Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

 

Related: Kaiji: Against All Rules (sequel – included in review)

Similar: Akagi

One Outs

No Game No Life

Death Note

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Gambling Sports Psychological Thriller

Length: 26 episodes (season 1), 26 episodes (season 2)

 

Positives:

  • Intense gambling psychology.
  • Brutal challenges.
  • Clever strategies.
  • Great protagonist to cheer for while yelling at his naïveté.

Negatives:

  • Drags at times.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Akagi is one of my favourite hidden gems of anime, regardless of its flaws, so when going into Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor by the same creator, my expectations were high. And Kaiji delivers.

It follows Kaiji, a bum with no responsibilities in life and gambling as his only talent. His life goes to hell one day when a debt collector called Endou turns up at his door to collect on a loan Kaiji co-signed with a friend. This friend scarpered, so the repayment of 300,000 yen falls on Kaiji’s shoulders. Except, the debt now stands at 3,850,000 yen due to compound interest – the Yakuza are unfair like that. With not a yen to Kaiji’s name, Endou offers an alternative: play a game on our boat, win and clear your debt. Who knows, he may even leave with extra in his pocket. Tempted by Endou’s masterful baiting, Kaiji accepts.

The game isn’t a standard tournament of poker, blackjack, or mahjong, as one would expect. No, it’s rock-paper-scissors.

What?

You heard me. The twist is that players have limited uses of each symbol, meaning there are limited wins on the table. Each win allows a player to take a star from the opponent. To survive the night, a player must have at least three stars (they start with three), but also use up all their symbols. To complicate matters further, beforehand each player could borrow 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 yen at a rate of 1.5% per ten minutes in a four-hour tournament. All must be repaid before leaving the boat. Win an excess to the debt and you keep the difference. Players can sell extra stars at the end for exorbitant amounts of money. Why are the stars so valuable? Well, finish with less than three stars and you become a slave until the tournament next year.

The premise had me hooked. It reminds me of a gambling version of the Zero Escape game series (Virtue’s Last Reward is the best visual novel ever made). At first, Kaiji feels like every underdog gambling setup: bum guy forced to clear a friend’s debt. But no, Kaiji spirals into crazy territory only anime would attempt.

The games takes unexpected turns, even in something as simple as RPS. I get the impression the writer thought of the obvious first, discarded it, and said, “I don’t print until I find something better.”

Kaiji’s strength (and where it outshines Akagi) lies in the conflict between characters. The gambling is a mere device to bring the psyche of each contestant to bear. This is a depraved underworld where the rich put on these sick and twisted games for entertainment. With each subsequent game – for there are several throughout the series – the entertainment grows more and more twisted.

The central theme is trust and betrayal. Kaiji must survive in a world where people will do anything for survival, or worse, greed. He starts as a naïve, gullible fool. Several times, I found myself yelling, “Of course it’s a trick, you fool! How could you fall for that?” Unlike other shows, however, where a character (usually the villain) falls for a trick because the writer said so, Kaiji sells us on the decision first.

Kaiji himself elevates this anime above most other artworks of this nature, such as Danganronpa. He has complexity. He doesn’t simply cheat everyone nor does he go full goody-two-shoes. He struggles against his conscience between the requirements to win and the cost on his soul.

If I had to level a complaint, it would be the pacing. It drags at times. One scene of characters being indecisive with a single decision shouldn’t take an episode, let alone a few. There is also enough to be had within the first season; the second is more of the same but in different games. Then again, if you enjoyed the first, you’ll find it easy to keep going.

Kaiji is one hell of a tense ride.

Art – Medium

Kaiji sports the same art style as Akagi, and as with the latter, it’s either hit or miss with the audience. I like its eccentricity. It’s a notch above Akagi on a technical level.

Sound – High

The acting couldn’t have more tension if the actors tried, accentuated by equally tense music. The intense sports-like narrator is perfect.

Story – High

A debt-riddled bum agrees to risk it all in a chance at clearing his debts. The games are strange, the rules insane, and the tension high. A little long in parts.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. If you liked Akagi, you will like Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor. Outside the art, the tension is most likely to put people off. Yes, it’s so intense it may stress you too much.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

StrategicStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

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