Gambling is hardly a thrilling, visceral experience. Sure, you get the kinetics of rolling dice in Craps or the spinning of the Roulette wheel, and people at a crowded table may burst out into a cheer with the right fall of the dice or ball, but the whole experience is largely in one’s head. You lay down some money, pick your poison, and passively wait to see if things go your way. It’s passive fatalism– sitting back to see if fate/chance/what have you works in your favor or not. All of the real excitement comes after the fact– do you live extravagantly or in destitution after the fact.
That’s why Kakegurui isn’t exactly a good “gambling” show. It isn’t just the fact that the games are more akin to the sorts of things teens make up for sleepovers and overnight school trips rather than what you’d see in a proper casino, it’s the fact that gambling is never this outwardly visceral. If a dude at the World Series of Poker started grabbing his crotch and salivating each time he got the card he needed on the river, no one’d ever call or raise him. I bet that dude’d draw in some crazy ratings when that episode aired, but he’d be gone before the end of the first day.
And that’s the deal with Kakegurui. It isn’t about gambling. Gambling is the means to get at something else.
There’s a lot going on here about how systems exploit and make slaves of those who don’t have the means to abuse said system. The show takes place at a prep school where influential families send their kids not just to get educated, but to make contacts for the future and to “groom” them in the ways of how the world works. Gambling just happens to be the way in which that grooming transpires. These kids are encouraged and pressured into using whatever personal fortunes they possess to play games of chance with other students. If a student ever owes a debt and can’t pay back, they’re labeled as a “house pet.” They aren’t just saddled with a debt they’ll struggle to pay off, possibly for the rest of their life, they’re also subject to abuse and exploitation by those students who still have the means to play the system.
It’s making concrete the systems at play in modern society where debt can cripple you in almost every aspect of your life. It isn’t just a matter of having to set aside money each month to pay your debts, leaving you with less money to get by on and enjoy life. This means you’re more likely to settle for an emotionally devastating job where you do something you hate, yet can’t escape because of your financial obligations. You may stay in a loveless relationship because you can’t afford to leave and do things on your own. You’re less likely to speak up about abuse in the workplace or in other areas, feeling you may risk losing your job or your standing in your social circles, thus further crippling your ability to pay what you owe. No one is literally and legally made into a pet in service of another person, but the invisible chains in place make the reality of the situation no different from if you were so bound to those “above” you. And that’s just the sort of things an everyday person deals with, and doesn’t even touch on people who end up in far worse situations.
What’s interesting about Kaekgurui is how resigned most characters are to this reality. Some characters we’re meant to sympathize with even relish the way things work. This isn’t like Kaiji, where the titular character despairs over his lot in life, and everything we experience as the audience makes us angry at how modern capitalist systems are built to create a semblance of freedom while blinding us from how far away we’re from that freedom. The characters in Kakegurui aren’t people railing against an unjust system, they’re animals in a food chain acting out their roles, and occasionally gaining self-awareness of where they stand in society. Their frustrations with how things work are personal rather than systematic.
When Mary becomes a house pet and has to gamble her way back to “normal” status, her anger isn’t direct so much at the system as its directed at the president for manipulating things. She isn’t mad at how things are, she’s just mad she got played by someone higher on the food chain. That’s how most of the characters behave in the series. They’re resigned to the existence of the system, and are looking to survive and exploit it to their own personal gain (or maybe the gain of the handful of friends they have). Almost all of the characters who join Yumeko’s inner circle are like this, and they’re the people we’re supposed to like. They aren’t angry on any sort of macro level, and I’m a little surprised at that.
Then there’s our main character, Yumeko. She thrives in this system, not because she wins every time and can use her financial means to overcome obstacles. She thrives because she literally gets off on the thrill of risking it all. The bigger the stakes, the happier she becomes, right to the point of ecstasy. She isn’t a masochist. She doesn’t gets off on the actual exploitation, she’s looking for that moment where she teeters on the edge of Heaven and Hell. It’s Schrödinger’s Fate– will she be saved or will she be damned– and she wants to be in that state of everything and nothing in perpetuity.
The thing is, all of this is some relatively heady stuff– the sort of thing for inner monologues and the like. It’s all personal moments and emotional catharsis that has no obvious physical markings. All of these thoughts could run through a character’s head, and there could be no physical indications of what’s going on. Kakegurui throws all of that out and brings it all to the surface. All that inner turmoil becomes surface level, visceral theatrics. And that’s what pushes the show over from cool social commentary to out-and-out campy, pulpy extravagance.
There’s a lot going on here visually, but the things that struck me the most are the eyes and the teeth.
There’s a lot of gritting and gnashing of teeth when characters drop their poker faces and either taunt their opponents or reel in pain at an impending loss. And in many of these shots, we see every single individual tooth one can possibly see in whatever grimace or smile being made. These are shots of long strips of white with the occasional fang or whatever. Each tooth is clearly delineated. It adds to the physical nature of the shots, making you feel the pressure that comes from biting down so hard. It’s like that mouth is reaching out and trying to devour not just the opposing character, but the audience at a whole.
Then you couple that with the characters’ eyes. Even when dilated out of fear or frustration, you rarely get a simple pupil and a splash of color from the iris. There are entire universes within these eyes, pulsating with color and light. It’s like staring into the void of space, and that void looks right back at you with the entirety of its emptiness.
These are empty people, and all of their dramatics and quirks are little compared to how this world has burned away almost every other aspect of their character that doesn’t pertain to getting their gambling freak on. Even the most “innocent” of characters is wrapped up in this world, and though they may not be as aggressive and tenacious, the voids of their souls are just as hungry and filled with teeth ready to devour anyone who loses to them in this demented game.
Kakegurui’s a horrible anime about horrible people, and I want more.
You may not have noticed, since I stuck the link up there a few weeks ago without saying anything about it, but I decided to take the plunge and set up a Patreon for this place.
If you dig what I do, and you have the means to do so, it’d be totally awesome and stuff if you could toss me a few bucks. I’m gonna work on some rewards or whatever to make it worth peeps’ while, but for now it’s just a straight-up donation thing.
If you have any suggestions or whatever, let me know. If you think I’m a horrible sell-out, let me know that too. Then give me money because you’re probably a horrible sell-out too and we can all bask in the shame together.