he can’t make it across. He’s going to die here.
In one last attempt to make things right, he hands his coupon to Kaiji and trusts him to make good on saving his family from debt. As a last kindness, Ishida covers his mouth so Kaiji won’t hear his scream as he falls.
It’s brutal and beautiful. And shows that people can be more than just venal.
The Struggle Against Evil
In many ways, this third section of the show is good, but it’s more familiar than the previous two parts. Unlike Espoir, Kaiji only has two adversaries. First, he has Tonegawa, and then he has Hyoudou. They are the two Yakuza who engineered these events.
They profiteer off of the poor’s misfortune and the greed and cruelty of the wealthy. My only problem is that compared to the other villains in the show, they seem extra mustache-twirly. The chairman, in particular, giggles in glee when he thinks Kaiji is going to be maimed or killed.
This took what had been an interesting exploration of what happens to people under pressure and turned it into just another fighting show.
This is where the show kind of defeated me. See, I knew that Kaiji wasn’t going to really win. In fact, I knew what fate awaited for him. So it made it impossible to watch the three episodes leading up to the end.
So I didn’t.
And I don’t really feel like I missed anything.
Even that ending was a little disappointing. It concludes with Kaiji realizing that he had been out-maneuvered and promising himself that he would be better and be a true gambler.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s terrible, but from the height of the human derby to this, was, well, let’s just say, I wanted something more.
A Few Final Cards
I can’t leave off talking about Kaiji without talking about the narrator, the music and the visuals. One of the trickiest things in making a television show where people just sit around is making it compelling to watch. See, there isn’t anything exciting in seeing someone sitting on a bench, crowded in a bathroom or sitting at a table.
The show uses a lot of tools to accomplish this. One is a narrator that is straight out of a telenovela. He is big and bombastic, and full of colorful imagery. So Kaiji might be perched on top of a balance beam with his hands poised above someone’s back, but he’s also standing on the edge of the cliff, ready to send a child into a ravine.
The dynamic visuals continue even outside of the narrator. At least at one point, Kaiji is feeling isolated during the second part of the human derby, and he’s shown surrounded by darkness and all alone, even though he’s not really alone.
The character designs are based on Fukumoto’s originals and are ugly. But they are intentionally ugly. These aren’t pretty people doing pretty things. These are the losers and the people who pray on them. They don’t make my eyes bleed, and I can tell all of the characters apart.
I love both the opening and closing of the show, along with the music and sound design. There are times when it’s a bit over the top, but never in a way that felt unwarranted or distracting. It certainly didn’t have the montage into another montage issue that The Great Passage had.
I also wanted to talk about a theme I felt like I saw the edges of but never came into complete focus. Sometimes I feel like the show is talking about the cruelty of the rich toward the poor. But no matter how it put it together, it felt like there were mixed messages.
The show seems to say that Kaiji could have succeeded if he did the work, but it also seems to say that the system is rigged to keep him down. There is a theme there, but it’s not particularly clear what it is.
A Closing Gambit
So I did it. I finally finished Kaiji: The Ultimate Survivor. Well, minus three episodes.
When the show is good, it fires on all cylinders and tells a compelling story with thematic depth and a genuine heart. When it’s less good, I feel like it tells a compelling story.
Will I ever watch the second season? Probably. I’m not sure when, but I’ll definitely try to watch it all next time.
But until I do that, I’ll just have to wonder if Kaiji will ever become the ultimate winner.
For now, dear readers, this is iniksbane, writing from the deck of a ship sailing in the darkest seas through the dead of night. Over and out.
And always, thanks for reading.
And please, if you think there is a show that I should watch that I don’t have marked on my My Anime List, please please fill out this form and tell me about it by filling out this Google Form.
Please. Pretty please.
Next month, we’re going to go on a journey with the best of all bodyguards as we watch the tale of Moribito: Guardian of Spirit.