Living day by day through gambling, making a small debt, Kaiji’s life changes when he notorious loan shark, Endo offers the tempting lifeline:
“You can wipe the debt away in one night.”
Akagi is one of our favorite hidden gems of the anime world, regardless of its flaws. When diving into Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor by the same creator, our expectations were very high. And Kaiji delivers.
It follows Kaiji, a bum with zero responsibilities in life and gambling as his only entertainment, playing blackjack and slots online being his main choice. His life goes to hell when one day, a debt collector named Endou turns up at his door to collect a loan Kaiji signed with a friend. His friend scarpered, so the payment of 300,000 yen falls on Kaiji’s head. Except, the debt now sits at 3,850,000 yen due to compound interest. With not a yen to his name, Endou offers Kaiji an alternative: play a game on our boat, if you win – you clear your debt. Tempted by Endou’s offer, Kaiji accepts. The game is not your standard tournament of poker, mahjong, or blackjack, as one would expect.
A Simple Game of Rock-Paper-Scissors
The twist is that players have a limited number of uses of each action, meaning there are limited wins available on the table. Each win allows a player to take one star from the opponent. To survive for the night, a player must have at least three stars and use up all their symbols. To complicate the game further, beforehand, each player could borrow 1,000,000 yen or 10,000,000 yen at an interest rate of 1.5% for every ten minutes in the four-hour tournament. These debts must be repaid before leaving the boat. If you win an excess to the debt, you keep the difference. Players can sell their extra stars at the end for excessive amounts of money.
Why are the stars so valuable to the players? Finish with less than three stars at the end of the tournament, and you become a slave until the tournament arrives next year. Kaiji spirals into a crazy territory that only anime would ever attempt. The games take many unexpected turns, even in something as simple as rock-paper-scissors. We get the impression the writer thought of the obvious first, discarded it, and said, “I don’t print until I find something better.”
Kaiji’s strength lies in the conflict between the characters. The gambling aspect is a mere device to bring the psyche of each contestant to the forefront of the mind. This is a depraved underworld where the elite put on these sick and twisted games for entertainment purposes. With each game – for there are several throughout the series – the entertainment grows more and more twisted.
The central theme of Kaiji: Ultimate Warrior is trust and betrayal. Kaiji needs to survive in a world where people will do literally anything for survival, or even worse, greed. He starts as a gullible fool. On multiple occasions, I found myself yelling, “Of course it’s a trick, you fool!?” Unlike other shows, where a character falls for a trick because the writer said so, Kaiji sells the audience on the decision first.
Kaiji elevates this anime above most other artworks of this nature, such as Danganronpa. He has complexity. He does not cheat everyone, nor does he go goody-two-shoes. He struggles against his own conscience between the requirements to win and the cost of his soul.
If I had to make a complaint, it would be the pacing. The show drags at times. One scene of characters being indecisive over a single decision should not take an episode, let alone a few. There is also enough to be had in the first season; the second is more of the same but in different-style games. Then again, if you enjoyed the first, you will find it easy to keep going. Kaiji: Ultimate Warrior is one hell of a tense ride.
Have you had a chance to watch Kaiji: Ultimate Warrior? Let us know what you thought about it in the comment section below.
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