Rolling the Dice on Kaiji (01-02)

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If there's one bad thing I can say about Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji it's that it didn't cause me suddenly grow hair from my chest and give me urges to stand on my chair and utter primal screams.

On the flip side, it didn't send me fleeing into a corner, shaking and quivering and searching for Shiori pictures in order to replenish healthy moe levels. In fact, my first guys'-orientated show in quite a while was refreshing and quite enjoyable.

This is probably due to the fact that Kaiji isn't a "guys" show in the typical sense of the word, which conveys the image of shows with random action, filler, and over-9000 episodes length. Kaiji is more of a thinking show, a mind game; I'd liken it to Battle Royale, except instead of playing with physical lives, they are playing with figurative (yet still very real) lives.

It's not a mind-render in any case, being still mostly predictable, but one can derive a certain joy, perhaps in a slightly sadistic manner, by seeing the expert interaction, or, more likely, manipulation, of characters.

Even, or perhaps, especially, for one whose typical plate of character interactions consists of 'blush', 'stammer' and 'fall on floor in provocative position', the playing of characters like a fiddle in the free-for-all world of Kaiji is quite refreshing.

Still, Kaiji shouldn't be expected to leave a good first impression, at least during the first few minutes. Kanon 2002 can finally breathe easy that another show has come along to usurp the title of 'Faces Most Likely to Point an Eye Out', and the rest of the art of Kaiji is, to put it one way, ugly.

99% of this can be chalked up to the character design, from extremely thick faces to huge lips to noses the size of small third-world countries. There's not really a looker, or, surprisingly, even a pair of X-chromosomes in the bunch.

Yet, somehow, the art style almost fits with the show. Kaiji (the show) deals with a lot of bums down on their luck (like Kaiji, the guy) desperate for one last shot at life, and one wouldn't expect the crowd to be filled with handsome, good-looking people.

It's not like the characters are exaggerated ugly either, like a lot of 'not good looking' characters in other shows filled with bishonens and bishoujos. They're just kind of there, a little scruffy, a little beat-up, worn out mentally and physically. Their crude look matches a crude personality; none of these characters have been treated kindly by life, and as such they pass on the seeming disregard that the world has shown them.

The ways that the characters adapt to the situation, and the quite large amount of straight emotion that they show is a great strength of the show. Kaiji is a very plausible character who acts in a realistic if not stupid manner.

He acts like most people down on their luck in clinging on to any last shard of hope that is offered to him; whether it's the phony alliance with the Ten Million Yen Man, or going to hold tight to his last star in the Break Room of Despair, he's alternatingly a follower and depressive, showing both naive hope and an inability to hold strong under pressure.

Yet Kaiji doesn't have that air of 'loser' to him. Perhaps it's the 'anti-hero', delinquent personality built up in the first episode, but he feels like the kind of person who just got tossed a few bad breaks, that really could work their way out if they just tried.

Sure, he whines when he gets two stars conned out of him. But like a good male lead, he gets his resolve up to work out of the corner; with his back to the wall he finally unleashes the determined side of him. It's better than the usual near-flawless character that pwns everyone into the ground.

The game of Restricted Rock Paper Scissors is surprisingly intriguing as well. It's beauty lies in its simplicity and complexion at the same time. It's not a game that lies on luck, or even skill, but on sheer cunning.

It, more than any other game, is a game of wits, of out-smarting and conning your opponent. Analyzing what cards your opponent has or doesn't have, trying to think whether your opponent will counter the 'logical' move, or counter the counter, and just trying to talk your opponent into slipping up like Kaiji had happen to him, it's a deep game hidden beneath a shallow surface.

How much of this meta-game we'll see will be pivotal to the series, as I look forward to seeing Kaiji connive and master his way to the 5 stars his coalition needs to make it to round 2. Certainly if he can do it in a plausible way rather than deux ex-ing his way through the Power of The Paper-Scissors-Rock or whatever, or if the Mastermind Plot by the boss yakuza works its way in the situation, it could be a very intriguing cruise.

If the storytelling keeps up, this simple game, and even simple show,could turn out to be a captivating story of the sheer amount of nearly sadistic entertainment that ensues when a hundred desperate humans are let loose against each other in a direct battle for financial survival. I'm betting on it.