[Synopsis]: Itou Kaiji (Hagiwara Masato), jobless and depressed, fills his days with gambling, cheap liquor, and cigarettes. His wretched lifestyle is one day interrupted by a man who comes to collect a debt which Kaiji negligently co-signed for a past co-worker. With this immense dept thrust upon him, he is left with only two choices. To work hopelessly for the next 10 years to pay back the money or to board the Espoir for a single night – a cruise ship which hosts an underground gambling circuit. Given only one true chance for salvation, Kaiji chooses to board the ship, ignorant of the danger and turmoil that lay ahead. Thrown into a world of gambling, deceit, and twisted, psychological games, Kaiji is forced to confront the darkest parts of human nature.
Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor is filled with characters pushed to their limit – gambling for their lives out of desperation and cursing the very luck that brought them to the brink. While the cast is by no means weak, the majority of people that Kaiji encounters are relegated to supporting and background roles as the show’s primary focus rests solely upon Kaiji himself. There are a small handful of recurring characters but for the most part they remain attached to their own relevant arc leaving Kaiji the only true consistent cast member throughout.
When one entertains the idea of a psychological gambling show, they might imagine a genius intellectual who outmaneuvers his opponents through superior knowledge and mental dexterity however that is not quite the case with Kaiji. The premise alone says enough about his deplorable lifestyle and the kind of penniless misery he lives in. He’s kind of dimwitted and gullible, unable to see through the intentions of other people and often blinded by his own cowardice or fear. He isn’t even all that clever and only manages to persevere through sheer determination, willpower, and occasional insights of brilliance.
While perhaps not the most appealing person, he is a wonderfully flawed character and when he is cornered his sincerity and intensity drive the scenes forward in a thrilling manner. On top of this, he sports rather strong character development – growing out of a lethargic lifestyle where he let life happen to him and discovering how to live proactively and take control of his own fate. He grows jaded and frustrated in a narrative journey that works remarkably well alongside the themes of the show.
Something that might otherwise go unmentioned is the overarching morality and characterization of the rest of the cast. While generally pretty flat characters, they are undoubtedly interesting in their own right and are just as emotional, weak-willed, and scared as Kaiji is and those that aren’t simply act in accordance with their own self-interest. Despite the shameful and appalling actions they are capable of, Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor never goes as far as portraying any of Kaiji’s opponents in a binary or evil light. While their shallow exploration leaves them short of feeling particularly lifelike, the emotion and underlying, human logic by which they operate makes them quite enjoyable to watch.
Likely the most controversial of the show’s elements, the character designs are quite stylized in a sharp and exaggerated fashion that many seem to find unappealing. While crude, the designs are pretty emotive and were integral to the show’s potent ability to convey fear and anxiety. Personally I found that, because of the consistent art quality and the decent quality of animation, the character designs were quite easy to get used to. Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor successfully reinforced the direness and intensity of its narrative with atmospheric visuals such as visual metaphors and surreal imagery. The psychological backdrops of lightning strikes and the like set against dark hues of purple, blue, and black over time ended up feeling a bit uninspired.
Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor’s story is where its previous elements, though not excessively impressive by themselves, are able to shine. The first few episodes offer a pretty gripping introduction into the show – you get a sense of who Kaiji is and the hostile environment he is thrown into as well as the kind of gambling the show will feature going forward. Each of the games played are quite easy to understand but have their own complexities that are further accentuated by the deceitfulness of the people playing them. The first arc manages to make rock, paper, scissors interesting if that’s any kind of metric to go by. If nothing else, Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor presents one of the better instances of a show that will keep you guessing – the outcomes of its games and the behavior of its characters are always engaging and sometimes fairly subversive.
Arguably the only other controversial feature of the show is its slow pacing which manages to stretch out 3 arcs over the course of the show’s 26 episodes. The suspense of each episode and the nature of their gambling subject matter are more than enough to keep things interesting and offset this steady pacing however it may detract for some viewers regardless. Though there are only a small number of different games played, the evolutions in game play and strategic approaches keep them each fresh as they are reinvented and re-imagined each episode.
Perhaps Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor’s’ single most compelling feature were its themes and how they played against Kaiji himself. Ripe with themes of opportunity, greed, trust, betrayal, and self-interest, each game illustrates an engaging microcosm of society which the show doesn’t let go unnoticed. Take or be taken from – kill or be killed. The logic of the show and Kaiji’s own tortured understanding of the world present these notions as facts in a very convincing way. There are a handful of monologues that draw attention to the societal parallels playing out in front of the viewer and these themes give a lot of depth and sincerity to the characters and their actions. Kaiji himself changes quite noticeably in accordance with these themes and watching the interplay between the two and his refusal to acknowledge certain perceived truths was highly entertaining.
Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor had a pretty good soundtrack. The quick pacing of some of its tracks brought vigor to the panicked scenes unfolding while the ominous and atmospheric tracks reinforced their gravity. Between Psycho-esque harsh screeching and a number of memorable riffs the soundtrack wasn’t just intense but it was a good deal of fun.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor was quite the thrill ride and while its aesthetics may be wanting in appeal its story and characters were hard to step away from. If one can look past the character designs and slow pacing then a pretty entertaining show lies beyond.
Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor earns a solid 7 because of its ability to conjure up an intense setting and bring out the worst in people. Its themes and how they influence Kaiji’s development were highly engaging as well as the social commentary they represented. The show felt like it dragged in places and perhaps better fleshing out a few of the more notable characters could have better strengthened the cast but both aspects of the show were fairly strong none the less.
I would recommend Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor to anyone interested in psychological thrillers – the dynamic of the protagonist is a bit different given his initial ineptitude and struggles but the show itself behaves in a familiar and entertaining way. People who enjoy mind games and schemes and the thrill of seeing everything put on the line would do well to pick up this show as there is hardly ever a dull moment.