Hyakkaou Private Academy is not your normal Japanese high school, and it’s not because it is a school for the children of Japan’s political and business elite. It is the only high school in Japan where one’s social status in the school depends entirely on their ability to gamble. At this school, the best and/or richest gamblers make up the school’s student council or otherwise remain on top. The worst and indebted are made house pets, the lowest social class that must serve those who hold their debts. Everyone else keeps their fragile in-between status through donations to the tyrannical student council but always remain one bad move from becoming house pets themselves.
It is in this place that we meet Ryota Suzui, a house pet and ordinary student stuck serving the top gambler Mary Saotome. Ryota’s life is desperate and miserable until transfer student and titular kakegurui, or compulsive gambler in Japanese, Yumeko Jabami appears. On only her first day, Yumeko manages to upset the school’s hierarchy when she sees through Mary’s cheat, beats her at her own game, and forces her to become a house pet. Afterwards, when Ryota confronts her and Yumeko uncovers how she knew about his role in the cheating, he begs for forgiveness. Yumeko, shockingly not at all offended by it or even by the fact that there was cheating to begin with, forgives him, pays off his gambling debts, and becomes his friend.
The rest of this 12-episode season follows Ryota and other side characters as they watch Yumeko defeat and humiliate opponent after opponent, upsetting the school’s hierarchy and disrupting life at Hyakkaou Private Academy as everyone knows it. Along the way, we also get more insight into the lives of the privileged, eccentric, and sometimes borderline psychotic characters that make up this fine academy and some commentary on Japan’s social elite and compulsive gambling.
Kakegurui is adapted from a manga in Square Enix’s Gangan Joker released in 2014, according to the Wikipedia page. The anime originally aired in Japan from July 1 to September 23, 2017. The English dub licensed by Netflix was released this month to an anticipating audience in the states. The series is popular in Japan with a second season reportedly in the words, and I can honestly see why. Though I confess my anime knowledge is limited, I can see the reasons Kakegurui stands out.
The first reason is the nature of the show itself. Kakegurui can be classified as a sports or strategy game anime, and while there are plenty of those to go around, there are not as many taking as mature a focus as this show is. While shows like Yu-Gi-Oh or Kuroko No Basket focus on the drama and action of the game, Kakegurui focuses more sharply on the strategy and psychology of the people who play. The intimate setting associated with gambling allows this as being in the smaller rooms of the school forces these characters to be close together, allowing them to analyze every move and every little action of their opponents. In this setting, what matters is not dramatic movements, although those abound more ridiculously than in Death Note, but the dialogue, the inner monologue, and the subtle movements that make you analyze strategy and decipher motivations along with the other gamblers.
The only downside of this kind of focus is that, at times, the characters’ thought processes can move so fast that it’s difficult to follow if you are not paying careful attention to the dialogue and the monologues. These characters are highly intelligent, so it can be hard to understand their strategies. This is not the kind of show anyone can watch with their brain off. It’s possible to follow but be prepared to pay attention.
Another reason is the show’s main protagonist and compulsive gambler, Yumeko. She is the only character who is never given any inner monologue, so she remains mysterious for this season at least. As the perfect gambler, Yumeko is hard to read. When she speaks, she is mostly pleasant and polite. To an extent, it is genuine, except when it’s not, usually with her enemies, but even with friends, the honesty of her intentions can be hard to tell. One thing is clear, though. Yumeko is addicted to gambling and gets euphoric thrills from it. She doesn’t care about being the best or clawing her way up a social ladder. All she wants is to have a good time and a good time it certainly is.
Yumeko is wickedly smart and can see through every cheat. It is thrilling to watch her defeat and break her opponents psychologically until they are forced to face their flaws. While it at times borders on going too far, Yumeko is usually gracious. She is more than willing to forgive and befriend the people she has defeated. Two of her opponents receive character arcs and become friends and allies. She doesn’t let her opponents’ losses change how she treats them.
The other characters on interesting, too. Her friends and the show’s larger cast are each worthy of an article of their own, but for the sake of time, I’ll say they’re interesting, crazy, and thought-provoking, which leads me to my last point.
The final reason is this show’s dark and clever commentary on elite Japanese society. Yumeko’s graciousness is a sharp contrast to most of the school, because many of the school’s top students are like their parents. They are pretentious façades who act nice on the surface beguiling their often cruel, destructive, and insane intentions underneath, especially when it comes to the system’s losers. Seeking money and power are everything. It doesn’t matter to them if people are destroyed, dreams are crushed, or if false relationships are forged in the process. All that matters is success. The show is brutally honest about how damaging this idolatry is psychologically to both its victims and to those in power.
In conclusion, I love this show. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and thrilling sports anime, Kakegurui is available on Netflix in dub and sub.
By Casey Williams