Sunday, March 18, 2018

REVIEW: Kakegurui (anime TV series)

This review includes slight spoilers.

Kakegurui is one of those series set at a school designed to be its own little world with its own special set of rules. In this case, that world is focused on gambling.

The school is a private academy whose students all come from rich and privileged families - the children of politicians and businessmen. In their world, valuable skills include knowing when to take risks and being able to tell when your opponent is bluffing. The school has a system where you can gain power through gambling - but if you fail, you can also lose power and essentially become everyone else's slave.

Ryota is one of those failures. He ends up owing a lot of money to Mary, another student, which means he's now basically her pet. He's considering transferring to another school when a new student arrives and shakes everything up. Yumeko is something many of the school's students have never faced before: a compulsive gambler who doesn't really care if she wins or loses, as long as she gets to experience the thrill of taking risks.

A word of warning: the series is very much designed with male viewers in mind. Also, things occasionally get a bit violent. Several of the female characters, Yumeko being one of them, clearly find taking risks to be sexually arousing, and one character mixes this with masochism, begging Yumeko to hurt and possibly even kill her. At one point, Yumeko is threatened with rape (not that she seems to care much). Oh, and there's a part where a character gouges her own eye out, and another where a character bites her own fingernails off. In the over-the-top world of this series, it all fits right in with the way characters can instantly change from pretty and cute, their outward appearance, to twisted and ugly, a reflection of the attitudes the school encourages. I have to admit, I was surprised at the series' willingness to allow its cute female characters to occasionally look very ugly.

All right, now for the review. This series made it onto my radar after I saw a very well-done anime AMV featuring it. Although I own the first volume of the manga, I decided to let the anime be my introduction to the series instead.

I'll say this: there's something about this series that sucked me in. The games Yumeko got involved in weren't always very interesting (the first one was Rock Paper Scissors except with cards, and the next was basically a game of Memory), but I enjoyed seeing how and whether she'd manage to win. Sometimes she'd deliberately lose in order to gain the information necessary to win in later rounds, and sometimes she found ways to work together with other students.

The series kept me hooked until the end, as Yumeko worked her way through the student council members and finally got what she wanted, a chance to gamble against the student council president. The visuals were well-done and made the games easy to follow. Ryota was the most normal character out of the whole bunch, and I was a little disappointed that he ended up being thoroughly sucked into Yumeko's insane orbit by the end as well.

The final gambling match was a disappointing. It was over very quickly and, unlike most of the other matches, involved a deliberate refusal to make use of any extra information, observations, or tricks and instead rely solely on luck. Yumeko got an enormous thrill out of that (if she and Ryota had been in a relationship, it could have counted as public foreplay), but I was left unmoved. The warm and fuzzy ending struck me as being out of place. Throughout the entire series viewers had been told that the student council president was a villain who'd taken a twisted school and made it even worse, and yet suddenly I was supposed to be on her side as well as Yumeko's? No, thank you.

The manga is still ongoing in Japan, and the way the anime ended left room for future seasons. That said, I'm not clamoring for more and can't guarantee that I'd watch a second season. Kakegurui is very much about watching horrible people to see how horrible things will get, and maybe rooting for the least horrible ones in the bunch. At the beginning of the series I thought Yumeko's goal might be to take the student council down, that maybe she really did want to help everyone, but by the end it was pretty clear that her primary goal was just to take risks for the thrill of it. It was strangely compelling while I was watching, but not really my cup of tea.

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