By Sean Cabot
Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s award-winning comic “Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji,” follows the story of a destitute man participating in a deceptively simple game with high-stakes twists in order to escape poverty.
If that premise sounds familiar, it’s because “Kaiji”- Krst published in 1996 and still running today – directly inspired Hwang Dong-hyuk to write and direct Netflix’s new smash-hit series “Squid Game.” The similarities are apparent, but while “Squid Game” focuses on children’s games, “Kaiji” focuses on games of chance.
Ultimately, it would do no good to excessively compare the two – “Kaiji” is best examined in its own context.
Nobuyuki Fukumoto established himself by writing several comics centered on talented mahjong players in the 1980s, a time of great prosperity for Japan. His work around this time reflects an idealistic notion of economic opulence represented by the sheer talent and enthusiasm of his heroes.
Then the ’90s hit – the “Lost Decade” – as it’s known in Japan. The dreamlike bubble economy burst into a harsh new reality of recession and malaise that many insist plagues the nation to this day.
Kaiji’s “gambling apocalypse” is that reality.
Gone are the romantic high rollers, replaced with scathing indictments of the gambling industry. Protagonists who were so talented as to deflate the tension of Fukumoto’s high-stakes gambles are substituted with a shiftless – albeit crafty, loser.
The result is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest comics ever written.
The series follows high-school graduate Kaiji Ito, who has struggled to find employment in light of the recession. Furious and depressed, he vents his frustrations by drinking, losing petty gambles, and vandalizing expensive cars.
This lifestyle is upended when a loan shark comes knocking to collect on an unpaid cosigned loan that has been accruing interest for 14 months. Suddenly, Kaiji is struck with a debt approximately equal to $35,000.
His only chance to be rid of it is by attending a large-scale gamble held by his creditors on the cruise ship “Espoir,” at the risk of worsening his debt. That gamble is a 100-man rock-paper-scissors battle royale.
Each person must use up 12 cards, four of each possible hand, while also competing to earn enough star medals to avoid being spirited away by organizers.
This game lasts almost a thousand horrifyingly tense pages worth of comics – twice the length of “Watchmen.”
It is also only the first of many gambles, with rigged Cee-lo, an impossible pachinko machine, and minefield mahjong not far behind.
The art that highlights those gambles is rough – especially early on – but what it lacks in visual polish, it makes up for with unmatched dread. Kaiji is forced to devise elaborate strategies to survive these gambles, with intense focus placed on the mind games he plays with his competitors.
And not only does he often lose, he loses bad. But, even worse than his losses are the questions he’s forced to grapple with.
The series opines that the way society is organized forces those of limited means to prioritize
themselves at any and all costs – even the lives of others. Kaiji’s own peers often seem like worse enemies than the game’s organizers.
But its ultimate takeaway is hopeful. Kaiji realizes the cruelty of these systems and resolves to fight them while saving and trusting others – even when it seems that doing so will get him killed.
Even the lowliest of human life is still precious.
“Kaiji” is a superlative comic, but if comics aren’t your thing, it has received multiple screen adaptations. Netflix’s Chinese-produced “Animal World,” starring Michael Douglas, is rather faithful save for some bafflingly shoehorned action scenes.
The definitive adaptation is ultimately Yuzo Sato’s 2007 animated version. It translates Fukumoto’s art into a more refined style while retaining its distinctive edge and features a career defining performance by Masato Hagiwara as Kaiji.
However you experience “Kaiji,” you will not miss out. With a new release from Denpa, there is no better time to begin this all-time classic comic.
A+, Take a gamble on it. You’re guaranteed to win.