It's been quite some time since I've been this hooked on anime series.
The spiritual successor to the ridiculously manly (and equally pointy nosed) mahjong suspense series Akagi, Kaiji returns to the bleak underworld of high-stakes yakuza gambles.
The story takes place in late 90s Japan during the recession and follows a dude by the name of Kaiji who seems to follow a never-ending cycle of unemployment, gambling and cheap pranks. One day, he's visited by a man named Endou who intends on collecting Kaiji's outstanding debt, giving him the option of spending the next ten years working low paying jobs to pay it off, or the unique opportunity of boarding a ship called the Espoir where he and others will gamble for the chance to clear their debt and start anew. Obviously, he chooses the latter, because 26 episodes of watching Kaiji clean windows probably wouldn't make for a very entertaining series. (OR WOULD IT?!)
Whereas Akagi starred a confident, natural genius who'd always seem to pull through with incredible strategies, no matter how dire the situation, Kaiji differs dramatically in that he's really quite an average Joe when all is said and done. Mistakes and misfortune aren't uncommon, and often, the series dives into deep psychological analysis of Kaiji and the other characters, which quickly becomes the most crucial aspect of the entire series as mind games abound in gambles of life and death. He often experiences feelings of doubt, temptation, bewilderment and wild philosophical swings that transform his character dramatically throughout the series, leading to some seriously surprising twists and circumstances.
And Kaiji is full of twists, too. Seldom was I able to successfully predict the outcome of any of the situations Kaiji or his few compansions find themselves in, and more often than not, I was quite shocked with how how things turned out. Cunning, ingenuity, deception and desperation carve the way for some of the most exciting, brilliant, disturbing and all around memorable moments in recent anime memory.
Perhaps most memorable, for me, was just how differently each character behaved, thought, and ultimately viewed the world around them. While Akagi certainly touched on these themes, they really lay at the core of Kaiji, exploring the raw humanity of those in positions of extreme desperation, the rich and powerful elite, and everyone in between along the way. With that having been said, Kaiji never becomes too preachy, never claims one character's philosophical perspective to be correct and, indeed, manages to show the highs and lows of nearly every major character in the process.
The gambles themselves are another matter entirely.
A strategic rock, paper, scissors card game may not sound very exciting on the outside, but things quickly gets crazy, and the penalty for losing is intentionally kept ambiguous, with only the odd whispering of rumor about being sent to foreign countries for manual slave labor or being used as a guinea pig for experimental drugs to strike fear into the contestants.
I won't spoil anything by mentioning the other gambles, but let's just say that the stakes are very, very high.
It's definitely not a series for everyone, though. Although I was hooked by the first episode, I must say that I was pretty surprised by how depressing this series can get. Whereas hopelessness almost always leads to a miraculous outcome in most stories, Kaiji doesn't always play by the rules and hopelessness can easily dig itself deeper and deeper. The worst of man's emotions and behavior strike at the worst possible times, and... and well, you'll just have to watch and see, NOW WON'T YOU? Just be sure to have something a little more cheerful to watch afterward.
I should also note that this is one of the first subbed anime I've watched in a while. At first, I was disappointed and irritated to discover that, even as an mkv file, the subs were hard encoded in, leaving me without the option of disabling them and unwilling to seek out raws which would take who knows how long to download.
Now, I know that the overwhelming popular opinion around RevTK and AJATT Land is that subtitled material is basically the Antichrist, but I simply don't buy that. Indeed, watching anything in its original language without aid is the best way to learn language naturally, but if you're stuck with subbed material, it's far from the end of the world and you can soak up plenty of useful information without disrupting the delicate balance of bla bla bla. The amount of vocabulary I picked up from these subbed episodes was quite surprising, and probably would have amounted to an otherwise frustrating experience had I seen this series raw. Don't believe the hype, folks. With that having been said, I'd still recommend raw material over subbed, nine out of ten times.