Karamiatte, ubaiatte, damashiatte, sarashiatte, motomeatte, kuruiatte!

From the beginning I thought this final verse of the ED for S1 of this anime put it best. How better could I describe this show? Engrossing but disgusting? Entrancing but repulsive? Human but serpentine? Exciting but nauseating? Beautiful but hideous? I enjoyed it. It was a great ride. But at times, I felt as though I was compelled to watch it. Ah, there it is! This show is premised on “compulsion,” isn’t it?

Gambling is a dangerous path to follow. This show does a really good job highlighting some of the worst kinds of human behavior that result from following this path, and doing it in an entertaining way! Once again, an anime does a magnificent job of portraying something very human in its own very non-human way. For all the ugliness I could ascribe to this show, that is its great achievement, and for that I pronounce it marvelous.

Let the games begin!

Mature content included. Be advised.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 8

I would rate the characters higher but for one reason. There’s no way to develop them very much. This is both a positive and a negative for this show.

The negative is that we will only learn so much about the characters, and therefore lose some of that ability to connect with them. Although, that’s not saying much, since none of us really know anybody remotely like these people. They’re the widest array of nutjobs you’ll probably every find in anime! So perhaps that’s not such a loss for this series.

The positive is…we’re left not knowing a ton about each character. Isn’t that the same as the negative, you say? How can that be a positive? For one thing, the writers handle this well. We know pretty much all we need to know about each character upon their introduction. The only real exception to this is Batsubami’s character in S2, whose role is evolved from her introduction to her final revelation. That leads me to the second reason this is a positive. There’s an aura of mystery around every character. We don’t know who these people are, how they got here, how they became their weird selves, or how the world they find themselves in evolved. It adds a lot of low-level mystique to the show.

Did I mention they’re all kinds of crazy? Yumeko is at the center of everything of course. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s part of some crime-class clan of a family thing. She conveniently is aware of her surroundings and the elements involved in her gambles, making her nearly undefeatable. You might think this would lead to boring encounters, knowing she will always win. Yet that isn’t the case. For one thing, she declares at the outset that she detests situations where she knows the outcome already before she starts. This is remarkable because risk of the outcome is obviously the essence of a “gamble.” Most of the people she’s playing against cheat to turn probability as close to 100% in their favor as possible, but Yumeko will only cheat to counter these efforts or to add excitement to a game. She has zero interest in assuring herself victory. Hence the idea that she’s addicted to “gambling” itself, not to the side effects of greed or self-absorption.

Just a wee bit weird. The lily is more reminiscent of casket bouquets than lapel decorations.

Then of course, she doesn’t always win. Usually she does, as she’s more adept at this act of gambling than anyone we encounter. She loses just enough to make us unsure at the outset. Like when you have to bluff and lose occasionally in poker to make it believable, so the writers make Yumeko lose just often enough, or in subtle ways, to make the viewer uncertain of the outcome. It’s a clever part of her character design.

The unfolding of events during each game is probably the most interesting part of her character. She’s almost always one step ahead of her cheating opponent, and always in lock-step with her ally of the day. It’s a little convenient for sure, but it keeps it interesting. After a while you realize that it’s not the outcome that’s of interest, it’s how she deals with each situation. Like she says, it’s about the gamble, not winning. The viewer gets pulled into that effectively, and we learn to just watch what she does instead of chewing our nails wondering if she’ll make it through with victory. It’s a lot of fun.

I feel like I’m missing something important with Yumeko’s orgasmic reactions to gambling. Perhaps the writers simply include this aspect of her character to enhance the worldliness of this show, the feeling embodied in the darker places of our world like Las Vegas and Monte Carlo. Perhaps it’s simply to add sexiness to the show. There’s plenty of this going on one way or another throughout the series. But I feel like there’s probably more to it than that. If it was limited just to Yumeko, I think the answer would be easier to find. But we see it not only in Yumeko, but in Kirari Momobani the Student Council President, but more noticeably in Midari Ikishima, the wild wreck of a human wearing the eye patch.

Perhaps the biggest reason I wonder about this aspect of Yumeko is because it’s echoed in Ikishima. We’re supposed to recognize that these two are similar somehow based on this reaction. Ikishima’s reactions are much more violent, and it’s hinted more than once that she physically acts on her feelings. Yumeko’s voice strains as she gets close to that familiar ahegao look, but she doesn’t run for the restroom or start soliciting her fellow students. I actually think Yumeko’s disdain for Ikishima has something to do with their similarity too. Kind of like a “if I met myself I wouldn’t like me” situation. It’s an interesting question, but not one I could readily answer. Perhaps this is because of the lack of development I mentioned.

That face you make when you fantasize about Jokers.

The Student Council President does this too, but in a different way. She’s extraordinarily confident in her power, and she feels immovable. She’s almost like a character out of Jojo, she’s so rock-solidly immovable in her portrayal. So she doesn’t particularly “lose control” when she discusses gambling like Yumeko or certainly Ikishima. But she does encroach on people’s personal space, forcing her dominance and her desire into their awareness. So between these three, we get similar yet very different sexual reactions to gambling, and it’s a mystery to me why.

Probably another reason I really like Kirari is her VA. You all know how I love Miyuki Sawashiro! She’s voiced so many boss girl characters, like Sinon for SAO, Celty Sturlson from Durarara!!, Kanbaru Suguru in Monogatari, and as of April 2021, she may reprise her role as Jolyn Kuujou from the Jojo video game in the newest iteration of that anime series. I love that instantly recognizable and powerful voice! She’s a boss.

Speaking of recognizable voices, how about the VA choice for Yumeko? I initially had mixed feelings about this, as I associate Saori Hayami’s voice with calmer, romantic characters (My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong, Snow White with the Red Hair). But I also realize she’s played more forceful characters such as Fubuki (One Punch Man) and Shinobu Kochou (Demon Slayer). Either way, we’re accustomed to this soft voice she uses. After watching both seasons of this show, I’m convinced she was the right choice. Yumeko isn’t a harsh character, and only has moments when a sinister side of her character rises to the surface. Usually she’s harmlessly inoffensive, like she just wants to get along with everybody. It’s kind of remarkable how this voice, which portrays that side of her, combines with the wild girl we know her to be. It was a great choice by the casting team.

Things I don’t like that fall under the category of characters: I don’t like the idol character Yumemi Yumete and that sidetrack; I don’t like the Hollywood actress sidetrack that also involves Yumemi; I don’t like that cringe-worthy, overtly sexual name that Yumemi dubs her partnership with Yumeko (my dislike for music anime breaking out big time); I don’t like Runa Yomozuki, the Umaru-chan-esque student council member who oversees the matches a lot in S2; I don’t care for the male student council character, Kaede Manyuda, but I realize they needed another male (so many girls!); and I don’t get the rather empty Suzui. He feels like a typical nice-guy MC, but he’s reduced to even less importance than is typical of such characters. Yumeko completely overshadows him. He seems so obviously out of his league. I don’t get his involvement at all.

Well, it’s a nice set of characters. These girls comprise a very popular set of characters, well known in the world of anime. And that’s probably not at its height, as S2 just finished in 2019 (two years in the past as of the time of this writing), so I presume we’ll see more of them in the future. Although, I don’t know how the stakes could get any higher!

Artwork

Rating: 8

The artwork reeks of the decadence of gambling culture. So much red everywhere! Even Yumeko’s eyes shine unnaturally red when she fantasizes during her orgasmic monologues.

It’s a little difficult to define this sense of decadence however. I’m sure the uniforms play a part. They almost look like staff uniforms for casinos. And the red of course is very present there as well. But it’s more than just little things like that. If I absolutely had to characterize it, I’d say the characters feel less alive than I’m accustomed to seeing in anime. When we watch anime, we have a sense of “liveliness” in characters. It’s often difficult to describe what constitutes that feeling, so that’s probably what’s preventing me from describing the feel of the artwork in Kakegurui. Whatever that sense is, it feels suppressed or absent in this series. I wish I could say more about it, as the effect, whatever it is, is remarkable. But I cannot find the words to put to it.

One memorable part of the artwork from this show are the moments when the characters become really, really sinister and their faces twist into very grotesque forms. This comes by degrees. On one end of the spectrum, you have the fierce or stressed faces that appear when a character is pushed to their limit, or their bluff is called, or their cheat exposed. There’s a lot of grinding of teeth and strained facial muscles at these moments. Then at the other end, you have moments where one character threatens another, usually within inches of their face, and we get a massive closeup as a result. The resulting face is contorted out of almost all recognition, with just the barest minimum of similarity to the character’s original aspect.

Either way, it’s frightfully ugly. But as I watched though this show, a theory dawned on me why the author might have chosen this route. If some of you figured this out earlier, good for you, but it took me until I’d finished S2 to come up with it. These faces bear a resemblance to the grotesqueness we associate with the drawings on face cards! Those faces are truly grotesque. Not ugly, just in that medieval style that was popular way back in those ages in Europe. So I can kind of understand why we might see faces that take on that bizarre aspect in a show about gambling, where typical playing cards are a hallmark.

Woah woah woah back up just a little.

Until I thought of that possibility, I thought this was a total negative for this show. None of the characters are really beautiful in the first place, but then this weird thing appears occasionally and whole show trends towards the ugly end of the spectrum. Once I divined this theory, I feel a little better about why the authors made this choice.

Beauty, hmm…maybe that’s another thing we associate with decadence. A twisted idea of human beauty. We’ve all seen the plastic surgery beasts (no I didn’t misspell that), and the varying degrees of grotesqueness we see there. That’s something we associate with these extravagant, lascivious settings. Sometimes it’s pretty, but usually it looks weird. Unnatural. Impure. Call it what you will, associate with a spectrum as you will, it feels off somehow. Anime presents a great opportunity to take a shot at these forms, since anime naturally only mimics the human form. I’ve talked a lot about how this is one of the great strengths of anime. Kakegurui therefore presented a unique opportunity for this medium.

Without diving too deep into the reasons behind it, etc., I will simply say that I think the artists only tried to imitate some of what we associate with human forms in these kinds of environments. Primarily, the girls are all busty. Not unnaturally so, but obviously so. It’s not like High School DxD, hyper-focusing on it. Just it’s a feature common to almost all the female forms in this show. All the girls wear lots of makeup too, another thing we associate with this culture. How could I know that? I don’t, but if the amount of lipstick is indicative of that, then it’s likely they have lots of makeup, because these girls all wear a lot of lipstick. This is most prominent on the well-known aspect of Kirari, one of the few recognizable anime characters to wear blue lipstick!

And then there’s the bodily fluids. As a famous non-anime character once said, that’s all I have to say about that.

If Dan Wesson had only known.

I love the designs for Kirari, Yumeko, and Ikishima. I mentioned the blue lip gloss that Kirari wears. Her domineering demeanor and haughty eyes and braided pigtails and slow but ferocious movements are spectacular. It’s little wonder that most of the girls are in love with her. She’s a powerful figure. But oddly enough, she’s almost treated like a prize in that sense. Perhaps this explains the blue lipstick, which might attempt to make her less human. Whatever the goal, her design is magnificent.

Most of us probably knew about Yumeko from the images we see of her before we ever watched the show. The flowing black hair, the red eyes, and oddly sharp teeth curled into a vicious smile! She’s instantly recognizable. I mentioned how the voice doesn’t quite match our expectations. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it works perfectly with her design.

Why would anyone like Ikishima? She’s got a patch on one eye, studs in her ears and lip (and tongue), her pupils are shrunk to dots to heighten her crazed look, her mouth is open and drooling most of the time, and her face is reddened with her impassioned outbursts, her eye lashes are weird, and her purple lipstick looks bad on her where Kirari’s blue looks great. But she’s unique. I like that. I like these kinds of sadist characters anyway, so perhaps this is just a personal preference. But I think this ridiculous design works really well for her. Sadistic characters are always susceptible to the charge of stereotypicalness, but Ikishima still feels unique. She’s a fun visual addition to the cast, and you always keep an eye on her when she’s in a scene. The exception to this of course is Yumeko, who apparently can’t actually see Ikishima after S1!

Do I like the artwork? Yes. But not because it’s pretty. Because it’s interesting, unique, and adds to the feel of the tale. Normally I judge artwork primarily on its beauty, but I have to make an exception here. Beauty plays little part in my judgment of this artwork. I simply like what it does for the characters individually and what it does for the show as a whole.

Story

Rating: 7

Once upon a time, there was a land where all the rich folks’ young offspring went to a high school where the only thing they really do is gamble. They went not to learn, not to train for the future, not even to learn to gamble, but to achieve at gambling. So they play, and they grow, and they fall in love, and they happ liveily ever after.

I can think of no better way to sum up these students’ experiences than through one of Ikishima’s eloquent outbursts: “F**K! F**K! F**K! F**K! F**K! F**K!”

Yeah they’re going to school. And it’s full of normal school things, like classes, lunch, friends, acquaintances, and enemies. But we don’t actually see them in class once. We don’t see a single teacher. What is this?

Yes they play. They play cards. Dice. Typical gambling games. Like the one where you put your finger under a guillotine blade and you lose if you pull your finger out first as you take turns cutting strings that could suspend the blade. Wait, what?

Oh hell yeah they fall in love. Romance is everywhere. That is, everyone is in love with Kirari Momobani. Even her enemies are probably in love with her. No one else is romantically involved with anyone. Even Yumeko doesn’t seem attracted to Suzui romantically, she just has him tagging along with her for whatever reason. Yeah yeah Ikishima wants to be involved with Yumeko, but let’s not go accusing her of being in love. It’s pretty clear what she really wants!

Okay so they gamble. Rich kids wasting money, so what? The gambling with money stops pretty early on, quickly evolving into betting on one’s life, one’s freedom, one’s safety, one’s health. Losing isn’t tolerated. You’re branded as an animal if you go into debt, and the student council creates a “life plan” for you, which you have to live by presuming you don’t clear your debts. Usually that involves arranged marriages, unwanted pregnancies, servitude, I could go on. Not to mention, as an animal, you don’t qualify for anyone’s understanding of human rights. All roses and birthday cakes and fluffy animals right? I said animals again didn’t I….

Your worst nightmare or most vivid wet dream?

Alright so they’re a little weird and they bet stuff incautiously. They don’t intend on following through on these things though, right? What kind of society would that be? Take one look at Kirari, and you’ll know they’re deadly serious. She grips people by the face and whispers in their ears. Her calm viciousness seethes through her every movement and action. She sanctions, probably instituted, the pet system. “Animals” are no better than slaves. Suzui serves as a footstool not long after we’re introduced to him. One girl is almost raped. One of the characters collects fingernails–the real thing, not nail salon nails–from those who lose to her. Ikishima’s gambles usually involve some use of her twin Smith & Wesson revolvers. Ikishima herself gouged out her own eye in a gamble with Kirari in the past.

The gambles themselves take up the majority of the time in the show. These nasty bits I mentioned above are the threatened result or take just a few moments in a show. Mostly it’s about Yumeko playing the game. The game, you say? She plays lots of games right? Yes, but it’s not the games that matter. It’s how she gambles with them. She understands new games very quickly, and has an uncanny ability to detect what her opponents are doing. But this never plays out the same way twice. She even missteps occasionally, even if it’s just a little. So we’re never sure how an event will result. Even with the finger guillotine at the beginning of S2, you wonder for a while if somebody will lose a finger!

So that’s clever. Get past all the reprobate stuff, and the storylines are really enjoyable. The episodes themselves are interesting from beginning to end. We get a little of the bad guys (girls) becoming the good guys (girls), and that’s kind of upsetting because they did some really bad things. Fingernail girl was one of those converts. But it’s not too bad in that regard. Mostly these little gambles are just somewhat unbelievable, becoming more and more extreme as time passes in the series.

There aren’t many big threads. S2 is premised on the whole clan thing, where these ruling class families suddenly send all their conveniently high school age children to descend on the academy and essentially compete for the leadership position in the clan. You’ve got the thing going on with Rei Batsubami during this whole time (I honestly thought her name meant “punisher” and that she was gonna go wild on somebody at the end of the season!). But mostly it’s all just Yumeko gambling one episode after another, always having in mind to gamble with the Kirari at some point in the future. The one time those two do gamble is kind of underwhelming actually. But there’s always S3 to look forward to!

Overall: 9

A couple of things made this show a little difficult to write about. First, it’s about a life of gambling. That lifestyle can only be superficial at its core. Depth of characters and story will be a little difficult to come by as a result. Hence the extreme variety of superficial characteristics and mini plot lines. But the second reason is because no single thing really stood out to me. This show is a good example of how the whole can be better than the sum of the parts.

Interesting characters can make a show, but it would be obvious if that’s the case (Akame ga Kill! and the other killing show it’s mixed up with, Kill la Kill, are good examples). Fun or interesting stories are always big drivers in a successful story-driven series (Monster, Death Note). I like to think that art can be a sole reason for an anime’s success, but you can almost always point to something else that goes with it (Violet Evergarden, Citrus, Jojo, Jujutsu Kaisen). Less often, all these parts work together to form something that’s greater when all these areas are combined. Kakegurui is extremely watchable and extremely memorable, despite so many things you could point to that could turn somebody off from it.

I think this is because, for whatever reason, this show draws you in and absorbs your attention. You’re focused in on every little detail of Yumeko’s gambles. You watch her reactions and think “What is wrong with this person??” You see the people she’s interacting with and you wonder how anybody stays sane around them. Above all, you just scratch your head in puzzlement at the world created in this anime. But through it all, you’re zoning out everything else. And it’s tons of fun!

What can we compare this to? Something else in life that can hold your attention and consume your consciousness? Where you feel compelled to continue just because of the experience?

Gambling.

For the first time in the history of the world, onanism and philosophy occur simultaneously.

I’m no fan of gambling. This show does a good job portraying the kinds of people and behaviors and, ultimately, the nihilistic and fatalistic mindset that chronic gambling can generate. Ultimately gambling can only lead to the view that all things are worthless, even life itself. At the most basic level, it warps our ability to place values on things. Others with more specific knowledge could perhaps elaborate better. But regardless, this show portrays that in all its ugliness. And all its shiny exterior too.

I think this is the great success of this show. It’s about gambling. It portrays it, glorifies it, derides it, exposes you to the harsh truth of it. But at the same time, it’s presented in a way that evokes the same kinds of feelings that gambling would. You can’t put this show down while you’re on a hot streak! You never know what’s going to happen. You look for clues but ultimately can’t find them in time to discover what the characters (usually Yumeko) have already determined during the course of their game. You find yourself pulled into a lavish world of swag and shiny objects, and you don’t want to leave once you start. Just like people feel when they’re gambling.

For a work of art to evoke the same response as the thing it portrays is quite an achievement. I’d like to think this isn’t done by accident. I wonder if it’s just the trappings of the show, the environment and the games and the risks, that simply do the same thing to us as watching any competition does, with the added element of risk versus reward. But no matter, the effect is the same, and it does wonders for the show.

Will there be a S3? I think it’s all but certain. In fact, I’d bet on it! The story is open-ended after S2, as the whole clan leadership and student council presidency thing are still unresolved. The only problem is that the gambles themselves began to escalate in intensity by leaps and bounds in S2. If this pattern continues, this show could end up in crazyland. People have already bet their lives in one form or another several times through two seasons. Having established staking one’s life as the ultimate gamble, how can the stakes be raised any further? Will every gamble in S3 be placed on the characters’ lives? Even as a literary device, that would get old, and already has a little through the end of S2. So we’ll see how this is handled come S3.

I’ll look forward to that.

Kuruiatte!

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