Kakegurui Review (Anime, 2017)
Content Warning: Later episodes of Kakegurui feature sexual harassment and assault. It is not the focus of the series, but a threat for a short narrative arc in the series.
Kakegurui is a manga turned anime (turned live action series--stay tuned) about an elite school in Japan with an unusual set of rules. Your status is determined by your gambling abilities. The student council ranks students based on their winnings and donations to the school. Win your student-created casino games and you stay at the top of the class; lose, and you wind up as a house pet to the rest of the student body. House pets have to do whatever anyone else commands and can only free themselves by gambling their way out of debt.
Yumeko Jabami is a new transfer student to the school and she is eager to participate. She is partnered up with a new house pet, Ryōta Suzui, for a tour of the school that quickly turns into some of the highest stakes games in the history of the school. Yumeko is driven by the thrill of the game, not winning or losing, and always finds ways of pushing her opponents to bet more than they have on single rounds of increasingly convoluted games.
Kakegurui is telling a pretty familiar story in anime. A new student enters a school and disrupts the social order for reasons unknown. They are just being themselves, which is revolutionary and shocking when everyone else falls in line. These rebels know no fear and place no stock in the consequences presented to them.
Where Kakegurui really differentiates itself is the character arc. Usually, this unwitting revolutionary becomes a hero with a cause. They find some wrong they need to fix or reveal their true motivation for arriving under mysterious circumstances.
Not Yumeko. What you see is what you get. Yumeko is a skilled gambler with access to a lot of money. She wants the thrill of the game regardless of the consequences and even happily plays along when she's punished. Those who fear her assume ulterior motives that never surface. Yumeko might be a gambling addict, but she's honest when not playing a game. She just wants a challenge. Her goal of facing the members of the student council is not a threat to social order but a desire to face the school's toughest opponents.
The games in Kakegurui are almost entirely absurd. The first episode features a card game version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. A classroom of students anonymously submit a drawing of rock, paper, or scissors on cards to create a deck. The two players are dealt three cards each and play rock, paper, scissors, only they probably don't have all the options. Rounds end on the first win. Instead of reusing the deck, a new one is literally drawn for each round.
If that game seems confusing, it is. It's also the most sensible game in the entire series. A later episode combines pop idol worship culture with tic-tac-toe. Another mixes Russian roulette with those symbol cards used to test psychic abilities. It's anime, so it's not worth questioning where the parents or adults are in all of this. This is the teenagers' story and no one is going to intervene and say maybe kids shouldn't have access to multiple handguns.
As if all of this wasn't already complicated enough, these original student games are all controlled by some form of cheating. Yumeko does not have any supernatural powers or special abilities; she is just a skilled enough gambler to know when a game is rigged. No matter how hard the student council starts to cheat to take down Yumeko, they cannot outsmart her. Anyone who wants to win needs to do so with the knowledge that their well-practiced tricks cannot be used without being noticed. Yumeko won't stop the game. She'll just use that knowledge to throw her opponents off.
Kakegurui is a strange school drama with a lot of excess in it. Anyone who is a compulsive gambler is presented as getting a sexual thrill out of it, something incredibly disturbing to watch when dealing with middle and high school aged students. The house pets are physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused by students in better standing and no one does anything to stop them. Perhaps worst of all, when a house pet returns to the general population, everyone acts like nothing was done to them, the former house pets included.
Frankly, the biggest issue with the series is that fan service aspect. There are cultural differences between the United States and Japan when it comes to animation. That doesn't mean that those oh-so-detailed shots of teenage physiques are okay. Up-skirt shots and close-ups on breasts are problematic even in series that attempt to comment on how inappropriate they are (like Kill la Kill and the intentionally too-small-to-be-real costume design). Despite being animated, the characters are presented as underage and feeding the male gaze with children and teenagers is the epitome of what's wrong with so much media. We're all better than this.
If you can get past that, Kakegurui is very watchable. The pacing of the series is great and the editing really is exciting. If the first episode hooks you, you'll probably want to just watch the show straight through. The reveals of all the tricks and cheats are clever and help connect one episode to the next. Best of all, Yumeko is a compelling protagonist for being so different from what this kind of show usually plays with. She is a kind and friendly young person who just happens to really love gambling above all else. It's a wild trip.
Kakegurui is currently streaming on Netflix.
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