Deep reads #2.2: Nippon Ichi’s Netherworld Vacation

Today we return to the Disgaea retrospective series.  But didn’t I promise to start getting into specific games by now?  Why am I hanging around a hot springs instead like a lazy asshole, writing an entirely different kind of post?

It’s because I felt I should more deeply explore some of the gameplay elements that make the series so uniquely appealing to obsessive-compulsives like me, which involves looking into the many distracting extra features of Disgaea.  It also seems appropriate to explore these before getting more in-depth with the story and character elements and how they mesh with gameplay and game structure.  I encourage the reader to think of this as less of a delay and more of a bonus, anyway, since this is all extra material. But just like the extra material in the Disgaea games, it’s all good fun.  (Or, well, you’ll be the judge of that instead.  Both in terms of how much fun these games seem to you and how good or bad my writing is.  I hope you like way too many parentheticals containing stupid, rambling tangents.  But if you didn’t, I’m sure you’d have stopped reading this site a long time ago.)

The main hub of Laharl’s castle in Disgaea 1 Complete.

Once again, we start at the beginning with Disgaea 1, here represented in its remastered Disgaea 1 Complete PS4 version as before.  Even in its original form, the first Disgaea had more to offer than its story-based maps.  We’ve already briefly been over the potentially infinite Item World grind, which opens up to the player shortly after the game begins.  It’s not quite right to call the Item World optional, though; the game does require you to complete at least ten levels in one item to progress past a certain point.  This is simple to do, but it also acts as a hook to reel the player into more and more Item World adventures.

Flonne gets the MVP title with the killing blow on the very first Item King taken out.

This is the Item World in its most basic form of the series, but it still contains those essential elements that make it fun to play.  The size, enemy layout, and geography of these maps are pretty widely variable, sometimes defying gravity and logic, so you really don’t know what you’ll get next as you clear each one.

Occasionally you’ll see a map like this, but they are definitely the exception. I gave this poor lone mushroom demon a break and walked to the exit panel.

While this randomization makes the Item World more interesting and dynamic, I found the real addictive hook in the maps’ Geo Panel puzzles.  These are colored panels on the game board that can create various effects, both good and bad, on any unit standing on them depending upon the colored pyramid-shaped Geo Symbol controlling them.  On the story maps, these Geo Panels and Symbols are often set up specifically to give the player a challenge — for example, by making it impossible to enter a certain key area without running through a gauntlet of enemies, or by pumping up the enemies’ attack and defense in one area of the map.  In the Item World, by contrast, the Geo Panels and Symbols are placed randomly just like the enemies are.  This can make some maps very difficult to quickly complete through clearing out all the enemy units, especially if that damn Invincibility effect is active.

These effects and panels can also provide the player with fabulous prizes, however.  When a Geo Symbol is destroyed on a Geo Panel of a different color than the Symbol, it will set off a chain reaction, changing each Panel of that color to the destroyed Symbol’s color.  This reaction also destroys every other Symbol in the affected area, which causes the reaction to repeat in the color of each destroyed Symbol.  The mechanics of it can be a bit confusing depending upon the layout of the map, but setting off a long chain of reactions is worth it because it means your bonus gauge shoots up, getting you money, EXP, and potentially rare items if you clear the map.  I find it’s also extremely satisfying to score that massive reaction.  Maybe it’s all the changing colors and sounds and lights going off triggering something in that old lizard part of my brain, the way a slot machine works.

A geo chain reaction going off.

If none of the above Item World stuff interests you, though, it’s no problem: the game has more to offer, most of it waiting to be unlocked in the Dark Assembly.  Laharl might call himself the Overlord of the Netherworld, but his power isn’t absolute.  He still has to deal with this parliament of demons and monsters to do things like stock the stores with higher-quality items.  And if you want Laharl to invade Earth or take on any of the post-game bosses, you have to get the Dark Assembly’s approval by sponsoring a bill in the Assembly to put up to a vote.  The many post-game and extra maps that can be unlocked through the Dark Assembly give the player a reason to spend time powerleveling Laharl and company — the most powerful boss in the game sits at level 6,000.

Good luck passing this bill.  Just as in real life, it’s hard to get money out of legislators, especially when you have no real reason to do it other than wanting more money.

Sometimes the Assembly passes these bills easily, with little or no opposition.  However, bills that become available later in the game often meet with stiff resistance.  It costs mana to present a bill to the Assembly, mana that can typically only be gained through fighting and killing enemies, and if a bill is voted down that mana is lost (unless you cheat by doing a lot of saving and resetting, of course.)  So what’s to be done?  You can accept your defeat and give up — mana is easily recovered through combat, so it’s no big deal to lose a bit.  You can also present the bill again and try to butter up the senators by bribing them with items out of your inventory.  Or you can bend the Assembly to your will by beating them into submission in a battle upon the failure of the bill.  The Dark Assembly itself can therefore become a boss if the player really wants to make it one.

Every Disgaea has its own version of the Dark Assembly. Pictured here, the Strategy Assembly in Disgaea 5. You know you can bribe Sen. Corrupt without her raising any ethics complaints.

So Disgaea 1 is already pretty loaded up with content to distract you from the main story for a while.  However, later games in the series continued to pile more features on, eventually resulting 12 years later in the massive clusterfuck that is Disgaea 5.

Well, I just called Disgaea 5 a clusterfuck, but I meant that in an entirely positive way.  I really like the latest entry in the Disgaea series, but there’s no denying the fact that it has a lot of extra features crammed into it, enough to distract you from the main story so much you might damn near forget the game had a main story to begin with.

An optional surprise Item World boss that I am avoiding because like hell I can beat him at my level.

Firstly, there’s the Item World, back and full of extra features: insanely difficult optional boss fights, chances to level the item more quickly by destroying or lifting certain objects on the map before clearing it, and bonus rooms between Item World stages that offer all kinds of crazy shit for lack of a better term.  Even more optional boss fights, secret shops, hospitals, frustratingly difficult jumping puzzle mazes filled with treasure chests, a room full of cloned versions of your own units that you can fight, another room filled to the brim with enemy Prinnies, the hot springs pictured at the top of the page, and more.  And of course the same Geo Effect system that was introduced in Disgaea 1.  The Item World of Disgaea 5 is practically a separate game in itself.

Killia, the protagonist of Disgaea 5, after failing the jumping puzzle maze room in one of D5’s Item Worlds. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. Thankfully, there’s an exit back to the Item World proper down here.

A few of the Item World bonus rooms even offer the player a chance to gamble.  The hot springs room, for example, lets you soak in the springs, resulting in a number of either positive or negative outcomes leading into the next room: you might start with a full bonus gauge, or you might start with restored or drained HP and SP.  Far more potentially infuriating, however, is the fortune-telling room.  This is a wooden ship with a foxy lady fortune teller (this isn’t me just referencing Jimi Hendrix for no reason — she’s a literal fox woman, one of the Nine-Tails monster-type demons you can recruit) who can give you anything from a great fortune to a lousy fortune, affecting the level of the item accordingly.  So if you get the worst fortune, the item you’re working on can lose something like five levels, which may well be the number of levels you had to work up through to get to the fucking fortune teller in the first place.*  There’s nothing quite so infuriating, at least when you’re playing through the Item World.

It makes me mad enough to want to rob a bank, which is also something you can do in the Disgaea 5 Item World.

But the new Item World is only the beginning.  Disgaea 5 both carries over features from previous sequels to the original and adds its own.  Among those carried over are the request board, where you can take on jobs both easy and difficult for rewards of money, equipment, and items.

At least they’re honest about their dishonesty.

There’s also Chara World, a board game-style challenge playable by any single unit in your company that includes still more fabulous prizes and the opportunity for greater growth if the unit reaches the end goal in time.  And the research center, where you can send squads of your units to distant planets to plunder them, capture residents as POWs, and unlock yet more boss fights.  And when you get your POWs from these distant planets, what else should you do but interrogate them?  The game thoughtfully provides an Interrogation Room option to turn enemy demons over to your side through coercion.

No real surprise that demons don’t have their own Geneva Conventions to keep them in line.

There are several other features in the game to sidetrack you, to the point that the hub world of Disgaea 5 feels more like a casino than the wartime base of operations it actually is.  You and your demonic friends can put the war they’re fighting on hold for an eternity if you feel like it and go on a vacation of gambling, gaming, and rampaging.

And who are you taking along on your vacation?  Just about whoever you feel like.  Disgaea 1 was hardly lacking in units to recruit, but newer games added even more options.

The unit recruitment screen in Disgaea 3. The Archer unit is one of my favorites throughout the series. Sorry for robbing that bank earlier, Archer.

I usually get a lot of use out of the story character units in these games, since some of them are naturally the first you use in battle and have some good unique skills.  However, it’s a bit hard to get by just using them.  Far from impossible, certainly, but the games offer a wide variety of generic units ordered by class that can be recruited early on.  There are a whole lot of them, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, weapon proficiencies, growth stats, and special skills.  Each class also has up to five advanced unit types with higher starting stats and better proficiencies and resistances that unlock as you level the more basic units.  And the same is true of just about every monster unit you’ll encounter as an enemy — they can pretty much all be recruited as well, the only real differences being that they can only equip their own special sets of monster weapons and can’t pick up and throw other units.

Yes, this is a real attack skill you can use in a Disgaea game.  It still got a T rating, too.  Maybe the ESRB isn’t as uptight as I thought?

So you can pretty much throw together any composition of units you like.  If you want to put a sensibly balanced force into the field with tanky, close-combat units in the front and long-range attackers and mages in the back lines, you can do that.  If you want to raise a brigade exclusively made of ultra-powerful mages who can bomb the shit out of everything on the map before the enemies get within ten panels of them, you can do that.  If you want to give those mages swords, axes, and spears instead and command them to charge the enemy head on, the game won’t stop you from trying out such a foolish strategy.  And if you want to field an army made entirely of pole-dancing succubi like the one above — that might take a bit longer, but it’s potentially feasible, and I salute you if that’s your plan.

Again, Disgaea 5 takes all this one step further.  Not only can you recruit dozens upon dozens of humanoid and monster characters, but the game lets you choose from three different personalities for each, which come along with different voice samples during battle and unique responses when you talk to them while roaming around the central hub world.

This mage has us all figured out.

It could perhaps be argued that all these extra features and games-within-games are a bit too much content shoved into a single game, especially considering just how much they can distract from the main story missions.  There are a bunch of additional elements here I didn’t even bring up, not to mention all the extras also present in Disgaea 2, 3, and 4.  There are some Item World events that I’m sure I haven’t seen yet, and I know for a fact there are post-game bosses in some of the Disgaea titles that I’ve never even tried to take on.

I don’t see any of that as a problem, however.  How can I complain about extra content for the same price?  And it is extra, after all: aside from one required dive into the Item World and the completion of a couple of request board missions, it’s usually entirely optional.  You’re free to stick to the story maps using a basic setup of units and play the game straight through.  But the option to take an extended Netherworld vacation is always there waiting for you if you so desire.  Just try not to indulge too much when you do.

Oh, to have those good old days back.

***

Well, that was certainly a huge god damn mess, looking back at what I just wrote.  I wonder if anyone can follow it.  I’m not sure I can myself.  But maybe that’s appropriate considering the subject matter.  Maybe there’s no other way to describe the strange chaos of the world of Disgaea than to do so chaotically yourself.

I hope that absolves me of all the writing sins I committed above.  The next post in this series will be an in-depth look into one of the Disgaea games, and I actually mean it this time.  In the meantime, try not to get so hammered you have to sleep on the sidewalk, though if you feel the need to do that, I can’t blame you. 𒀭

 

* There’s a way to get those levels back almost instantly, but I don’t want to give it away.  See if you can find out for yourself.

Deep reads #1: Over the top, part 1 (Kaiji)

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.

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.

Our protagonist Kaiji Itou, a man who’s not afraid to cry when he feels angry or hurt.

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.

Asahi really isn’t that cheap, though.

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.

Not a face you’d want to see under any circumstances

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.

Honestly, I might consider doing this if it meant canceling my student loan debt

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.

Kaiji in the underground labor camp, planning his way out.

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.

Yes, there are about five hundred more shots of balls rolling around plates for several episodes on end

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.

Kaiji’s balls are larger than Ichijou’s, that’s canon

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.

This arc features a bunch of “hypothetical scenario” shots of a drill piercing an ear and showing the entire structure of the inner ear getting destroyed and spurting blood, which I’ll spare you here. It wasn’t easy to watch

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.

A Teiai flyer from the manga. You’d expect a weird billionaire who sets up human death sports to be more reclusive and secretive, but no, his face is right on their ads

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.

I don’t know if you really want me to get into how Restricted Rock Paper Scissors works, but it does involve a room full of naked men at some point

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.

Fun trivia fact: that painting in the background is based on a real portrait of King Francis I of France.  But was he as crazy as President Hyoudou?

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?

Time to beat the devil out of you then!

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.

It doesn’t go well

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.

Again, ideally not the boss you’d want to work for

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.

Tonegawa can read your thoughts. Or can he?

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?

Tonegawa facing the literal heat for his loss

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.

Is this how the most elite of the elite drink wine?

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.

Another lesson Kaiji teaches us: men can cry too.

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.

There are also some great out-of-context screenshots like this, so if you just like those you should watch Kaiji too. 𒀭

=

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.

Anime for people who hate anime: Akagi

a.k.a. Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness

log25

I’m going to approach this series a little differently. Instead of writing a normal review of the show, I’m going to take you through the first episode. Why? Why not? I do have a reason for doing this, but it might not be apparent until the end of this post.

The first episode opens with a minute of background. The setting is late 1950s Tokyo. Japan is finally over its post-war slump and is starting to grow again.

This is all explained by the narrator.  He talks constantly throughout the series, but he's not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you'll get used to him.

This is all explained by the narrator. He talks constantly throughout the series, but he’s not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you’ll get used to him.

The story begins in a smoky hole-in-the-wall mahjong parlor. Four players sit around a table. Big deal, so they’re playing some mahjong. Nothing strange about that.

But this game is different. One of the players, Nangou, is deep in debt to the mob. Three of the other players are Yakuza guys. One of them, a local mob boss, has had his mistress take out a life insurance policy on Nangou. You can see where this is going.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_02.39_[2014.05.18_11.30.25]

Since the Yakuza are nice guys, they let Nangou try to cut a path out of his debts by beating them in a mahjong match. Sadly for Nangou, it’s not going too well for him. He’s nearly out of points and is about to lose the game and his life. Nangou reaches into the wall of tiles to pull one, praying to anyone, even the Devil, to help him out of his predicament. At that very moment, the door to the parlor opens.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_04.33_[2014.05.18_11.23.27]

A kid (yeah, he is a kid, even if he doesn’t look like it) is at the door, seemingly looking for shelter from the driving rain outside. The Yakuza thugs try to throw him out, but Nangou tells them he called the kid to the parlor just in case he, you know, “went missing.” Of course, Nangou and this kid have never seen each other – Nangou just wants a break from the game to collect his nerves. Luckily for him, the kid plays along with his story.

After a few minutes, the game is back on. Nangou prepares to make a deal that he needs to complete to build his hand. However, he gets nervous, because that same tile is one that his main opponent (Ryuuzaki, the boss) might need to complete his hand. Nangou decides instead to deal a “safe” tile – a defensive rather than offensive move. After all, if he loses this hand, it’s quite literally all over for him.

He’s all set to make this defensive play when the boy sitting behind him speaks.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_06.20_[2014.05.18_12.28.26]

Nangou turns around and asks the kid what he’s talking about.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_06.39_[2014.05.18_11.25.53]

This kid admits to Nangou that he’s never played mahjong before, but that he could sense Nangou’s feeling of hopelessness. He tells Nangou that to survive, he’ll have to be aggressive – to take a risk. Nangou turns back to his hand and realizes that the kid is right. He returns to his original deal – and it passes! Nangou ends up completing his hand and winning on the next deal. His life – at least for now – is safe. (Incidentally, as the narrator explains, that “safe” tile deal would have completed a different player’s hand, meaning Nangou would have lost had he dealt it.)

The Yakuza guys, disappointed that they couldn’t finish Nangou off then and there, break again for a few minutes. In the meantime, Nangou questions this mysterious kid about his identity and what he’s doing hanging around a Yakuza mahjong parlor at midnight. The boy is 13 year-old Shigeru Akagi, but beyond that he says nothing. For the first time, Nangou notices something strange about Akagi: his clothes are covered in sand. He guesses (rightly, as we’ll soon learn) that Akagi came close to death that night.

How can Nangou tell? Because, as he explains to Akagi, he’s near death as well. Nangou then makes a request of Akagi.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_09.30_[2014.05.18_12.40.31]

Nangou can sense something great in Akagi, something that Nangou himself doesn’t possess. Despite never having played mahjong before, Akagi agrees to sit in for Nangou and gets a five-minute primer on the basics of mahjong.

And we get to learn along with him!

And we get to learn along with him!

When the game starts again, the Yakuza players have no idea what the hell is going on but they roll with it anyway, figuring that some kid will probably be even easier to beat in mahjong than Nangou. And they might be right.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_11.20_[2014.05.18_12.49.33]

Perhaps in a case of extreme beginner’s luck, Akagi’s very first hand is a monster: he has pairs of each dragon tile. A hand with three of each of these tiles (white, green and red, all on the left) is one of the biggest hands in the game – a dai san gen. It’s also one of the most difficult to get, because completing a dai san gen usually involves having to call someone else’s dragon tile when they deal it, and any hint of a dai san gen will cause the other players to act defensively and not deal dragons.

Still, Akagi will have to call those tiles to complete the hand. The first dragon is thrown out.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_11.38_[2014.05.18_12.55.54]

One by one, each of the other dragons are thrown out, and Akagi lets each one pass, completely wrecking his hand. Nangou starts cursing himself for letting this stupid kid take over his life-or-death mahjong game.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_12.08_[2014.05.18_11.32.31]

What the hell was Akagi thinking?

At that moment, there’s a knock on the door of the mahjong parlor. It’s a police officer. Turns out the police are looking for the survivor from a game of chicken that involved severe casualties.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_13.03_[2014.05.18_11.33.16]

Everyone in the room turns to Akagi, who says nothing. The Yakuza boss is duly impressed by Akagi’s guts and tells his henchman to shoo the policeman away. Akagi, however, knows that that’s not going down, because the cops followed him here on a lead and won’t let him go. So he decides to make a deal with Nangou.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_14.07_[2014.05.18_11.33.59]

Nangou is pretty miffed at this suggestion. This kid just let a monster hand get ruined and he wants me to help him? Nangou points out that Akagi needs something to offer him to make such a bold request. Akagi says he does have something to offer.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_14.30_[2014.05.18_11.35.13]

Suddenly Akagi’s hand has three of each dragon tile, where before it only had pairs. Akagi has a dai san gen one tile away from completion. At first, Nangou has no idea what the hell is going on, but then he realizes what Akagi has done: he used the Yakuza guys’ distraction in dealing with the policeman to covertly steal each of the dragon tiles he needed from the pond (the center of the table where players put their discarded tiles.) Now Akagi doesn’t have to call anyone’s tiles: he can win right away.

Not wanting to lose his shot at a huge win, Nangou agrees to provide Akagi with a cover story. A few seconds later, a detective barges into the room.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_15.47_[2014.05.18_11.35.35]

The detective pinpoints Akagi as the chicken survivor he’s looking for. Nangou, however, springs to action and covers for Akagi.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_16.03_[2014.05.18_13.24.24]

He claims Akagi has been in the parlor all night. Ryuuzaki and the other gangsters go along with Nangou’s story because they want the police to leave.

The detective isn’t buying this story, so he decides to hang around for a while. The Yakuza dudes at this point are distracted and pissed off that they couldn’t get rid of the cops, so Akagi reminds them that they’re in the middle of a round of mahjong and that they should get back to playing.

Still caught in a daze, they turn back to their game, and one of them immediately deals into Akagi’s dai san gen. Only too late do they notice that the pond is missing a few tiles.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_18.06_[2014.05.18_11.37.05]

Ryuuzaki and his buddies would love to beat the shit out of Akagi right now, but they can’t – because the cops are in the room with them. As it happened, Akagi planned on this as well. So Ryuuzaki gives Akagi the dai san gen and lets him off with a warning.

Could be worse.

Could be worse.

The gangsters, now thoroughly pissed off, take yet another break and go into a back room. One suggests they call in their “rep player” – a guy whose sole job is to win mahjong matches for the mob. Ryuuzaki is offended by this suggestion.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_19.39_[2014.05.18_13.38.47]

The boss says he can’t call in their rep player just to take care of some amateur punk kid. All Akagi did was pull off a massive cheat – he won’t be able to do it a second time. They’ll defeat Akagi and kill Nangou without the rep player’s help. They all return to the game, with the detective watching. Sadly for the Yakuza guys, they don’t realize just how much Akagi can do.

[Triad]_Akagi_-_01.avi_snapshot_21.10_[2014.05.18_13.43.33]

Will Akagi continue to win? Will Nangou survive the night? How will Akagi deal with the detective on his trail? If you want to find out, watch the second episode! It’s all on Youtube, and I’m sure you can also torrent it if you wish, as Akagi has never been licensed in the US.

If the art style and the subject matter of Mahjong Legend Akagi seem familiar, that’s no coincidence: it’s another Nobuyuki Fukumoto work. Akagi isn’t much like Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, though, and that’s because of the differences in their respective title characters. Kaiji Itou, the protagonist of Kaiji, experiences fear. He often panics when in a dire situation before realizing exactly how to escape it. Perhaps most importantly, Kaiji makes mistakes. He’s a genius, but a very human one.

All of these things make Kaiji much more relatable than Akagi, who is less a human than a force of nature that destroys everything in its way. Unlike Kaiji, Akagi has no doubts about his abilities and no compunction about using those abilities to completely destroy his opponents. Really, the only thing that makes Akagi not a villain is the fact that his opponents are all gangsters and thugs or other gamblers working for criminal organizations. Except for his final opponent – but I can’t tell you who that is. Just watch the show! I’m not one to claim I have “favorite _____s” usually (I can’t say I have a favorite album, for example, because I love a lot of music) but I can make an exception here: Akagi is my favorite anime series. Not a second of the show is wasted. There’s absolutely no filler, no scenes simply for their own sake – everything moves along the plot or establishes character. And Akagi has plenty of great surprises in store for you if you decide to watch.

Note on the mahjong terminology: If you’re scared off by all the crazy jargon, don’t worry: that’s completely normal. The story does a pretty good job of explaining the whats and whys of everything that’s going on, so don’t worry if you don’t know what a “tan yao pin fu dora dora” is. For this purpose, I recommend getting the Triad subs if you decide to go for a torrent: the notes at the top of the screen explain a lot of the terms that often crop up throughout the series.

Anime for people who hate anime: Kaiji

Time to scare off most of the people who came to this blog looking for travel posts! Yes, I am an extremely depressing nerd. Sorry, everyone. Anyway, this group of posts is going to cover anime series that I’ve enjoyed and that you can also enjoy without feeling embarrassed or hating yourself – I don’t care who you are.

It’s true that watching anime has a kind of stigma attached to it. Most of my friends don’t know I watch any anime at all – they think it’s all either cutesy stuff for little girls, unlimited perversity, or glowy superhuman guys throwing energy balls at each other. And a lot of it is. But some of it isn’t! Animation is just a medium, after all: the creator can fill that medium with whatever he wishes, and some have filled it with interesting characters and compelling stories.

As a side note, I’m not going to stop writing travel posts, so if you come here just for that then, you know, please don’t unbookmark me or anything. This isn’t going to become an anime review site, either – I know people with way more knowledge about this stuff than I have, so if you’re looking for “a series like _____ but with more mechs” I’m not the one to ask about that. Thanks!

Anyway, on to the subject of this post:

Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji

kaiji2-17

Kaiji is the story of the title character, a young man without much in the way of motivation or marketable skills who is up to his eyeballs in debt because of bad decisions. As he mulls over his fate, he’s invited to join a mysterious event by a mob-connected loan shark. This just happens to be a gambling event taking place on a totally isolated cruise ship against other debtors. Said loan shark tells Kaiji that if he only joins this game, he’ll have a shot at clearing his debts if he’s among the winners. If he loses… well, let’s not think about what might happen if he loses. Despite his misgivings, Kaiji takes up the offer and shows up at the dock where the ship is about to depart. What Kaiji doesn’t realize is that he’s about to enter a world of insane gambles and deception where he have to will risk his health and even his life.

gyakkyo-burai-kaiji-hakairoku-hen_1

A little background on this series: Kaiji was created by Nobuyuki Fukumoto (aka FKMT), a Japanese comic artist and writer famous for his gambling comic series. But Fukumoto’s works aren’t just about gambling: they’re really about power, skill and the meaning of life. Kaiji’s real search throughout the series is for a sense of purpose. A lot of the gambles he’s forced to take part in to clear his debts involve defeating someone else and destroying his chances to succeed for Kaiji to succeed himself. Despite this, Kaiji always manages to maintain his humanity and does his best to help his fellow debtors, even when the people running the gambles (a large, extremely shady corporation called Teiai) impose rules that seem to demand the winners sacrifice the losers.

Kaiji might look depressing, and it is.  It really is.

Kaiji might look depressing, and it is. It really is.

But Kaiji is also uplifting. Under normal circumstances, Kaiji is a loser who can’t achieve much of anything at all. But when he’s pushed to his limits and exposed to great danger, he seems to unlock a hidden genius within himself that allows him to escape, to survive and to succeed where others have failed. Kaiji will have to rely on this ability, one that he doesn’t even seem to realize he possesses, to defeat his creditors. Kaiji is all about building up tension to the point where you can’t believe he’ll be able to get out of his predicament, before he finds a way – an extreme and unpredictable way – to come out on top.

1386966655577

Throughout the series, Kaiji runs into other characters, some allied to his cause and others standing against his efforts. A lot of these characters have their own interesting backstories. The “bad guys” have their own clear motivations that usually aren’t any worse than Kaiji’s. They’re simply looking out for their own interests, which happen to run directly counter to his. Even the head of Teiai, an old billionaire, is a little sympathetic despite being without a doubt the most black-and-white evil character on the show, because he’s also clearly fucking crazy.

If I ever get old and rich, I'm going to drink extremely expensive wine out of a bowl like a dog.

If I ever get old and rich, I’m going to drink extremely expensive wine out of a bowl like a dog.

So hey! If the above image didn’t convince you to go and watch Kaiji right now, I don’t know what will. The series is currently two seasons in, and the comic is much further along, though Fukumoto hasn’t finished the story. Even so, the end of the second season does have a sense of finality to it, so don’t be afraid to dive in right away. As far as I know, Kaiji hasn’t been licensed in the States so you can easily find scanned/fan-translated version of the comic and torrents and Youtube links with subtitles of the anime series. Kaiji is well worth watching if you enjoy stories about gambling. It’s also worth watching if you just enjoy good, compelling stories with a lot of truly effective suspense to them.

It also features the most detailed beer can in animation history.

It also features the most detailed beer can in animation history.