Kakegurui – Anime Review
Synopsis: High roller Yumeko Jabami plans to clean house at Hyakkaou Private Academy, a school where students are evaluated solely on their gambling skills. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Kakegurui presents an over the top, exaggerated take on underground gambling that too often wallows in formulaic proceedings which frequently damage an otherwise fun concept. While I’m overall positive on the series, it suffers from significant failings. To start with however, let’s talk about where Kakegurui excels.
Animation wise Kakegurui is gorgeous. Netflix has a knack for nabbing up anime with well crafted visuals, high detail, and appealing art styles. Kakegurui is the poster child for expressive character designs, frequently delivering on some of the most ridiculous, absurd, and overall well detailed faces. The art hits intense highs whenever our gambling obsessives really get into the proceedings, with face work that rivals Golden Boy for sheer visual comedy and flair.
The series features an ‘undercurrent,’ although it’s increasing overt, of sexual imagery and reactions. Yumeko Jabami, our compulsive gambler, is frequently aroused by her gambling exploits, and the turn of the game. It’s the same with several other characters, adding a heavy tint of sexuality to the proceedings, bound to make Kakegurui uncomfortable for the unsuspecting viewer. The first episode does an admirable job of letting audiences know this, giving forewarning before things begin to really ramp up. That said, it’s not as forthcoming in warning viewers of its darker sexual nature.
Kakegurui gets rapey, featuring villainous characters that seek to deflower our lead. Unlike this Winter’s Killing Bites, Kakegurui makes no effort early on to let viewers know it plans to feature such overtly dark and uncomfortable developments. There are other ways in which Kakegurui gets uncomfortable. Villains who seek to cause physical harm, like ripping people’s finger nails off, or who are sexually aroused by the thought of blowing their own brains out. It’s all part of the series’ absurdity, to depict gambling in the most ridiculous light possible.
Kakegurui is also a lot like Food Wars, taking traditionally non-dramatic subject matter and turning the concept up to eleven. It’s a very traditionally ‘shonen’ thing to do, although I wouldn’t describe Kakegurui as particularly shonen. Kakegurui and Food Wars share more than turning their drama up to eleven however. Both suffer from an overuse of formula. Food Wars has become increasingly predictable, both the manga and now even the anime as it stretches itself into the manga’s altogether most disappointing arc. It’s because the series adheres to a stringent formula that makes most match ups predictable, especially the more audiences experience that same flow of events. Kakegurui is no different and perhaps becomes tired even faster than Food Wars. Outside of a handful of match ups between Yumeko and her ‘adversary of the week’ that change things up, the series largely follows one basic formula: Yumeko challenges an opponent, starts decent, then begins losing, learns how they’re cheating, and turns the tables on them.
There are three match ups where it doesn’t play as the above, but overall the series is so married to this formula that it makes the majority of the gambling feel surprisingly boring. I found myself increasing tuning out during these match ups as the series built up the drama and suspense for an outcome I knew was inevitable.
Thankfully Kakegurui isn’t just the gambling. No, the series is actually at its best in between all that. Whenever we’re preparing for Yumeko to challenge her next opponent we’re treated to fun character work, reveals, and twists in the plot. The series accomplishes this by avoiding some of Food Wars’ other issues: heavy backstories. It’s not uncommon in shonen focused series to dole out lengthy flashbacks to help define its characters. While the exploration of the cast can be fun, it often damages pacing and flow.
Kakegurui keeps these flashbacks to a minimum, giving us the briefest of understanding for our latest villains before snapping us back to the present. It keeps things tight, fast moving, and allows us to rush along through the story at a pace that satisfies even when the gambling itself doesn’t.
Matching the tone, the character themselves are often wildly over the top. Yumeko Jabami herself is already borderline insane, with many of her opponents veering into similar, off-kilter territory. Our lead male character, Suzui Ryouta, is perhaps the only truly normal high schooler in the entire series. Like the lead from Killing Bites, he acts as a self-insert for the audience, or perhaps better described as a window through which the more average and normal viewer can view the series. He’s the straight-man, constantly taken-aback by the insanity of those around him as they seek to gamble away everything they have. At times his straight-man shtick can drag, particularly during the final episodes, as the series has long established the pure insanity with which our cast works, making Ryouta feel entirely superfluous.
The only other character worth noting is Mary Saotome, Yumeko’s first opponent. She forms the basis for many of Yumeko’s subsequent encounters, acting as a baseline for how many of the other villains work: Seemingly nice on the outside, rotten on the inside. Quite a few girls work under this mechanic, and it’s only as the season comes to a close that we abandon that tired characterization in favor of characters who wear their true personas from the get go.
Despite Kakegurui’s formulaic short-comings, I generally found myself enjoying the series. It’s only further marred by an uneventful, non-effectual anime only ending that seeks to “wrap up” the season, while leaving room for a follow up (Which has already been announced.) That means nothing of consequence happens in the final episode, and the series ends not with a bang, but a whimper. Still, Kakegurui offers such fun and wild characters, alongside an overall amusingly ridiculous and intense atmosphere, that I still had tons of fun binging through the series. I can honestly say I look forward to a season 2.
If you’re unwilling to wait for Season 2 you’re not entirely out of luck. The anime remains largely faithful to the manga, making it easy to jump into the post anime chapters. The physical releases for Western audiences are only just catching up with what the anime adapted however, meaning if you want to surpass the anime’s content you’ll need to make use of Kakegurui’s digital single issue releases for $1.99 on Amazon, Comixology and other such storefronts. Ultimately I’m not that enamored with Kakegurui that I’m dying to see what happens next. It’s a fun series, hindered largely by tired formula. But if that adherence to overly predictable isn’t a deal breaker, there’s still plenty to enjoy.
Kakegurui is available for streaming via Netflix.