Hyakkaou Private Academy houses the most privileged and wealthiest students of Japan. It is an institution with a very peculiar curiculum; instead of good grades, the student hierarchy is determined by games where students have to read their opponent, bet their fortunes and hope they don’t lose. The winners are showered with riches and praise, while the losers end up in debt and are reduced to pet status. When transfer student Yumeko Jabami arrives, the school’s hierarchy begins to collapse as they discover someone who enjoys gambling purely for the thrill, and not just for status.
Kakegurui originally aired in Japan with 12 episodes between July and September 2017. Produced by MAPPA (Yuri!! On Ice, Ushio & Tora, In This Corner Of The World), and directed by Yuichiro Hayashi (Garo: Divine Flame), Kakegurui is the adaptation of the manga written by Homura Kawamoto and illustrated by Toru Naomura. Whilst airing on Japanese TV, it was licensed by Netflix Japan, with the intention of airing globally, however, there has been a very long delay in its global release, of which its real reasons are still largely unknown. With subtitles taking considerably less time to produce and manage, it was a matter of finding production teams to dub the shows into various languages, perhaps? Nonetheless, despite outcry from anime fans who had been waiting for this for so long, it is here now, and I can tell you that, as someone who has also been eagerly waiting for an official release, it doesn’t disappoint…well, it sort of depends on your tastes in anime, as this show is not for everyone.
Gambling is, for the large part, illegal in Japan, with the exception of pachinko machines, lottery and certain sports (as better detailed here), although lawmakers are currently pushing forward with changes to legislation. One popular gambling game is Jankenpon (rock-paper-scissors), which can be played on mobile devices, as shown in the very first episode where Yumeko is successful in beating class beauty Mary Saotome. I think the fact that because of its illegality in Japan, Kakegurui is made all the more interesting. These rich kids are all indulging in an activity they shouldn’t, and are literally risking their lives and their family names for it. It takes someone like Yumeko, who is capable of paying off any debt she ends up accumulating anyway but chooses not to, for their precious system to be shaken up.
Yumeko Jabami arrives at this almost adult-less academy giving the impression that she is some naive little girl. Interestingly, while she is the main protagonist of the show, she is not portrayed as the ‘narrator’; our experiences of her are always seen via another character, whether it be classmates Mary and Ryota, or any of the absurd members of the Student Council, who range from loli gamer to psychotic death fetishist. Grades mean absolutely nothing here; gambling is everything in this show. It defines who the popular kids are, who the nerds are, who the bullies are, and who the bullied are. That old saying of ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ applies here, as all of these spoiled rich kids throw their parents’ money around like it’s candy, only realising when it’s too late that their good/bad luck will affect them for the rest of their lives. Kakegurui shows us that money brings out the worst in people, and while we can be entertained by all of the absurd kind of characters that show up here, we can see that if their parents weren’t loaded, then they would all be sent to either jail or a mental hospital. Kakegurui also greatly benefits from its striking visuals. Even the strong emphasis on the colours red and black give the heavy metaphor of gambling. The show’s eroticism is plain to see and when it appears it is thrust into your face, but everyone is, mostly, fully clothed, and even the more risque scenes are given to us without us fearing that the show will go full ecchi.
But while the show benefits from great visuals, strong character designs, and the kind of absurd yet addictive school plot that can only exist in anime shows, it does let itself down on one key thing; there is not much in the way of backstory when it comes to Yumeko herself. While we see mini-stories concerning some of the secondary characters (from the first-year girl who likes nail collecting, to the house pet forced to cut her long hair), precious little is known about our main character. A second series of Kakegurui has been green-lit, however, so this could perhaps give room for Yumeko to develop.
The soundtrack, however, sets the mood for the entire show. You know that kind of seedy jazz music that would be perfect for a poker night, or in a grubby casino? Well it’s all here. I’m not even one for jazz music, but I was almost won over in this, because any other kind of music (idol, rock, even classical/opera) would make this show look like a disaster. Along with that, Saori Hayami’s Yumeko gives us a character we can call a ‘insane gambling goddess waifu’; in her we hear a rather two-sided character, with one side being sweetness and honey and the other sadistic and merciless. Her English counterpart, Erica Harlacher, also does a very good job at playing a character with a secret sadistic side to her. Along with her is the well-renowned Kira Buckland, who plays Mary Saotome. I think Buckland is great for a show like this; hearing her voice in this brings me back to when she played the sadistic Hiyoko Saionji in the equally insane Danganronpa franchise. The opening theme is “Deal With The Devil” by Tia, and the ending theme is “LAYon-theLINE” by D-Selections.
I can understand some fans’ frustration in Kakegurui‘s delay; the show had received such high critical praise, and yet we had to wait, and wait, and then wait some more. This delay can be seen by some as an example of how they see Netflix don’t appreciate anime. As someone who is a very rare breed and has defended Netflix’s place in the anime community for a good long while, even though I accept the frustration, I don’t see why these same people should seize on this and throw mud at Netflix just because of this. Netflix has exclusive rights of this seasons’ Violet Evergarden, Devilman Crybaby, Fate/Apocrypha and Little Witch Academia (which became my favourite show of 2017), with plenty more exclusives to come in the future. On top of that, they have a very good selection of licensed anime shows (that vary from country to country, because of their own licensing laws); just recently, the classic Full Metal Alchemist franchise (both the original series, its sequel Brotherhood, and the movie The Sacred Star of Milos) was added to their library, with the live-action movie to be added on February 19th. With the simulcast of Violet Evergarden and now the long-awaited release of Kakegurui in its entirety, Netflix have a plan up their sleeves, and so far they are silencing the naysayers.
Netflix have a lot of plans when it comes to anime in 2018; they mentioned in one of their earnings review videos that a ‘sizable chunk’ of the US$8 billion they had earmarked for acquiring licenses would go towards anime shows. As the new guy at Japan Curiosity, I will not be consigned to just making the tea (although that is one of my jobs); I plan to review new anime shows that appear on Netflix as they come. With Children of the Whales and B: The Beginning pencilled in for a March release, and The Lost Song and AICO -Incarnation- following soon after, and this season’s Fate/Extra: Last Encore guaranteed for some time this year, I’m going to be rather busy. But it’s okay; I like busy. Oh, and in case you’re wondering why no Violet Evergarden coverage yet, well I am choosing to wait until it has finished in April before writing a full review.
Here’s the Netflix trailer for Kakegurui:
If you are looking for a psychological thriller that gives you characters you can love for being the insane and over-the-top type, then Kakegurui is most definitely the show for you. With the second season coming, here is hoping that Netflix won’t make the same mistake again and leave it in production limbo, which what seems likely to be the reason for its delay in the West.
This show has kept us waiting for a long time, and its arrival in the West is another show to put Netflix higher up on the anime streaming ladder. With the English dub being better than I expected, you can tell that Netflix made sure to make its release as perfect as they could. This is a very grown-up show though, and can polarise its audience when its more absurd moments come along, but the kind of fans who love Danganronpa will adore this.