I re-watched the thrilling Kaiji some time ago and it became one of my favourite anime. Along the way, I wrote about each arc. Let me tell you why you should watch Kaiji, based on the first arc.
The main character is Kaiji Itou – a young unemployed bum – who receives a debt from one of his former co-workers after the co-worker vanishes. This is because Kaiji co-signed the loan. It’s way too much to pay off, but he’s offered the chance to repay the debt by means of participating in a gambling game involving other strugglers. It’s very clear that isn’t going to be pretty since the yakuza are obviously involved.
The story introduces the psychological elements step-by-step. The first gamble is a modified version of rock-paper-scissors. We are all familiar with the original game, so we have an easier time processing the modified rules and are thus eased into the story. Narration clearly explains various situations, though it does hamper the experience when the narration describes actions Kaiji performs rather than showing them.
The whole arc is a tonal adventure as there are numerous high and low points and the transitions between them aren’t sudden. The different situations and the methods and theories Kaiji uses to overcome challenges keep you engaged throughout. Kaiji is a bum but he’s actually kind of smart, which while you can argue is how the arc is ever able to last as long as it does (or else Kaiji would’ve been eliminated from the game earlier), he’s not so smart as to seize constant victories. This keeps things from getting stale and contributes to the overall mood curve.
What really makes Kaiji stand out though is the imagery it uses in desperate situations. This aspect is introduced with a rather simple example before ramping up the intensity.
The overall colour scheme can sometimes change during these sections which make them otherworldly and characters’ appearances can be physically distorted when they’re experiencing intense fear or nervousness. In addition, the narration in these segments strongly emphasises the images presented. Finally, there are the famous ざわ (zawa)’s, which is onomatopoeia for an uneasy atmosphere. The extensive usage of this is a distinct trait of the works of the original mangaka, Nobuyuki Fukumoto. They are visibly shown during multiple scenes and emphasise not only the characters’ emotions but our uneasiness as well.
My favourite moment of the arc might be the ending, which I won’t spoil here but it’s effective because we’ve experienced the gradual ups and downs of the arc along with Kaiji. We’ve delved deep into his lowest points, making us very empathetic for him. Kaiji’s empathy also boosts his likeability.
The last thing I’ll mention is the themes, one of which is how “the future is in our hands” (the name of the OP song). Most of the other players are in a similar life situation as Kaiji and being successful at the gamble is the means of restarting their lives not only with more financial means but also metaphorically, as the thrill of the gamble has made them realise what it means to feel alive. The series also explores how selfish humans are, how we can turn into monsters in dire circumstances and other standard fare among stories such as these.
I feel like it’s no surprise that I like Kaiji considering that I began my anime-aware journey with Death Note and Code Geass (and Lucky Star afterwards but that’s a completely different thing).
If any of what I described sounded interesting to you, then I suggest you give Kaiji a shot.
You should pay attention to the OST as well, composed by Hideki Taniuchi:
The rest of the write-ups can be found below. Keep in mind that these were orginally sent over Discord, so there may be a couple of inside jokes. Naturally, spoilers lie in store.
- Episodes 10-15: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1dNEVRVf3TxtZKmXMEPLHaGAC8DzIZT38ftvHfHeW21c
- Episodes 16-22: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Ntk-AdonSRq0rp21tAccLIOpUHnWFc0a6WO3mQiFbao
- Episodes 23-26: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1MHrPfZz-Bn6ARZsXWmQdSLU5gBJ5DXNFAM67WjQ0x8c
- Season 2 Episodes 1-9: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ix2MOgCCAKvbLZWW2UlIkJCNieeQTnjSa_DYk8dhBZs
- Season 2 Episodes 10-26 + Concluding Comments (not episode-by-episode): https://docs.google.com/document/d/1LAtgijcfJrvoDmKCdLW7pUVOsd2dnmp6eLBo2Oqrfnc