Review/discussion about: Kakegurui
I like to gamble now and again.
“Texas Hold ‘Em” is my card game of choice because I grew up playing it and watching it. And I’ll throw in ten dollars or so to get some easy picks for the mega lotteries if they get high enough to make it worth the risk. I don’t always win of course, but part of the fun comes from that thrill. The maybe-it-will-happen ideology and the there’s-always-a-chance buildup.
Kakegurui takes this thrill-of-the-gamble concept to the absolute extreme, gambling with some of its own decisions that earn more wins than losses.
A school structured around a gambling system where bets consist of millions of yen and the students most in debt become slaves with no rights. Most wouldn’t enter such a backwards place. Yumeko Jabami, however, is not like most people.
That’s all the info required to setup Kakegurui. For, as this info hints at, the content contained in this anime has two goals in mind: gambling and absurdity. The former is easy to understand: students take part in games that revolve around gambling in some fashion. A variant of rock-paper-scissors, memorization, forced deception. The latter must be seen to be believed: the ridiculously ridiculous becomes the norm. Threats of rape and potential accidental suicide turn these games from simple bouts of fun into life-altering scenarios.
Naturally, this anime is neither for the squeamish nor the sensitive. That’s even after the audience realizes that Yumeko will somehow come out victorious regardless of the absurdity (because there wouldn’t be a story to tell otherwise). As a result, the narrative does succumb to a repetitive format: Yumeko is challenged to a game of some kind, she starts to lose badly, she turns her luck around completely, and then she moves on to the next cycle.
Kakegurui somewhat pigeonholes itself into this structure. While the show does explain the different games and their rules, it ultimately needs to showcase them in action for their full effect and their construction to take hold. Indeed, if Yumeko succeeded immediately, the buildup beforehand would be for nothing. So, to provide the full extent of each played game – showcasing the opponent as a big meanie head, letting the game itself do the talking, and highlighting Yumeko’s comeback – she almost always loses first before she wins as a massive payoff.
This repetition does not do the show any favors, but it does achieve an important part of its direction regardless: tension. At the end of the day, Kakegurui wishes to entertain its audience not with complex themes or incredible plot points but rather with several instances of the baddies being put in their rightful place.
An argument reinforced by the fact that these games often do not strictly follow gambling in the probabilistic sense. Instead, the various villains rig these matches in their favor with biased helpers, special marks, and magnetic grips. They attempt to cheat their way to a win. And so, when Yumeko inevitably crushes her opponents through wit, skill, and power, the positive outcome tastes all the sweeter.
Despite the higher focus on the absurdity and the tension, the anime does try to infuse a semi-relevant subplot with Kirari and her behind-the-scenes machinations. Unfortunately, these events are never fully realized, so their inclusion is less an intriguing aside and more of a small distraction to the chips already in the pot.
Also, Kakegurui tends to toss aside a lot of its characters once their moment in the spotlight concludes. Not mainstays like Mary and Itsuki, but sides like Nanami, Yuriko, Midari, and Yumemi either do not contribute much past their prime or oddly disappear altogether.
These narrative troubles aside, the games and their ridiculousness allow the story to capitalize on entertainment first and foremost. And because the anime keeps this approach intact for all twelve episodes, it remains consistent in its purpose as well.
ART & ANIMATION
For Kakegurui, its visuals pride themselves most on the reactions that Yumeko and the other gamblers so regularly embrace.
Orgasmic explosions, derisive stares, manic expressions, shocked looks, frightening faces. A set of glowing eyes here and a wagging tongue there give them an extra helping of craziness, too. No matter what their reaction may be, though, these over-the-top depictions push the characters’ physical emotions to the absolute limit, coinciding with the show’s extreme tendencies in its actual content.
Such reactions are vital to the show because said content, at its core, isn’t the most involved. The games they play usually only entail them sitting at a table, flipping cards, or pushing chips around. So, to offset their inherently lackluster actions, Kakegurui relies on this insanity, achieving the desired effect of making these games much more fun to watch unfold as the audience awaits that next wacky reaction.
Besides these reactions, the anime also puts a lot of care into the designs of its characters. Yumeko and Mary are attractive ladies who introduce yet another facet to follow on-screen, and Ryouta’s extreme normalcy blends him into the background where he wishes to belong. On the opposite end, the menacing student council seem like final bosses. Their masks, hoodies, stars, glasses, piercings, and ribbons create distinct, intimidating looks for the lot that reflect their status within the school without any trouble.
The coolest detail, though, comes from their regular school outfits. Their black-and-red coloring coincides with the same color scheme of a common casino roulette wheel and table layout. Such colors not only tie the designs back to the gambling motif but also subconsciously keep the premise on the minds of the audience as the characters go about placing bets and reacting away.
Concerning the rest of Kakegurui’s visuals, they do not impress as much as the reactions and the designs, but they remain in good standing regardless. Detailed lips and CG hands provide movement when necessary. Cool camera cuts and operations also add dynamism to the many games showcased.
The setting itself does leave much to be desired, but, when everything else within the art and the animation covers what it can already, this missing element barely impacts the engaging presentation on display.
For Kakegurui’s cast members, showmanship matters most.
Remember, this anime is built around ridiculousness. So, in keeping in line with this idea, the anime highlights the eccentricity and the quirkiness of the different people that Yumeko squares off against in the gambles at hand. Someone like Yumemi is a cutesy, flirty idol on the surface but a complete dirtbag when the cameras stop rolling. Similarly, Midari not only isn’t afraid to walk around with a loaded gun but also proves, in flashback fashion, her unbelievable masochistic tendencies.
Not to say that Yumeko’s enemies don’t have more going for them. For instance, Itsuki was little more than the daughter of a father who owned a prolific toy-and-playing-card company. She also happened to collect the fingernails of the victims she defeated. However, later in the series, the show shows her holding a relationship with Kaede due to their likeminded goals, and she turns her ambition into something tangible as well, ditching her own fingernails as a neat (albeit grotesque) progression to her character arc.
Itsuki and the other characters encounter change of this nature thanks to Yumeko (either directly or indirectly). One by one, she dismantles their personas, forcing them to look inward on themselves. They contemplate their drive and their desires as she manipulates them with nothing besides smarter tactics. For some, she breaks completely. For others, she befriends them mostly. No matter the case, her arrival marks for a turning point in the school and its direction.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Yumeko herself is the most insane of them all. Indeed, she sort of must be given the environment and the undeniable influence she exerts on those she crosses. She’s the most insane for a single reason: she only cares about the gamble.
Money. Status. Livelihood. Even just winning and losing do not enter her thoughts. Seriously, all she strives for is that insatiable rush. The druglike feeling as probability and luck dictate fate. As she puts it in episode nine, “The absurdity of being helpless to do anything of your own will. That right there is the essence of gambling, after all.”
While Yumeko revels in chance, the characters around her sometimes ponder her mysterious arrival and her purpose for being here. Surely, there must be some other need, an ulterior motive for enrolling beyond gambling. Unfortunately, the anime never truly delves into it. Very small backstory items are alluded to, and she seems to have a fixation on going up against Kirari, the mastermind at the head of the student council. But her past sadly remains unexplored, leaving her character as the epitome of the showmanship that laces throughout this entire set of characters.
Well, almost the entire set, for one character neither wishes nor wants to take part in any of the nearby ridiculousness: Ryouta. His presence in the anime hardly rises above mere existence since he almost never takes part in any of the gambles personally. Sometimes, he even disappears for large stretches of (episode) time. As such, he represents the audience’s lens with which to view Kakegurui as his normal, everyday self contrasts against the strange people and the odd games that take center stage.
Ryouta also serves another important role. To Yumeko, he is the only constant chip on the table. His kindness, honesty, and innocence make him someone that she can trust with all her heart, giving their relationship a playful and supportive edge. He worries about her during every risk she takes, and she in turn relies on him for some minor-to-major moments that get him out of his comfort zone.
Comfortable or not, the anime clearly emphasizes its characters’ aptitude for showmanship over their individual importance on a writing level. However, when the story also focuses on a similar direction, they find themselves not needing to do or be much else anyway.
MUSIC & SOUND
Kakegurui does not let its music and its sound go to waste.
The opening track “Deal with the devil” has this energized tone that primes the audience for the games to come while also reveling in the mystique that Yumeko delivers. Dancing piano keys, a step-wise saxophone, and the distinct noise of a police radio at the beginning twist the song with erratic noises that also give its energy more of a frantic feel, following the tension contained in most of the anime.
Furthermore, a groovy bassline and a prominent jazz band then add in a classy vibe that matches the anime’s own upscale premise. And the playful vocals throughout the piece bring on a last layer of charm to keep the song coasting along. A fun, catchy, and fitting OP, indeed.
Where the OP catches the audience’s attention with its energy, the ending track “LAYon-theLINE” instead celebrates Yumeko in all her glory. The futuristic sounds that weave into and out of the song almost argue for Yumeko herself being the “future”. Multiple vocalists and the slight orchestral instrumentation raise the grandeur and the scale of the music, increasing her importance. And the six-time lyrical rhyme as the closer signs off this track in poetic fashion for this equally poetic lady.
This ED makes for a wonderful addition to the sound work in the show as well, and Saori Hayami as Yumeko Jabami likewise does the same with her voice acting as the star gambler. Easily flipping between cute and psychotic, excited and arrogant, Ms. Hayami demonstrates once again why she is a household name at this point (for anime fans at any rate).
Even the rest of the original soundtrack puts its money where its mouth is. While it does have the rarer slice-of-life tune, the music shines best when it channels the tension that runs rampant throughout the gambles. Blaring saxophone notes, wild piano keys, grating violin strings. These sounds slam the different scenes in Kakegurui with a horror-esque mood that aligns both with the creepy craziness and the Vegas vibe of the events therein.
On top of the punchy sound-effects when revealing cards and the drowned-out noises when dread kicks in, the audio design for Kakegurui arguably stands as the show’s strongest collective offering.
I had a lot of fun with this anime. For me, this joy comes from three factors: some of the characters, the nature of the content, and those games played.
On the characters, I couldn’t not like Yumeko. Her moe and insane moments were simply a treat to watch. She didn’t carry the entire anime by her lonesome, but she certainly proved why she is the star. Mary was cool, too, if only because she moved away from acting like a stuck-up jerk and towards being a friend of Yumeko herself.
On the nature of the content, watching the enemy lose almost always made for a cathartic experience. I knew that Yumeko’s unnatural calms would soon give way to yet another glorious beatdown, turning the anime into a jackpot of evil people receiving their comeuppance. Something that I for sure approve.
On the games, I liked how they relied mostly on who could be cleverer. Sure, a couple of the exchanges were perhaps overly silly or maybe required too much of an explanation. But, seeing them seeped in tactics and manipulation (especially from Yumeko), these gambles turned into mind battles that were more interesting than a regular contest.
I cannot say I adore everything in the anime. I do wish that Kirari was around more because her allure and her supposed excellence seemed too intriguing to pass up as much as the show did. It also would have been nice if the content went outside of the Yumeko-versus-opponent structure, letting her sit out on occasion to create new scenarios. And the games that involved money rather than some other commodity up for grabs (e.g., threats, life itself) lacked the same gravitas because, realistically speaking, money didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.
Nevertheless, specific characters, the content’s nature, and all those clever gambles made for quite the enjoyable time. With the knowledge that a second season is also arriving sometime soon, this series may very well become a compulsive habit.
Kakegurui reveals its hand with a ton of confidence. An entertaining set of story beats and individual characters create a weird yet inviting tale that does not let up for its full run. While these elements have small problems, the art and the music have next to zero, supporting the project through audiovisual awesomeness. Altogether, perhaps not the easiest bet to make in the world, but it’s worth the risk all the same.
Story: Fine, gambling and absurdity reign supreme even as narrative integrity does not
Art & Animation: Great, over-the-top reactions, cool character designs, and other stylistic choices for the visuals keep the artistry extra engaging
Characters: Fine, Yumeko manipulates everyone around her as they focus on showmanship, and Ryouta contrasts with the everyday craziness
Music & Sound: Great, an energized OP, a celebratory ED, strong VA performances, and a creepy OST land on triple sevens at the audio slot machine
Enjoyment: Good, Yumeko, catharsis, and mind battles swirl together as lots of undeniable fun
Final Score: 7/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3