Review: Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen

[Synopsis]: The second season takes place a short while after the first – Kaiji (Hagiwara Masato), returned to his old lifestyle and haunted by an insurmountable debt, is overjoyed when he encounters Endou on the street. Hoping for another high-stakes chance at gambling he willingly follows Endou only to be kidnapped and transported to an underground construction site. Between the brutal labor, meager portions, and the manipulative foreman, Kaiji finds himself cast into a hell from which he sees but one escape – an underground dice game where he can win his freedom and return to the surface so he can at last clear his debt in one, final, all-out gamble.

[Characters]: 

Anyone familiar with the first season of the show knows just what to expect when it comes to Kaiji’s cast and the second season definitely follows through on those expectations. Kaiji remains the sole central focal point of the show and the atmosphere of the cast is relatively the same as it was priorly, even down to the over-enthusastic narrator. The supporting characters are roughly as interesting as they were in the show’s previous installment however there are far fewer of them to go around and they present a lot less to chew on insofar as characterization and importance. Perhaps the biggest change to the show’s cast is Kaiji himself.

The second season of Kaiji remains true to his development over the course of the first season – though he has regressed some, he is eager to gamble and confident in his abilities if not overly so. While he appears in quite a desperate state at the beginning of the show, he is far more cautious and discerning than before as he patiently attempts to root out the intentions of his opponents. These are good changes and they pay heed to his experiences from the first season however the main difference lies in how the show handles him after his initial reintroduction. Though his resolve and confidence waver from time to time, he has more or less completed his character arc by this point – his skepticism towards gambling preparing him well for the harsh environment that awaits.

[Art/Animation]:

Despite roughly a 3-year gap between productions, the visuals of the second season are much the same as the first. The unconventional character designs remain unchanged yet effective for the same reasons as they were in the previous season, primarily because of their emotive appearances. The visual metaphors make a return in somewhat shorter number though they remained an effective means of dramatizing the games. One minor improvement was in the lightning effect, typically spurred on by a flash of understanding or a great realization. The effect looked better this time around though the token, psychological backdrop remained as unexciting and stale as before. Whether you enjoyed or disliked the visuals from the first season, you can expect more of the same here.

[Story]: 

The story is where Kaiji’s second season sets itself apart the most from its predecessor and that is through a myriad of subtle differences in how the show conducts itself. The first arc is pretty entertaining and hooks the viewer right back into the scenarios that previously enticed them for 26 episodes. The underground construction site offers a brutal backdrop for Kaiji’s desperation and establishing the brutal and relentless nature of the imagery is important because it ultimately represents Kaiji’s fate if he were to lose. Though he is not strictly playing for his life as he did in the first season, he is still effectively doing so as to remain in the construction site would certainly mean his death, never mind his 15-year sentence.

The games themselves progress in a similar way to how they did in the first season however this season only features 2 games, namely an underground variant of chinchiro and pachinko. Those unperturbed by the pacing of the games in the previous installment shouldn’t mind the manner in which they unfold this time around however the pacing of the second game is markedly longer than any before it, its arc taking up a whopping 16 episodes of the season. The end of the show drags considerably as reversal after reversal happens again and again and again – it becomes a very tired development somewhere along the line. The gambling remains engaging and even thrilling at times despite this but the scope of it all is far more broad – Kaiji’s plan of attack more akin to a carefully planned heist rather than a sudden, high-stakes scenario. This change in pacing feeds heavily into my next point which is how the show handles Kaiji himself as a character.

While the first season was quite involved with Kaiji in terms of development and investigating his thought process, this season takes a step back – especially in its latter half. The show sacrifices insight into Kaiji’s thoughts and psyche for the spectacle of his scheme. We know less this time around about what is going on inside his head in order to watch his machinations play out to greater effect, leaving the audience ignorant of how he intends to win the day. Kaiji is still entertaining but the focus of the show definitely shifts towards the game itself and his strategy rather than his individual character.

The final markedly different feature of Kaiji’s second season is in how it drops the thematic discussion that permeated the first season. The societal parallels and themes that played against Kaiji’s own development are dropped in exchange for a more suspenseful atmosphere. This leaves the show feeling thematically far less interesting than the first but generally more exciting to compensate. This is the major structural difference between the two seasons and this installment is far more straightforward with its plot though it loses an engaging element along the way.

[Music]: 

I was surprised by how lively and fun Kaiji’s soundtrack was in the first season and this subsequent season did not disappoint. Not only did the music live up to my expectations but it did so without recycling its successes from before. There were a ton of fresh and memorable tracks which lent themselves excellently to Kaiji’s atmosphere and developments, all the while punctuated by the show’s signature ざわ!

[Final Thoughts and Rating]: 

I went in hoping for more of the same and Kaiji delivered though not without introducing its own fresh share of eccentricities. I enjoyed it practically all of the way through and the only point at which the show notably faltered was in the pacing of its latter arc which unfolded far too slowly and recursively. It would present a thrilling series of events before arriving at the point of absolute victory or defeat before quickly upsetting the situation and turning it on its head. Repeating this too many times eventually wore on the tension and grew slightly irritating though I admit it was all inexplicably quite the roller-coaster ride despite this.

Rating: 7

I gave Kaiji’s second installment a 7 because it presented many of the same strengths as before and measured up to the intrigue and excitement established by the first season. The lack of interest in Kaiji’s character and the absence of the show’s thematic purpose somewhat detracted from my interest however this was made up for by it’s increased suspense and broader story. The show ultimately breaks even between its shortcomings and successes.

[Recommendations]: 

Anybody who found themselves enjoying the first season of the show is pretty much assured to enjoy this second season. The sole caveat to this would be that they may not enjoy it as much as the first if they were heavily invested or particuarly intrigued by the societal commentary offered by the first which the second season does nothing to expand upon or revisit.

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