(Cutting Class is a series of blog posts written by Arden Ripley, meant to showcase the world of anime beyond high school settings.)
My favorite story to tell people about Kaiji after they've watched it is this: for several years, I was somehow under the impression that Kaiji was a comedic slice-of-life anime about a lovable loser who enjoys gambling.
It is not. God help me, it is not.
Ultimate Survivor Kaiji started off as a manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto. The manga is still ongoing, and has been since 1996 - only two story arcs have received anime adaptations. Fortunately, both seasons of the anime are spectacular and stand up perfectly well on their own. It's a psychological thriller about a poor young man who ends up stuck with an old co-worker's massive debt to the yakuza, and is pulled deeper and deeper into the world of underground, high-stakes gambling in an attempt to free himself from it.
Kaiji didn't actually sound appealing when I first heard about it. I tend to watch a lot of shows that are, in some way, supernatural in nature, and I wasn't sure the tension and gambling alone was enough to keep me invested. I then watched both seasons (52 episodes) over the course of a few days, biting my nails and peeking through my fingers at the screen when I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest from the stress of it all.
That is to say: I really, really love this show, and it's really, really stressful.
I think Kaiji's art style turns a lot of people away, which is a shame, because it's gorgeous in how unconventional it is. Madhouse was the studio in charge of both seasons, and their work is pretty much always wonderful to look at. They translated Fukumoto's sharp, angular art style into something that looks great in motion, with thick, strong lines and crisp details. It conveys the feelings of tension and fear visually, with dramatic, swirling vortexes threatening to swallow the protagonist alive and his facial features contorting impossibly during moments of intense emotion.
Kaiji is as much a character study as it is a psychological thriller, and so much of why the show works is because the protagonist is so compelling. Kaiji Itou is 23, unmotivated, angry and depressed. He lives by himself in a run-down apartment, spending what little money he has on beer and gambling (which he always loses). He has no real friends to speak of. He thinks his life is going nowhere and feels so trapped by his lack of money and steady employment that he spends most of his time crying or lashing out and trashing expensive cars.
A loan shark tracks Kaiji down because he co-signed a loan for an old co-worker, who has since disappeared. The loan shark, a man named Endou, realizing there's no way Kaiji can ever repay this amount of money, pressures him into a one night high-stakes gambling evening aboard the ship Espoir, and thus we begin to watch Kaiji's life crumble before our eyes in slow motion. I've never been so nervous while watching a game of rock paper scissors before.
Right off the bat, Kaiji is put into a terrifying position with an immense amount of pressure bearing down on him. But he doesn't break - he transforms. Kaiji, for as much as he outwardly seems like a good-for-nothing punk, has a kind heart and sharp intelligence that blossoms when he's thrown into these impossible situations. He's incredibly strong, and his strength doesn't mean he's an impenetrable, calm brick wall. He's furious and scared, he lashes out frequently and cries several times per episode, and all of it makes him feel more real. The ordeals he goes through don't make his depression and fear go away, but change how they manifest. He redirects his anger toward the people in power who take advantage of the poor and downtrodden. His lack of motivation turns into determination because it has to if he wants to escape.
Kaiji is an intensely emotional male lead, which is a rare thing to see in anime, or any fiction, really. There's an "acceptable" emotional range for a lot of male protagonists to have, and Kaiji has some of them - anger and determination, mostly. But he's gentle and sensitive behind his blunt manner of speaking. Even in situations where his own life is literally on the line, he looks out for other people in the same situation as him, trying to encourage and help them as best as he can. It's rare to see a character written so well that they don't even feel like a character anymore, just a person you're watching - especially when they're animated.
My favorite thing about him is what a flawed character he is, and how he's still so likable because of his flaws. Kaiji is not a perfect success story. Sometimes he loses, and he loses hard. He swears he's done with gambling after the first season and that he's a changed man, but... we all know there's a second season. It's heartbreakingly honest - in real life, people don't have perfect recovery arcs. An eye-opening epiphany about yourself doesn't magically make your mental illness go away. For some people - for most people - recovery takes a lot of painful stops and starts.
Masato Hagiwara's performance as Kaiji's voice actor is inseparable from the character himself, and part of the reason I struggle reading the manga - without his voice acting, it's just not the same. Hagiwara hasn't done a lot of other voice acting roles, and I feel both grateful and sad for this. Kaiji being voiced by someone famous would be strange in a way I have trouble describing. Hagiwara doesn't sound like he's acting, or putting on a voice - he sounds so natural and effortless in a way that would be impossible if you clearly recognized him from other TV shows or video games.
The antagonists are perfectly suited to play off of Kaiji, each one contrasting and complementing his personality in different ways. The first season pits him against two extremely wealthy and cynical older men, embittered and full of contempt for humanity. One of them, Tonegawa, sees himself as a realist, with no sympathy or care for the people like Kaiji who have ended up in severe debt. Villains don't often scare me, but during one scene Tonegawa monologues about human nature in a way that genuinely made me feel sick - because I know the way he thinks is the way a lot of real people think.
The second season has Kaiji trying to outwit a successful casino manager his age named Ichijou. Both are hopeful, determined young men who act on that hope in drastically different ways. Ichijou is intelligent and capable, and watching him and Kaiji attempt to outmaneuver and outsmart one another makes for a compelling, interesting protagonist/antagonist relationship. Watching Ichijou go from composed and elegant to a screaming wreck as the season proceeds is fantastic, and made better by his voice actor, Daisuke Namikawa.
Kaiji is a show that manages to be both soul-crushing and optimistic all at once. It's inspiring, depressing, and uniquely intense, with thought-provoking psychology and thrilling strategy. It's one of my favorite shows, and I feel like it's worth watching for how strong the protagonist is alone, but there's a lot more there to love.