Okay, bear with me, this is going to be…a weird one. Some plot spoilers for Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler, possibly a bit PG-13.
Longtime (and probably not-so-longtime) anime and manga fans might observe that over the years these media have taken a distinct turn towards the extreme. Extremes of art-style, extremes of genre tropes, extremes of meta, extremes of self-referential humor, and extremes of niche premises. The 2010s arrive and one of the most popular anime of the decade is ostensibly “set in a high school” where our heroine “clashes with the tyrannical student government” with nothing but her plucky wit and a “sentient uniform that sucks her blood.” All still familiar territory… right? Some likely find this shift upsetting or irritating, bemoaning the bygone days of “classic” anime and manga (what even is classic though? The 70s? The 80s? The 90s?) when things were “better.” The classics will always be there, but it’s the modern industry that has produced some real gems, like this one, Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler.
Written by Homura Kawamoto and drawn by Toru Naomura, Kakegurui is set in the fictional Hyakkaou Academy where it is not the academic or athletic ability of students that determines the social hierarchy, it’s gambling ability. Enter our heroine, Yumeko Jabami, who is ready to tear the entire thing down through an insatiable appetite to gamble and some crazy luck. Lest you think this is light-hearted fare, key plot points revolve around escalations to billion-yen bets and entire lives (that is, your entire life planned down to your career and who you marry or have a family with). Readers don’t watch the spectacle unfold through Yumeko’s eyes, but are instead paired with a classmate of Yumeko’s named Ryouta Suzui, who becomes her first friend in the hostile world of Hyakkaou. With Ryouta as our hapless surrogate, we witness increasingly elaborate and heart-pounding matches go down, with Yumeko usually (though not always) defeating her (often insane) opponents.
I told you this is a weird one. But here’s the thing, it’s actually pretty good. Good enough that you should check it out, and here’s why.
The art is beautiful in a tremendously unsettling way, giving the characters greater depth
Have a look for yourself, if you don’t believe me:
Now, this effort is not merely for the sake of eye-candy, but another part of the creators’ clever storytelling, I suspect. Its purpose seems to be two-fold. The first is to dramatize the story further; the beauty of the art, enhanced by a sheen of digital cleanliness (those eyes?) reinforces the otherworldly nature of the narrative. The drama of each twist in the plot, each triumph or failure, is magnified by the art. While heavy-handedness is far too easy in cases like this, the writer and artist somehow managed to balance it out. Second, because the plot is largely character driven, the art acts as a sort of subliminal hint that the characters, particularly those with gambling talent, are supernatural in some way. They are imbued with angelic, demonic, and human qualities in turn, and usually not predictably so.
Still, the art style is undeniably over the top and the expressiveness of the characters can lean into caricature territory. From a different perspective, however, this isn’t a bad thing, especially in an industry that is overrun with authors and artists who merely repeat the same tired female archetypes endlessly. In Kakegurui, such character designs have largely been inverted. Though appearing first, Ryouta is introduced in the midst of losing a gambling match, subsequently becoming a literal “pet” to the student he loses to. Shortly after, Yumeko sweeps in and yanks the rug out from Ryouta’s tormenter. And it doesn’t stop there: we discover that the majority of the student council is female, with diverse visual designs not usually seen in the anime/manga world.
She wasn’t having a great day. Source: Bookwalker
In fact, nearly all of the characters who might otherwise occupy traditional “strength” positions in shonen or seinen manga (Kakegurui probably counts as seinen) are all female. They exhibit a large range of emotions, from fear to desire to anger to cold cruelty. Beyond just emotional range, the creators make it clear how frighteningly intelligent the characters are. It is not the nosebleed-inducing bets of billions or threat of bodily harm, but rather the psychology of the matches and the contests of wills that are most thrilling (or nauseating, depending on how you feel). As the lead character, Yumeko exhibits all of these things. She’s alternatively charming, powerful, intelligent, and occasionally just kinda creepy. Moreover, as the story progresses, Yumeko’s characterization develops a flavor of trickster gods, like those in old folk stories punishing the willfully cruel, greedy, and unkind. Indeed, her ambitions and motives are just as opaque.
Like I said… Source: Bookwalker
When have we seen such a female character in Western media? Rarely in such a positive light, and yet Yumeko might just be a near-ideal response to the gruff and gritty anti-hero of the West. She is polished and beautiful, clever and just, yet manipulative, deceitful, and sometimes outright repulsive in her addiction of gambling thrill. Despite all this, you want Yumeko to win. You root for her and revel in her takedowns, relishing the particularly just ones. She, and by extension most of the female cast, is a rejection of the East Asian idea of femininity, and it’s hard to imagine the charisma and momentum of the story continuing without her.
The plot is very dependent on the characters, and suffers slightly because of this
If Kakegurui has weak spots, it is largely in the plot. Probably an odd statement given how much time I just spent expounding on the characters, but that is simultaneously the story’s strength and crutch. The plot is largely driven by the characters, their inner universes and psychological battles. Without those, the narrative would be rather simple and familiar: main character meets villain of the week, main character defeats main villain of the week after revealing she knows the main villain of the week’s weakness, then rinse and repeat. We take a break to (spoiler alert!) elect a new student council. Status quo flipped, but not really because the flip was actually part of the status quo. You get my point.
With the characters put back in, the story reads a bit like Leverage, the TV show, or Ocean’s Thirteen wherein the satisfaction and fun of the plot is watching each antagonist get their comeuppance from Yumeko. Here, the author exercises some creativity, giving Yumeko free rein to be selective in doling out punishments. They fit the character to whom they are delivered. The fun also comes from the magic show-esque revelations about each new game or character, a simple mechanism of tension-release drawn out over several chapters.
On the whole, this type of narrative pattern makes for an effective storytelling device, but it can become predictable. Carry on long enough and eventually it just stops holding readers’ attention if it’s the only thing relied upon to move the plot forward. It’s something akin to the Dragon Ball effect: you can only up the ante so many times before it starts to become a gimmick and the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is not so willing anymore. Kakegurui attempts to surmount this by dropping hints of a bigger backstory behind the villain of the week plot: (SPOILER ALERT!) Yumeko possibly being a distant relative of the current student council president and possibly nation-reaching effects because *surprise!* the school is so powerful, it influences all of the governmental and financial systems of Japan (uh oh, are we back to leaning on overused tropes?). Whether or not this is successful remains to be seen.
Overall, though, these complaints aren’t really even complaints. Kakegurui will not be the story that aims for moral or narrative high ground. It’s a tremendously fun read and, if you’re that kinda nerd, an interesting psychological exploration of what happens when you put impressionable (or not so impressionable) teenagers together with gambling. Again, it’s weird, I know. If you feel at all curious, I strongly encourage you to give it a try.
Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler is available in the US via Bookwalker.
BONUS: Lucky for us readers who discovered Kakegurui later rather than soon (it began serialization in 2014), MAPPA, the studio mostly recently known for creating Yuri!!! On Ice, is releasing an anime adaptation in July 2017! Check out the teaser below:
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