I have a great deal of respect for anime that can make typically dull activities feel genuinely exciting without the need for otherworldly elements. Similar to the brilliant Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma in more ways than one, MAPPA’s Kakegurui manages to translate the thrill of gambling into a genuinely engrossing watch. Its execution is far from perfect, but what Kakegurui lacks in strong storytelling it over delivers in style.
The Opening Gambit
The premise of characters attending an elite school where they hone their skills at a particular pastime isn’t exactly original, but Kakegurui’s take on it is a bit different. Hyakkaou Private Academy is a school for the children of wealthy political figures, corporation presidents and major moguls. Because it’s imperative that these students learn good judgement and the art of manipulation for when they graduate, the student council designed gambling to be a core facet of school life. Students play for high stakes daily, and if they should fall into debt, their status is reduced to that of a “house pet” and they’re treated like trash. Just like in the world these students are preparing to enter, money reigns supreme.
Ryouta Suzui finds himself in the house pet role after losing millions of yen to Mary Saotome. The typical weak and submissive male protagonist (Yuki from The Future Diary comes to mind), Ryouta has all but given up hope on leading a normal life before the happy-go-lucky Yumeko Jabami transfers in and starts upsetting the school’s fragile power dynamic.
The main story arc centers around Yumeko’s insatiable desire to gamble with the highest stakes possible–and that means taking on the ominous and seemingly-undefeated student council president. Just like any good anime with an elite governing group, the student council sports a colorful cast of characters that all have their own motivations for power and success. Though Yumeko’s showdowns with each of them feel important and tense, it’s hard to shake the feeling that studio MAPPA should’ve spent more time building these mini bosses up a bit more before Yumeko challenges them.
Dealt a Bad Hand
In fact, the entirety of the season seems a bit rushed. Every scene flows into the next well enough, but aside from a two-episode deviance in the middle, Kakegurui is focused solely on Yumeko’s bouts with the student council. This issue stems from two sources. For one, Yumeko enters the anime as someone with extreme skill. This isn’t latent skill that needs to be awakened–it’s skill that’s already at her fingertips. Having an all-powerful protagonist vying for the ultimate challenge can be interesting, but there needs to be enough side arcs apart from that pursuit to make the journey feel less rigid.
The second problem with Kakegurui’s pacing stems from its core subject matter: gambling. Gambling isn’t necessarily something someone can get better at. One can gain experience and learn general tactics, but gambling is always a chance-based activity. This means that there’s never a chance for Yumeko and Ryota to do something like train together after school or study special techniques like one might do in a traditional sports, fighting or card game anime. Thus, with no purpose to engaging in side activities and no depiction of life outside the school gambling ecosystem, Kakegurui ends up hurrying to a climax that might have been more impactful if it had come in the show’s second or third season.
“The absurdity of seeing that your free will means nothing…that right there is gambling.” –Yumeko Jabari
It’s saying something when a poorly paced show is still more gripping than many of its peers. Kakegurui is one of the most visually dynamic, exciting anime I’ve seen in recent memory. Raw emotions of characters are horrifyingly shown via exaggerated facial expressions reminiscent of Prison School. The encounters with each of the student council members are wildly different and memorable in their own ways (even if several of the games aren’t explained too clearly). And though they’re generally just there for moral support, Ryouta and the rest of the crew are a great contrast to the manic, obsessive personality of Yumeko.
Kakegurui is a sometimes silly, often intoxicating anime that had all the makings of something truly special. Its stylish presentation does a top-notch job of selling the stakes that these characters are playing for every time they make a bet, and it’s tough not to both root for Yumeko and fear her as a slightly insane protagonist. The story being seemingly crammed into season 1 means that we never see Yukemo truly develop by the time the ending credits roll, though, and other dynamics (such as her eventual group of friends) end up feeling stitched on just for the sake of being there. The fact that a season 2 has been greenlit should be cause for celebration however, as regardless of its shortcomings, Kakegurui is worth being watched if just for its gripping gambling bouts alone.
You can watch Kakegurui on Netflix HERE.