Genres: Game, Psychological, Thriller, Seinen;
Episodes: 26 + 26 (split into two seasons);
Personal Rating: 7/10
Whenever you think of animated Thrillers, some titles instantly come to mind. Titles such as Monster, Higurashi and Elfen Lied, for instance. Here we have a show that might not be as popular as the ones I stated above, but it’s definitely as good. Indeed, Kaiji is a Psychological-Thriller adapted by Madhouse in 2007, with the second season airing four years later. The source material is divided into three parts, with the first and second having been adapted. I’m going to go indepth as to why I think Kaiji is a very overlooked anime, and why you should watch it.
The Story (7,5/10):
The show features Kaiji, a man who lives alone and has no job. Since he is miserable, he often steals car emblems and slashes tires for no apparent reason, maybe to make others feel as bad as he does. However, one day, a visitor comes and tells Kaiji he has a new debt: one of over 3 million yen. It seems Kaiji had inherited this debt from his work-mate, who has since disappeared. The original loan was low, but because of interests building up, it eventually reached the high value. Since Kaiji has no way of paying this absurd loan, he is invited to participate in a game, which would take place one month after in a boat with several other indebted men. Eventually Kaiji agrees to this, and decides to participate. When he enters Espoir, the boat he was invited to, Kaiji learns that the game they will be playing is none other than Rock-Papers-Scissors… but not your everyday game: this is a survival game. A player is given three stars and twelve cards, four of each (Rocks, Papers and Scissors). The players have four hours to play the game using the cards, and earn or lose stars. If a player uses all his twelve cards and has three or more stars, that player is considered a “winner”, and will receive a large sum of money. However, if the players has less than three stars and no cards left, he is considered a “loser”, and gets locked up in the side-room. Men who lose this game are forced into harsh labor, random experiments and other tortures. The story about Trust and Friendship begins with a man approaching Kaiji…
So, the story looks very promising, and it gets even better. What sells this show is the development the main character, Kaiji, gets throughout each game he plays. He learns that trust and friendship should never be taken for granted, often the hard way. This is not the only gambling anime there is, so you might think you’ve probably seen something similar to Kaiji, but that’s not likely, as this show is very particular in the way that the story develops. Since it’s marketed as a Seinen, Kaiji (the character) doesn’t always win the games, and even if he does, most times there is a catch to go along with the victory, something he despises. Many times the plot becomes predictable, and the story is actually pretty short, but the developers really dragged on with the explainations, some scenes, and even some character reactions. They made every possible attempt to stop the story from progressing. However, it actually works very well, as some of those explanations are vital in understanding Kaiji’s logic when doing a move, aswell as his opponents. It might seem boring at first, but it’s not quite as boring as, let’s say, a Slice-Of-Life can be, because there’s always something crazy happening right after an explaination. It’s a Thriller afterall. Looking at the good premise and seemingly good story development, the story gets a 7,5/10.
The Art/Animation (5/10):
Unfortunately, the artwork isn’t the best. Kaiji was first released in 2007, so it was fair to expect an improvement over something like Monster when it comes to the designs and backgrounds, but there is none. While this is true, the artwork does fit the kind of anime that is Kaiji, because, at the end of the day, it’s a very dark show, and deals with very mature themes. The animation isn’t the best either, but it’s not bad. There actually are moments where an improvement can be seen, but those won’t last for more than three seconds. One thing to note is the amazing reactions the characters have throughout the show. It might turn some people off from the show, but once/if you get used to them, you’ll see the amazing detail they have, and hopefully get a laugh or two.
The character designs have huge noses, and I guess they’re… actually normal for the most part. The jackets that the characters use are cool, and most characters don’t have crazy hairstyles. In fact, almost all of them use short hair. This is good, because for an anime with the level of realism that Kaiji has, such hairstyles would be unfitting, and ultimately ruin the designs. Having said that, there’s not much more to say about this part regarding Kaiji as an anime. As fitting as it is, the art deserves no more than a 5/10.
The Sound (8/10):
While some Thrillers lack the good soundtracks that would have made them even better, like Monster, Kaiji has an incredible OST all around. There is a huge variety of them too, starting with emotional soundtracks, dramatic ones, and, of course, action ones. Each time Kaiji makes a move, silence is all we hear, and 2 seconds after it, an epic soundtrack starts playing. The sound director must be applauded, as many times having the right soundtracks doesn’t mean they are used right, but he did it. The sound effects are good, but not really relevant, since most of the time you’ll be either listening to the characters talking (and there’s alot of talking in this show), or just hearing the amazing soundtracks it has to offer.
Speaking of which, the voice actors did a good job for the most part, though some of them has problems. Kaiji’s voice actor, Hagiwara Masato, did a very good job at voicing him, he expressed his emotions perfectly, especially his despair. Since Kaiji is the only character that sticks around for the entire duration of the anime, you’d better get used to his voice. Overall, the voice acting is good. But what’s even better are the OP themes. The first one is very short, but amazing. The lyrics really describe Kaiji perfectly, and it sets up the mood for each episode. The second opening isn’t as good, but it still fits the show. I was disappointed when the opening was changed, of course, but the first one is heard again at the end of the second season, and that was a genius move. All in all, the soundtracks are great, OP themes too, so the Sound gets a well-deserved 8/10.
The Characters (6,5/10):
Easily Kaiji’s biggest problem, the characters are, most of the time, wasted. Kaiji is the protagonist, a man who has no self confidence at first, and lives miserably stealing from others. However, he is a real man at heart, he fights for his friends even if they spit on him countless times, and when he’s taken down, he rises up from the ashes. He’s also extremely humane and relatable to a certain point. A very good lead for the show. However, the compliments end here. The rest of the character cast is just some characters that stick around for maybe six or seven episodes, and then either die or disappear, never to be seen again. The show also doesn’t develop any other character than Kaiji, with some rare exceptions. One of those rare exceptions is Yukio Tonegawa, the vice-president and second in command of the company that’s running all of these games. He is also the antagonist of the first season. The antagonists are the save grace of the show’s side-character cast, as they’re usually developed, and made to be completely insane. Especially when their lives is on the line, along with Kaiji’s.
The character interactions, however, are what really sets this anime apart from others with such bad casts. Watching Kaiji play against other characters or forming teams with them develops the trust and bonds between them. Kaiji will learn that people are greedy and not to be trusted, as about 95% of the characters that apporach Kaiji have bad intentions, even if they don’t look that way at first. He will experience all kinds of emotions with the friends he makes throughout the contests, and eventually learn who’s really on his side, as some “friends” only stick around because they have something to gain from it. So, Kaiji and the antagonists being so good makes the show’s cast alot better, but it’s unfortunate that, because of the bad side-cast, the overall rating for the characters is 6,5/10.
The Entretainment Value (8,5/10):
When judging something subjectively, the entretainment value is easily the part what has the most weight in the final score. Kaiji has never-ending thrills with a great protagonist and story to go with it, and never becomes really boring, unless someone depises the way the story is dragged sometimes. It’s memorable, impactful (as long as you don’t expect some of the twists of the story) and very emotional-engaging. The bad side-cast doesn’t really impact the entretainment the anime delivers, as Kaiji is definitely not a character-driven story, but overall, it really comes down to whether you like Kaiji as a character or not, since he’s the only character that gets developed, especially in the early parts of the show. As it provided an unmatched level of entretainment for me, a fitting score would be 8,5/10.
Kaiji had its ups and downs. It’s a Thriller that has some similarities to Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures, with the insane reactions and poses, and at the same time, manages to be extremely realistic and engaging. With a good plot, decent characters, and great entretainment value, it’s one of those shows that you must watch if you’re into the genre and the artwork doesn’t turn you off. Kaiji could be compared to a rollercoaster, a very emotional one at times, an exciting one at others. With everything I have stated considered, Kaiji gets a final rating of 7,5/10, a really great show with a couple of problems that sometimes weight it down, but never stop the great protagonist Kaiji from doing what he’s better at: entretaining the audience!
Thanks for reading!