Comparing Kakegurui to Kaiji is completely pointless. Which is why I am going to very briefly explain exactly why the two series are not comparable, and then move on to discussing what is enjoyable about Kakegurui. They are both series about gambling, for sure, and both rely on underdogs using smart tricks to try and beat villains at their own rigged games. There’s the same conflation of decadence, inhumanity, and violence – and Kakegurui adds sex. So much sex. Violence is sexy. Gambling is violent. Look at the sexy people risking their lives and fortunes in these glamorous death-games. And right there in two things we reach the reason why comparing the series is fruitless; Kaiji is unsexy, and Kaiji loses. A lot.
Interrogating that second point is going to lead into the more interesting discussion of what merit I can find in Kakegurui outside of the trashy aesthetics and cheap thrills. The first point can be handled very briefly. Kaiji is a series which is aesthetically almost completely repulsive, in comparison to a lot of anime. This is a careful stylistic choice that accurately reflects the manga it is based on and which gives it a memorable look, but this is not a series that is pretty, or about pretty people. It is about – to be blunt – the lowest of the low in all aspects. The downtrodden, desperate debtors and the monstrous exploitative class. They do not look pretty. The villains of Kaiji are all grotesque caricatures of businessmen and mafiosos, corpulent black-suited old men who sneer and loom over the working-class as they entrap them in debt and torture them. Poverty is ugly. Wealth is repulsive. Gambling brings the two together, and ends with the vile oppressing the downbeat for entertainment. Because the world presented is so repulsive and offputting, there is no glamour in Kaiji’s exploits. It feels more fatalistic, more furtive and indeed higher-stakes. Ordinary people are unglamorous by definition, and the sorts of people who would pick on them for sport are monstrous. What does Kakegurui offer instead? A woman who gets sexual excitement from playing Russian Roulette.
The moment you populate your world of high-stakes death games with sexy, glamorous people – or indeed the moment you write fiction where being rich and sadistic is associated with being beautiful – you are associating those things with something positive. Being one of the exploiting class is suddenly desirable, rather than repulsive. Even though the characters are just as monstrous in their behaviour, just as sadistic (the student council president’s putting out the eye of a debtor comparable to Kaiji’s losing his fingers, or the underling burned on a hot plate), they sure as hell look good doing it.
This dovetails nicely firstly into the even more massive gulf between the two series, and then secondly into what I actually find enjoyable about Kakegurui. I said in my introduction Kaiji loses a lot. This is unbelievably true. Even when he scores some small moral victory against the unaccountable syndicate that torment him and others, he still comes out of it broke or in debt. Capitalism – and let us not be coy here, Kaiji’s villain is capitalism – wins over morality any day when it is backed with money and force. Watching the series is almost an act of self-loathing, because you watch to see what scheme Kaiji can muster to try and outsmart his enemies, but also to see where it will inevitably fail.
By contrast, Yumeko, Kakegurui’s sexy heroine, wins (mostly). Even when she loses it is quickly turned to her advantage. The unaccountable, monstrous capitalist forces are shown to be fallible and beatable by someone of their own class. Someone rich and sexy can walk into a community of rich, sexy and cruel people and destroy them with their own failings. Immediately there is no anger, no moral. It is barely even on any useful level a Robin Hood story, or a heist. It is a series squarely rejecting complex issues to present the sport of monsters for entertainment. The mind-games and gambles in Kaiji are only a small part of the thrill of it; you do not watch it for very long expecting it to be about someone winning, but about someone not losing. Victory is not dying, not being mutilated. Wealth is a preoccupation, but you rapidly realise an impossible dream. Not dying in the pursuit of wealth clawed from a cruel wealthy class. I said capitalism was the enemy.
So let’s stop talking about Kaiji now we have firmly explained how Kakegurui is either missing its point entirely or – more likely – not even trying to emulate it. That is very important. Not all things that are superficially similar are usefully intertextual. I have discussed the differences between the series not specifically to say one is better (although I overall think there is much more of merit in Kaiji) but to make it quite clear that they are taking a superficial similarity in vastly different directions. Let’s instead talk about why I haven’t been able to resist watching Kakegurui, because it isn’t just the sex appeal and mind-games. It is a purely exploitative series where the risk of danger is just distant enough to seem real (in that it happens to other people who aren’t the main character) but simultaneously distant enough to be its own perverse titillation. It keeps repeating the idea that eventually one can become sadistic enough to conflate sex and violence and turn it into a game. And, into this world of utter grotesques (with great bodies and short skirts, rather than liver-spots, bulbous noses and bad facial hair) it introduces a far deadlier devil in Yumeko. She is all smiles, sweetly taking apart all the gurning, writhing, salivating caricatures of evil with a brand of calm nobility.
I love this sort of story, of the sweetly smiling devil entering the depraved society and taking it down. I love Needful Things, The Masque of the Red Death, The Master and Margarita all. And comparing Kakegurui to any of those would be grossly inaccurate, because it’s nowhere nears as good, interesting or scathing. Yet it’s the same story, really; someone sweet and unassuming uses the tricks of the depraved against them. And I love that story, it’s plain and simple catharsis. So using it as the basis of a crass, exploitative horror story is going to be something I’ll forgive a lot of ills. And this is a horror story – any story about a society where a hyperactive toy-factory heiress collects the fingernails of her victims, where people gamble on games of chance with their whole lives and futures on the line is innately horrible. But it’s the sort of exploitative, grand-guignol horror that is pure entertainment, a safely distant risk where the thrill is not will she survive but how will she humiliate these awful, awful people? Without the grotesqueness – or, indeed, the conflation of glamour, monstrosity and excitement that it offers by focusing on the desirable side of decadence – it would not be compelling.
I’ve written a lot of words here about what it is I like about Kakegurui. I maintain any deeper meaning, any interpretation to be drawn from it is probably accidental and indeed wholly perpendicular to its main points of appeal. It should not, really, be examined too deeply. But if you are the sort of person who can find enjoyment in ultimately gross, perverse horror of privilege, in spectacle and carnival of blood, and enjoy the catharsis of the sweetly smiling evil outsmarting lurid villains, it is probably worth a watch.