Monday, 16 May 2011

賭博黙示録カイジ / Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji / Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji

Of the many remarkable things about Kaiji, the most immediately noticeable is, without doubt, the character design, which looks more like some wacky French comic or even a Westerner’s parody of anime than like the vast majority of other productions around it, especially from Madhouse. Faces are elongated, eyes are simple and bold, noses are as striking as any from Fantastic Children and, most crucially of all, the lines of the art are comparatively very thick indeed, which more than anything else gives Kaiji its stylised look. Other elements are certainly remarkable too, from the excessive reactions and hysterics of the characters in moments of great despair, the near-fetishistic brutality of its scenarios and the trademark ‘zawa’ sound effect, so prominent in the manga that it was not merely imitated when making an anime, but spoken and even written in the onscreen space.

Kaiji is a gambling anime about the unfortunate titular character, who through no fault of his own ends up in huge debt. Gangsters offer him the chance to win the money he needs, but at great risk, with the stakes ever-increasing. Kaiji has to figure out tricks to help him win, as well as discovering whether or not his opponents are playing fair. As stakes rise and so do histrionics, Kaiji gleefully flings itself into extremely over-the-top situations, accentuated by a very melodramatic presentation, but that is part of its charm.

The first arc, centred on the game ‘restricted janken’, was really quite ingenious, with clever strategies and tricks, and Kaiji believably growing from naivety to canniness. After that, though, the situations became increasingly absurd and while memorable, really weren’t very well-suited to a gambling anime. Sadly, towards the end of the series, when card games returned, the strategies and tricks were extremely simplistic and Kaiji is tricked by simple things (and comes up with failing strategies) that really he should see are much too obvious. The mini-arc grows into satisfying bluffs, double-bluffs, triple-bluffs…but that’s really where it ought to have started, getting cleverer from there. While the show pleasingly ends without huge fanfares of triumph, there’s the feeling that this is really only because there’ll be another season (at least; there’s plenty more manga), giving little closure.

Memorable, iconic, entertainingly overblown and very enjoyable, I nonetheless feel Kaiji should’ve been more.

(originally written 14.6.09)

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