Kaiji is a manga about a young man named Itou Kaiji driven into a series of increasingly desperate and outlandish gambles to escape debt and save his own life. The first two parts of have received animated adaptations, but currently the manga itself is partway through its fifth series. I would highly recommend at least the first season of the anime, which is a fairly well self-contained arc that captures most of the themes of the series. The tension falls off somewhat in the second season, and though it remains interesting, the tone is less desperate and the implications are less dire.
Kaiji is a one-two punch, where the gambles themselves are intriguing and compelling games of deduction, logic, and chance, but the significance extends beyond the momentary intrigues and into the larger implications of being willing to gamble your life, and what could drive someone into that situation. Come for the head games, stay for the heartache – because, while at first gambling may seem to be a relatively frivolous and lightweight topic compared to the grand and bloody conflicts that are often grist for our fiction, for those stuck in poverty, money is often equivalent to life, and the battles over it are seldom bloodless.
While Kaiji’s possesses extraordinary luck, cleverness, and will to survive, perhaps his strongest trait is his ability to see the best in people, which is often interestingly played off against his opponent’s uncanny ability to see the worst in people. He sees strengths and plays to counter or use them, while his opponents see weaknesses and seek to attack or shore them up. Because he wants to see the best in people, though, he is often exploited and betrayed – the debt that originally ensnares him wasn’t even his own, just a contract he naively cosigned on for a friend, and he only gradually learns not to blindly trust those who seem friendly. His opponent’s, perhaps correctly, see this as a huge weakness – but are ignorant when they consider it solely a weakness. His ability to believe in people is also the strength that allows him to succeed, both to trust allies and, perhaps more crucially, to respect his opponents’ abilities to be clever and insightful and to play against the best version of them, rather than choosing his moves based on some simpleminded strawman of his imagination.
Some might consider the way that Kaiji wins games to be cheating: In many cases he twists the rules of the game, changes the situation in ways that shape the odds in his favor. However, since the games he plays in are inevitably rigged in the first place, set up to be almost impossible to win, his opponents seldom feel that he has broken any rules. Can you accuse someone of cheating when the primary thing that their gambit achieves is exposing and undermining the unfair advantage you’ve already given yourself? Certainly, if the game were otherwise fair, taking the advantages he takes would be cheating, but they aren’t and never were. Fairness and honor are fine ideals, but their most common usage in practice is to prevent people who are weak and isolated from usurping power from those who are strong and backed by institutional power. Who created the idea of honor, and who benefits from it?
Money is important to everyone, but the significance it takes on in Kaiji is monstrous, outsized and harrowing. Those who participate in the games do so because they have little choice, because their debts have become so extreme that passing up any opportunity, however dangerous, to make a large amount of money at once would be unthinkable. And, by being forced to participate in these gambles, more of them lose out than gain: After all, the house always wins. The house, in this case, is The Teiai Group, holder of all these debts and runner of all these gambling events. Even those who win these brutal gambles are usually left still deep in debt, still needing gamble again for any hope of escape – and, in the meanwhile, those running the show can enjoy the bloody spectacle while they profit off of it. Because, once you accept that a human life can be measured by money, the rest – death, mutilation, slavery – is just haggling over numbers. Perhaps few people would agree that human life is worth money, stated in those words – however, as societies, we assume it to be so, assume it to be good and just that food and medicine and other necessities for survival should cost, blithely and easily believe, deep down, that what gives money its value is that it can feed us and shield us, but that its power as a magic talisman is lost if no one is out there goes starving and unsheltered for its lack.
It’s sometimes difficult, when making a story about struggling and surviving in the face of societal evil not to, in so doing, accidentally justify that evil – that is to say, most stories we tell are told of heroic characters succeeding despite tremendous odds, and unfortunately this tends to dovetail into the many myths of meritocracy that are used to prop up systems that exploit and abuse. Many of the ongoing themes of Kaiji are about never giving up hope and always figuring out a plan of action instead of praying for luck to carry you through. From one perspective, this could easily be seen as a story about rugged individualism, about being exceptional and rising above your circumstances and winning freedom by any means possible, about survival of the fittest – certainly, this is how The Teiai Group views their games, as opportunities for the strong to prey on the weak. However, the fact that injustice can be struggled against should never blind us to it being unjust: We can plan all we want, be as clever and strong and smart and lucky as possible, but when the deck is stacked against us the best we can ever manage is to somehow even the odds. When your opponent controls the every mechanism of the game, it’s impossible for most people to win – though it can still happen, sometimes, very rarely, and these rare examples of victory serve to justify the game, demonstrate its fairness and equitability, even as it chews up and spits out human lives by the hundreds and thousands.
At the same time, though, as it highlights the vicious abuses enabled by money, this series laments the inaction and poor decision-making that brought the debtors captured by Teiai’s machinations, and places much of the responsibility for their predicaments upon themselves. They were reckless and driftless, treating everything that came their way as though it were a game, never grasping at an opportunity or truly dedicating themselves, and their lives would never go anywhere without taking a risk – a deadly risk – a desperate gamble. But, in the end, everyone ends up worse off for having taken the gamble, for taking the risk, the proffered opportunity, and Teiai profits. It is an irresistible bait: Advancement, safety, recovery, redemption. Placing this bait is an ingenious method of creating competition, division, and violence among those who would otherwise recognize Teiai, and the profiteering in human suffering they represent, for what they are, and strive against them with all their might.
This method of dividing people with petty rewards is extremely common in the real world as well, in ways only barely more subtle than Teiai’s blood sports.
Kaiji recognizes this evil and rails against it, but in many ways he is powerless to resist. As the series progresses, he comes to crave the sense of meaning and purpose he finds in these do-or-die games of wits. Whenever he’s not on the verge of disaster, on the verge of losing everything and dying ignominiously, he feels purposeless, aimless. Though the series has not yet concluded, at this rate it seems that whatever he wins he will never be able to keep, and ultimately it will end up sieving between his fingers and back into Teiai’s coffers, because he doesn’t know when to stop. Is it addiction? Is it post-traumatic stress? In this situation, is there a difference between not knowing what to do with your life when it isn’t in danger and being let go of the grudge and sorrow of past gambles?
Maybe the house really does always win. If so, we need to change the game.