Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor – Handling Tension

Twenty-six episodes, each twenty minutes long. 520 minutes. Divided by 60 – it’s just over eight and a half hours. If you’ve got 9 hours to spend, Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor is a good way to spend it.

Ito Kaiji is a degenerate, depressive youth with a truly impressive nose, who is saddled with inescapable debt, the result of a shady friend begging him to be the guarantor to some unspecified loans. Kaiji lives a listless, meaningless life. One day. he is approached by the suit-and-sunglasses figure Endo, a representative of a mysterious company, who offers him a way out; a night of gambling on a cruise ship, with millions at stake. It’s a chance for Kaiji to clear all his debts in one fell swoop; to carve out a life worth living and return to society.

No more plot details are necessary – to say anything more would spoil the fun.

Kaiji, naturally, has a lot to say on the subject of gambling.

The mistakes Kaiji makes are ultimately real setbacks: rather than returning him to any sort of status quo, the odds always ensure that Kaiji is in flux. Either he is ascending or descending; there is no middle ground to relax with here. And he learns quickly that it’s always possible to fall deeper – and bet higher. As the series continues, he fights against bigger obstacles, and foes progressively more smug and large-chinned – and the stakes increase in size as well.

Kaiji is drawn with a unique art style, with thick lines, vibrant colour, and character designs that look more like caricatures – in fact, they remind me slightly of the cover illustrations for Wicked!, that old children’s book series by Paul Jennings and Morris Gleitzman. Only far better. But the style, more than anything else, is what gives this work a sense of personality – Kaiji is sharp and jagged from every angle, and the view of his face from the front only reinforces the idea many characters have of him as a stray dog. Exaggeration is par for the course, and illustrative of character, here. Subtlety is pointless. The big, muscly guys in suits and sunglasses are exactly what you’d expect; the fat foreman who smiles often and rarely opens his eyes is an exploitative bastard, etc etc – personality is evident through appearance.

Unfortunately, while you’d expect that to make for a quicker experience, the second series will disappoint. Kaiji is a slow-paced show – 26 episodes make for four different games. This works well for the more complex gambles with multiple hurdles for Kaiji to overcome. For example, the game of Restricted Rock Paper Scissors (it’s a lot more complex than you’d expect) is plagued by twists and turns and genuine setbacks that make the arc thrilling. The drawing of lots at the end of the season, having only one to two steps, is less so. A narrator who seems to be having far too much fun livens up the proceedings with some very colourful metaphors – Kaiji sinks into quicksand, launches himself into space and over cliffs and into hell; his body melts, and ages, and is frequently horribly maimed in his imagination.

The narrator makes things take too long. Discarding the fact that Kaiji is told visually, he insists on relating the events that have happened, are happening, and could potentially happen multiple times in each episode – which was only compounded in the second series. The second series, despite being the same length as the first, had only two different games in it, and Kaiji’s method of winning at the second game was apparent to everyone, even the villain, at least eight episodes before he was able to pull it off. Most of those remaining episodes are just pointless, annoying obstacles, that don’t succeed in pushing his back against the wall quite as skillfully or finally as the first series. Probably because that state is the closest the show gets to any sort of status quo.

This, I feel, is the real strength of Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor. The show’s at it’s best when Kaiji’s stressed and the stakes are high. Tension makes it. And tension’s fickle in fiction; you can’t stretch the moment too long or it crosses the line and becomes frustrating. Kaiji‘s already a slow-paced show to begin with, but the second arc of the second series really takes it too far and highlights all the show’s negative aspects – the repetitive narrator, the deus-ex-machina aspects of the plot (which rarely if ever showed up before) and a few annoying anime cliches, like having the protagonist’s faces flash on the screen in sequence during a dramatic reveal. In a show as visually striking and unique as Kaiji, seeing that tired technique is just a little disappointing.

MADHOUSE, the animating studio that adapted Kaiji, was ironically taking a gamble with the pacing itself – trying to preserve the tension of the manga and underscore Kaiji’s more careful moments, while avoiding the temptation to start dragging and taking too long. For the most part they succeed. Every story needs to control pacing to some extent, but it’s more important in visual media because the audience can’t consume that at a different pace without ruining it.

It’s possible to speed-read. It’s possible to rush through a game, or understand a painting’s composition quickly. You won’t get as much out of it, but you can do it. It’s impossible to watch anything at twice the speed without utterly ruining it, and you wouldn’t want to do that with Kaiji anyway. This applies to music, obviously, but anything with video is much more difficult to design and create, making Kaiji that much more skillfully done.

It’s something you should watch at least once. Beautifully handled adaptation. Nice soundtrack also.

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