There are a few pieces of media I’ve experienced that have made me change the way I think about life. One of them features ten episodes straight of a guy playing a game of pachinko.
Because Kaiji (officially Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, and a load of other titles depending on which season of the anime or chapter of the manga you’re talking about) isn’t just about gambling. It deals with money, morality, and the nature of power in ways that most other works don’t touch upon. Kaiji is serious, but it isn’t preachy or even really political. The characters in Kaiji don’t just represent broad concepts — they’re three-dimensional characters, and with one probable exception, they all feel like people you might run into in the course of your everyday life.
Kaiji is also an insanely dramatic and tense series. A character mulling over a single decision in Kaiji might take five minutes to run through all the possible outcomes in an internal monologue, all accompanied by a pounding soundtrack (written by the amazing Hideki Taniuchi,1 also largely responsible for the excellent Death Note soundtrack) and interspersed with an external narrator yelling his lines as if the world were about to end. Characters will even break down and cry on the spot in especially stressful situations.
The first group of works I’ll be taking on in this first “deep reads” series contains elements like this that are generally considered “over the top.” These works tend to be pretty divisive, with some in the audience dismissing all these accoutrements as distracting or unnecessary fluff, and others enjoying them and claiming that the over-the-top style doesn’t take away from the work but rather adds to the value of it.
While I do require a lot more than pure style alone to enjoy something fully — there has to be substance there, otherwise I can’t get into it that much — I tend to really like these over-the-top sorts of series and games, and not just because they usually produce a lot of stupid memes. I won’t be diving into the rabbit hole that is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, at least not anytime soon, but it provides a great example of this. How many times have you heard or seen someone throwing out a “ZA WARUDO” or “IT WAS ME, DIO” in the middle of a thread on Twitter or wherever? Like JoJo, some of the lines and scenes in Kaiji became popular online, especially when the second season of the anime was airing. And like JoJo, there’s more to the series than just its dramatic style. I wrote a short overview of Kaiji a long time ago, but I think it’s worth a second more in-depth look. Also, I’m about to spoil the shit out of Kaiji, so don’t read this if you haven’t watched it and want to go in pure as the good Lord intended.
Kaiji tells the story of Kaiji Itou, a chronically unemployed/underemployed guy in his 20s who spends his time gambling to try to make it big. At the beginning of the series, we see Kaiji prying hood ornaments off of expensive cars out of a twisted sense of frustration at his own go-nowhere life. When one of the guys whose cars he defaced visits Kaiji at his apartment, he freaks out, but things are made far worse when the visitor identifies himself as a yakuza loan shark named Endou. Endou tells Kaiji that an old colleague he cosigned on a loan for has skipped town, so he’s now on the hook for a massive principal and usurious interest that he can never hope to pay back. Kaiji is thrown into despair at the thought of having to slave away the rest of his life paying back on this unfair loan, but Endou then tells him about a competitive gambling game taking place on the ship Espoir that’s set to take a short cruise a few weeks later in which about half of the gamblers should be able to clear their debts.
With no other information about the gamble (including the fate of the losers, which Endou tells Kaiji to just not even think about — that’s not ominous at all, no) Kaiji accepts a spot on the ship, starting his participation in a cycle of dangerous underground games all run by Teiai, a criminal empire that fronts as a financial consulting corporation. Teiai is built like an iceberg: the very tip of it visible to the general public seems to be legitimate, but its real mass is hidden in the form of underground casinos, prostitution, extortion, and loan-sharking. The games that Kaiji takes part in seem to be part of an even more underground aspect of Teiai inspired by company president Kazutaka Hyoudou, a sadistic half-crazy old billionaire who takes great pleasure in seeing human suffering of all kinds up close.
Hence the high-stakes gambling games he runs, in which Teiai’s broke-ass desperate clients are given a chance to get rid of their debts and win money on top of that, but at incredible risk to themselves if they fail or lose. In the course of the first season, Kaiji and his fellow debtors fight each other in games that seem straightforward at first but that require either trickery or outright brutality to get a sure win. And when they finally get to play a game that’s cooperative instead of competitive — crossing a pair of steel beams connecting two skyscrapers hundreds of meters above the ground — the result of a loss becomes certain death.
Kaiji manages to survive these gambles in one piece, but he ends up failing again following a couple of face-to-face gambling battles with President Hyoudou and his representative and right-hand man Yukio Tonegawa, and he’s again saddled with several million yen in debt. Teiai loan shark Endou shows up once again at the beginning of the second season, but not to offer Kaiji another dangerous gambling opportunity. Endou instead shoves him into a car that takes him directly to a Teiai-owned underground labor camp, where Kaiji is imprisoned until he can work off what he owes.
At first, Kaiji despairs and drowns his sorrows in overpriced beer and yakitori sold by the company store, bought with the sub-minimum wage he earns for his backbreaking manual labor. But after taking a sick colleague to the crowded camp medical clinic, Kaiji realizes that labor will kill him before long and decides he has to get out as soon as possible. And how does Kaiji get out? By gambling, of course. Kaiji plays chinchirorin (better known here as cee-lo or just dice) against the cheating foreman of his work detail, exposing him and winning all his hoarded money with the help of an alliance of other slave laborers. He then buys a special pass to the surface with their pooled winnings, hoping to win enough with their remaining money to pay off all the group’s debts and buy its freedom.
This is where the pachinko comes in. While hunting for a gambling opportunity that he can use to win big in his few weeks on the surface, Kaiji meets Sakazaki, an older gambler down on his luck who shows him just what he’s looking for: a giant pachinko machine in an illegal secret casino (run by Teiai, of course) that pays out all the winnings of the previous players. It takes an investment to play at the Bog: a single pachinko ball usually costs four yen, but a ball in the Bog game costs a thousand times that. However, the Bog is notorious for never paying out and has financially ruined hundreds of gamblers hoping to get at its 400 million+ yen jackpot, adding their own fortunes to the pot in the process.
Here Kaiji turns into something like a heist movie, in which Kaiji and Sakazaki go up against Ichijou, the Teiai-appointed manager of the casino. Of course, the Bog isn’t a simple pachinko machine that can just pay out at any time: it’s meant to be a money-maker for Teiai, and Ichijou has ensured that its pins, plates, and other contraptions are designed to absolutely prevent a win.
Considering this fact, Kaiji and Sakazaki know it’s not good enough to just play the Bog for a little while and hope for a win. So they’re forced to enlist the help of none other than Endou, that Teiai loan shark who kicked off the plot in the first episode. Endou’s own loan-sharking business has been suffering since the fall from grace of his superior, Tonegawa (who Kaiji was in fact responsible for taking down in season 1 by beating him in a high-stakes game in front of Hyoudou.) So Endou agrees to loan Kaiji even more money to beat the Bog and split the winnings. Kaiji then devises several tricks and strategies to beat the Bog based upon his observations of its maintenance over a couple of weeks. In doing so, he discovers most of the cheat mechanisms that Ichijou has built into the system and is able to break past every one on the big day.
After finally defeating the Bog against all odds, Kaiji splits the money with his partners Endou and Sakazaki and his allies in the underground prison camp, who are all let out after their debts are paid. Kaiji is now a free man. But who knows what the future holds for him? (You know if you read the manga, which continues well beyond this point.)
Kaiji has been out of the spotlight for a while now. The anime series nearly qualifies as old at this point — the first season aired in 2007 and the second in 2011 — but it’s based on a much older property, a manga of the same name written and drawn by famous mangaka Nobuyuki Fukumoto that has been running almost without a break since 1996 and that continues to this day. Fukumoto’s works include Akagi, Ten, and a lot of other manga series about gambling that have plenty of fans, but Kaiji is certainly his best-known work, at least here in the West. Part of this popularity comes from the fact that it received that two-season anime adaptation, but I think there’s more to it than that. While Kaiji might be extreme and over the top in its visuals, themes, and music, I think it’s also very relatable to most people, even to those who wouldn’t normally watch a show like this.
And I do understand why Kaiji would put a lot of viewers off, at least upon a first viewing. As first impressions go, Kaiji has a lot working against it, mostly in its visual style. Fukumoto’s manga work features characters with exaggerated, sometimes bizarrely twisted facial features. While the art in the anime adaptation looks pretty polished (Kaiji is a joint production with Madhouse, and they do a great job with it) the characters have kept most of those strange features, most obvious in the protagonist and the chief antagonist. Kaiji sports an extremely sharp, pointy nose and chin that he could probably use as lethal weapons if he were so inclined. While Hyoudou just looks more like a really old guy, his mannerisms are often grotesque — though he still mostly has his wits, when he gets excited he will start to giggle, cackle, and drool as he imagines how Kaiji will suffer when the drill attached to his ear pierces his eardrum and drills into his brain during that extremely high-stakes game against his lieutenant Tonegawa.
The extreme style of the series doesn’t end at its visuals, however. The plot elements themselves are way over the top at times. The idea of even the worst, most sadistic billionaire criminal being able to set up deadly gambling competitions is scary, but it’s also insane enough to be pretty unbelievable. People are capable of terrible cruelty, and money can help them carry that cruelty out to some extent without getting into trouble, but Hyoudou is so rich and has bribed so many officials into looking the other way that he’s practically the secret ruler of Japan at this point — he can do pretty much anything he wants, including running death games using his debtors as human rats for his enjoyment and setting up underground prison labor camps filled with the surviving debtors who don’t win and can’t pay him back. That stuff does feel pretty damn far-fetched.
However, the troubles of these debtors that got them into these crazy situations aren’t far-fetched at all. People need money to start businesses, to finance medical debt, or simply to live after they’ve lost their jobs. If they’re desperate enough and their credit cards are already maxed out assuming they ever even had credit extended to them, they might respond to a flyer promising quick money, no questions asked.
I see these kinds of “quick money no questions asked” flyers posted on telephone polls along the roads on the way to the city where I work. Clearly this aspect of Kaiji is not over-the-top or far-fetched at all. A lot of people need money, and they are sometimes willing to take big risks (and sometimes even unknown risks, as we see at the very beginning of Kaiji) to get it. They’re also willing to stab each other in the back when enough money is on the line. During the very first story arc of the series, Kaiji makes an alliance with two other debtors, Andou and Furuhata, who are playing that competitive gambling game on the ship Espoir. Furuhata even happens to be the very co-worker who tried to run from his debt and screwed Kaiji in the process. Nevertheless, Kaiji and his new allies vow to win and escape together, as a single unit.
This friendship is almost immediately broken once Kaiji decides to sacrifice himself by losing the game for the sake of the team and telling them to rescue him with the money they end up making as a result. Once Kaiji is on the other side of the glass (in a room filled with other losers who have been stripped entirely naked by Teiai guards, possibly in preparation to get them ready to go to a prison camp or to an even worse fate) his “allies” turn their backs on him, using the benefit they gained from his sacrifice to make more money for themselves.
It would be easy for Kaiji to simply say “people only care about money and are only out for themselves” and leave it at that. That’s a cynical message, but it would resonate well enough with a lot of viewers. However, this series takes a more complex view of people than that. After Kaiji manages to escape from the ship’s lost debtor naked man room by using some of his own trickery, he wrests his rightful share of his team’s winnings away from them and uses those funds to save another man he made a very brief connection with, a man who was also tricked by a supposed friend. Kaiji claims he’s throwing his money away by saving this guy, almost like he’s doing it just to spite his faithless allies, and he ends up regretting his decision after leaving the ship in even greater debt than he started in as a result of his actions.
Kaiji’s selfless act at the end of this first arc sets a trend, however. Throughout the first half of the first season, Kaiji is faced with opportunities to get ahead by figuratively stabbing other debtors in the back or by literally physically harming them, but he always ends up refusing to do so. And throughout the second season, Kaiji spends a lot of his time devising plans with his new friends, first in Teiai’s underground prison camp with some of his fellow debtors and later in his fight against the Bog when he joins up with Sakazaki and Endou. Kaiji’s underground allies trust him so much, in fact, that they give him all the money they win using his strategies, relying on his creativity and ability to win their freedom for good despite the odds being stacked against him. And their trust in Kaiji is well-placed, because he also puts faith in his friends, even after he’s betrayed at the end of the first arc. Kaiji’s attitude can be contrasted with Hyoudou’s — the all-powerful president of Teiai seems to believe only in the power of money and will gladly step on his subordinates if they fail or displease him.
All this might fall flat if Kaiji were an unnaturally saintly sort of character, something like a Mary Sue, but he’s not. Kaiji turns into a lazy bum when the pressure is off and is totally capable of being a dick sometimes, even if he tries to justify it to himself. He also doesn’t always have a lot of self-discipline when the heat is on, as we see when he’s tempted to drown his sorrows in beer sold at a high markup in the prison camp, getting him even deeper into the hole of debt he dug for himself. And even when Kaiji is doing well, he may get arrogant and push his luck too far (though he seems to have learned some lessons and gotten wiser in the second season after that arrogance leads him to a major screw-up at the end of the first.)
When Kaiji is forced into a life-or-death situation, his powers of genius turn on, allowing him to find a way to beat seemingly impossible odds. However, those genius powers of his are usually dormant. Kaiji might look a lot like Akagi, the mahjong prodigy from Fukumoto’s manga and anime series Mahjong Legend Akagi, but where Akagi is an unstoppable, demonic force of nature who crushes all his opponents almost without flinching,2 Kaiji is pretty much a regular guy most of the time, with regular guy sort of loves and hates, hopes and desires. That makes it all the more impressive and inspiring that Kaiji is able to not only survive and win, but to help along his friends and allies to victory as well.
Even most of the antagonists in Kaiji aren’t exactly villains. Kaiji meets both friends and enemies in the course of his gambles and struggles, including some who are enemies disguised as friends. But the one thing they almost all have in common is their instinct for self-preservation. Almost every character in Kaiji is, on some level, just trying to survive and make their own progress. When Kaiji’s allies in the Espoir arc stab him in the back, they don’t do it just to watch him suffer — Andou makes the point to Furuhata that if they abandon Kaiji, they can keep the money they’d otherwise need to use to save him, thus leaving the ship with some financial security. Kaiji shames them for their betrayal when he manages to escape by using his own wits, kneeing that asshole Andou in the gut in one of the most satisfying scenes in the show. But Andou’s logic is frightening, cold, and downright human. Why help your friend and merely survive when you can help yourself and thrive instead?
The same is true for the Teiai employees Kaiji battles. These characters are motivated at least in part out of a fear of losing everything they’ve gained. This is very obvious throughout Kaiji’s fight with Ichijou. The Bog is Ichijou’s ultimate creation: a pachinko machine so impossible to beat and yet so tempting to play that it earned its name by eating hundreds of men alive, wiping out their savings and even throwing them deep into debt. We learn that Ichijou was able to claw his way up from basically a janitorial position at Teiai’s casino to manager by coming up with clever new ways to get money out of their customers, all while leaving them with just enough hope of a big win to lure them back for more. This is exactly what the Bog does; it’s a legendary machine that keeps drawing gamblers in to their destruction.
When Kaiji sits down with his final matchup against the Bog on his last day of leave from the labor camp, Ichijou soon discovers that Kaiji has somehow broken the machine’s defenses and consequently loses his shit. Ichijou is about to end the battle and throw Kaiji out on the basis that he must have tampered with the machine, but then he gets a call from his boss, Hyoudou.
The old company president is watching Kaiji’s match and has even ordered that a TV be set up in the underground prison camp so that Kaiji’s allies can watch him. Of course, Hyoudou’s ultimate intention isn’t very nice — he seems to want to give these lowly debtor prisoners hope and see that hope crushed when Kaiji loses. Hyoudou also has a strange fascination with Kaiji, though, having seen his abilities up close in the first season during his battle against his lieutenant Tonegawa. He therefore commands that Ichijou let the match continue, reasoning that if he threw Kaiji out now, the crowd of other gamblers watching him challenge the Bog would think it unfair and lose their trust in Teiai.
However, the price for failure is massive. When Kaiji finally does manage to break the Bog so completely that all Ichijou’s cheats are useless, he gets a ball into the winning hole, capturing the jackpot and freeing himself and his friends. But someone has to be on the hook for losing all that money, and Ichijou ends up getting dragged down into the hellish labor camp by the very same guards who were there to bring Kaiji back.
Even Hyoudou’s most accomplished officers aren’t safe. The chief villain throughout most of the first season is Yukio Tonegawa, a stern, no-nonsense Teiai executive who’s recognized as the corporation’s number two. As Hyoudou’s right-hand man, Tonegawa is tasked with coming up with games to amuse the old sadist, exactly the kinds of high-stakes games that Kaiji and the other debtors are enrolled in. After Kaiji manages to cross the deadly steel beam — the only one out of ten players to survive — he’s denied his prize money on a technicality. However, he’s give the option to play another game to win potentially even more money, this time against Tonegawa himself. With Hyoudou as the chief spectator, Kaiji and Tonegawa play a high-stakes card game. Tonegawa plays as a representative of Hyoudou and thus places many millions of yen of Hyoudou’s money on the line. Kaiji, on the other hand, has nothing to offer as a sacrifice in the gamble but one of his body parts, and so he’s required to wear a special device that moves an electric drill into his ear every time he loses a round. Kaiji can bet millimeters of the drill in place of the money he lacks, but eventually if he loses enough, his eardrum will be pierced.
We’re initially made to believe that Tonegawa is completely in control of this situation. He boasts to Kaiji that his long experience in business and negotiation allows him to read other people like open books. Because of this, Tonegawa claims that he can easily beat Kaiji by observing his tells in the way an expert poker player might. However, Tonegawa is actually cheating — the device on Kaiji’s ear is designed to read his pulse, temperature, and blood pressure, and Tonegawa’s watch contains a disguised readout of Kaiji’s vitals. Once Kaiji realizes the setup, he understands that the only way to beat Tonegawa is to remove the device from his ear. But it’s locked in place, so Kaiji takes an extreme step: he goes to the bathroom in the middle of the game and smashes his head against the glass in the mirror, then cuts his ear off with a shard of glass, managing to maintain most of its vital sign readouts by giving his severed ear to an extremely terrified leftover contestant from an earlier game to hold. Kaiji is thus able to trick Tonegawa and beat him in the second-to-last round by holding a towel to his bleeding head, covering his missing ear, and also in the last round after his trick is discovered and a new device is placed on his other ear.
Hyoudou seems impressed by Kaiji’s ability, but he’s more annoyed with Tonegawa. Not so much for losing all that money, it seems — 20 million yen barely even counts as pocket change to Hyoudou — but for denying him the show of Kaiji having his brain pierced by a drill upon his loss. So Hyoudou forces Tonegawa to atone for his mistakes by kneeling and bowing to him. Well, that’s not so bad, right?
Except that Tonegawa has to kneel and bow on top of a giant hotplate, keeping his forehead pressed to the plate for at least ten seconds. This, according to Hyoudou, is the only way to show him true sincerity, aside from paying back what he lost, of course. Tonegawa manages to maintain his pride by successfully performing the torturous “roasting kneeling”, even if he ends up falling out of Hyoudou’s favor anyway in the second season. But Kaiji is horrified by this. What sort of man is this Hyoudou, to make people literally grill themselves for displeasing him?
Hyoudou is that one exception I brought up. Every other opponent that Kaiji faces throughout the series is either a fellow debtor to Teiai or an employee of Teiai. No matter how serious a threat they might seem to be, they are all under Hyoudou’s thumb and are all at risk of falling into disgrace or even into hell if they get on his bad side. Even Tonegawa, who presides over all the treacherous gambles and games Kaiji takes part in throughout most of the first season, and who seems so powerful, turns out to be a nobody in the face of Hyoudou’s madness. And that’s the most interesting aspect of this setup to me, because Hyoudou also seems to be under the power of his own madness.
Even if he does usually seem pretty sharp, Hyoudou is undoubtedly wrong in the head somehow. He manages to maintain his position as the actual head of Teiai while also carrying out the kind of decadent cruelties that would make the worst Roman emperors jealous. How he manages this, the show doesn’t really address. What it means, though, is that Kaiji is fighting against a corporation ruled by wealth and the influence it buys, but also partly by literal madness. Hyoudou maintains his power, but he also has a monstrous philosophy of life. He seems to have no friends; every single person surrounding him is expendable.
Kaiji, meanwhile, is only able to achieve what he does with the help of his friends and allies. His genius powers of problem-solving always require cooperation with someone else. This is most obvious in the second season, but even in the first, Kaiji is only able to make progress and get off the Espoir with the help of his allies, even if they do end up turning traitor. Even giving his severed ear to his fellow contestant allowed Kaiji to fool Tonegawa into trusting his faulty vital sign readouts. Kaiji succeeds by employing deception against his enemies, but he always treats his allies with honesty and good faith. And that honesty and good faith is finally paid back many times over at the end of the series when Kaiji and his friends are finally set free, crying tears of joy at their happy reunion as the fantastic first season OP theme plays.
If you’ve read this site for a while, you know that I have real problems finding positivity in life. Any work of art that pretends life is all sunshine and flowers and unicorns just doesn’t work for me, unless it’s meant to be one of those “healing” series or a straight up slice-of-life (and even those can be realistically dark sometimes.) However, I’ve also come to dislike works that are completely fatalistic about how shitty humanity and the world are.
Kaiji takes an approach that I can appreciate now far more than ever. It admits that life is hard, sometimes nearly unbearable, and that people tend to be weak in the face of life’s hardships and take the easy way out, even when that means betraying their friends and ideals. It also shows how people can overcome those hardships and weaknesses through perseverance and friendship. Yeah, life often sucks, but whether you give up and stop struggling or betray your core ideals is entirely up to you. That’s not a new idea, of course. But all the insane, over the top elements of Kaiji work in service of that message to deliver it effectively.
And that’s it for the first installment of this series. I hope it wasn’t too out there. I’ll be continuing it next time with a look at one of my favorite game series of all time, so look forward to that. In the meantime, I really suggest watching Kaiji, even if you feel like you may not be able to get past the weird art style. Just give it a shot — no loss if it doesn’t work for you, and if it does, you’ll be in for an excellent experience. Even though I just spoiled the whole damn show in this piece. Well, it’s more about the journey than the destination, right? You should still check it out.
1 Mr. Taniuchi hasn’t made a soundtrack or any other kind of work that I know of since his work on Kaiji because he’s sitting in a prison cell for marijuana use. It would be great if the authorities would free him, both because he’s an amazing talent and because it’s stupid in general to lock people up for using marijuana.
2 This isn’t meant as a put-down of Akagi at all. I used to consider it my favorite anime series ever, in fact, and it’s still on my list of favorite shows. It’s just a very different experience from Kaiji, despite all the surface similarities it shares (same writer and studio, similar art style, both are about gambling. And Akagi and Kaiji even have the same voice actor. Same with Hyoudou and Washizu, the chief villain of Akagi.) Anyway, definitely check out Akagi as well if you get the chance.