Before phoning it in on Iron Man, Yuzo Sato and his crew at Madhouse were adapting seinen manga from Nobuyuki Fukumoto (and one by someone who was aping him): intense stories of an amoral world where cash buys life, death, and madness. Fukumoto’s ongoing masterpiece is Kaiji, the story of a young man who perpetually has nothing to lose. Sato’s adaptation is a nail-biter, and it’s one of the best anime of the decade.
Our story begins with Kaiji forced out of his daily minimum-wage existence by some questionable debts into a life of non-stop life-and-death gambles. It’s a story of class struggle, with Kaiji the common man locked in an eternal battle on the home field of the rich, fighting them with their own weapon. “The rich” (headed by the monolithic, Japan-running Teiai corporation) even have representatives on hand to taunt him and the other participants on their weakness.
And these Sadist McDuck caricatures are right. Kaiji is a born loser if ever one existed; he’s just the least pathetic of his peers. The character has a certain purity– his weakness and his strength– that makes him such an attractive protagonist. Selfless and heroic yet prone to tears and self-pity, brilliant when forced into a corner but so spectacularly foolish the moment he gets ahead: it’s hard not to rally behind him in a mixture of pity and admiration.
The gambles are the centerpiece, of course: Fukumoto has a talent for modifying ordinary, mundane games (he does a lot of mahjong manga) into terrifying ordeals where death is just a wrong step away (he also does horror). If there’s a single scene that’s most emblematic of the spirit of Kaiji, it’s the one where desperate men walk an electrified girder suspended between two tall buildings as the guests of an exclusive banquet watch from another window, laughing, drinking, and betting on them like horses. “Money is more valuable than life!” is one of the first things we hear once the games begin.
Financially speaking, the poor suckers playing these sick games are hopelessly outmatched against their debtors, but the real battle is psychological. The high stakes distort rational thought on both sides, and Fukumoto loves to portray his characters’ mental breakdowns in sadistic detail. In a typical Kaiji story, we see our hero pushed to the brink by a combination of bad luck and the cruelty of others until he regroups and wins through some trickery: a scheme equal parts brave, clever, and stupid.
In adapting this into animation, Madhouse actually cleans some of the grime off Fukumoto’s very ugly art (this isn’t to say I don’t like Fukumoto’s art) and makes it somewhat more palatable to the average anime fan. There are some other benefits inherent to the medium: a superbly atmospheric soundtrack and the fact that one must watch, rather than flip through the book as quickly as possible, heighten the suspense to unbearable levels. You can’t just watch one episode of Kaiji: the cliffhangers are too cruel.
Since the first anime ended a few years ago, fans have begged for a second season of Kaiji to break the awful suspense they’ve been in. Despite making promises, the beleaguered Madhouse hasn’t been able to get around to adapting more of the currently ongoing series. I personally wonder whether it would even work out in adaptation– most of the second Kaiji series is a ten-book arc in which Kaiji is locked in mortal battle with a diabolically designed pachinko machine– but it’s long overdue.
Sadly, this anime (and, indeed, any Fukumoto material) remains unlicensed in the US and, given its very unusual look, is unlikely ever to be. In the meantime, Kaiji fans may want to give the second manga series, which has been translated in its entirety,, a look. We would also be remiss to leave out Gambling Emperor Zero, which is effectively a rewrite of Kaiji for younger kids that uses even more cartoonishly insane gambles… and a lot of math.