Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Continuing with the month's "Is it good" theme, this post is going to center on something I've been wanting to write about for a while: a recent anime called Kakegurui, based on an ongoing manga series of the same name. The show's title is usually translated as "Compulsive Gambler," though the actual Japanese title also carries a connotation of insanity--as in, it implies that gambling is a form of madness.
Kakegurui is a weird anime. The basic premise is fairly simple: the setting is a private high school for children of the uber-wealthy, and social standing within the school is determined entirely by the size of donations given to the school's student council. Additionally, gambling is strongly encouraged, and anyone who falls into debt due to gambling becomes a slave to whomever they are indebted to. While this premise is itself fairly unique, it's still the type of premise that seems fairly standard for a psychological drama anime--it's superficially reminiscent of Classroom of the Elite, for example.
Where Kakegurui diverges from comparable series is its presentation. Where something like Classroom of the Elite mostly consists of characters scheming and debating existentialism, Kakegurui constantly has a lot of different things happening at once. Moments without action or tension are rare, and that action is usually paired with various forms of sensory overload. Kakegurui's art is exceptionally detailed in ways that are more often unsettling than pretty, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the show's frequent close-ups of characters' eyes.
The level of detail in these images--from the lines in the iris to the way the light reflects off the eyeball--exemplifies the purposeful intensity that characterizes Kakegurui's animation. Most animated series try to draw characters such that they look just realistic enough to be believable while also maintaining the attractive cleanliness typical of the current "standard" anime art style. Kakegurui sometimes adheres to this standard style--usually in less tense moments--but when the characters break down and demonstrate their emotional ugliness, their art becomes suddenly much more detailed, pushing intentionally into the "uncanny valley" between realism and sub-realism. A character who is enraged, for example, will suddenly be drawn with every fold of the character's skin intensely pronounced, and with every drop of sweat or snot or saliva plainly visible.
The show also tends to pair these moments with elements of eroticism. Kakegurui is rife with innuendo, with exaggerated body shapes, with questionable camera angles, and so on. There is so much of this, in fact, that a friend of mine who also watched the show came to the conclusion afterwards that Kakegurui is just well-disguised ecchi--in other words, a show that's meant to be sexually appealing for its own sake, catering to a primarily male audience and without a purpose beyond eroticism.
This is where the "Is it good" theme turns up--I disagree with that assessment of the show, for a number of reasons. Before I can go into detail about why, though, we need to go back in time 90-or-so years.
Erotic, Grotesque Nonsense
In the buildup to World War II, an artistic movement called "Ero Guro Nonsense" emerged in Japan. It was essentially a countercultural movement, featuring gruesome, erotic, absurd content that was meant to challenge societal norms and attitudes. A full-scale analysis of the movement--the reasons it appeared and what it meant--is beyond the scope of this post, but the point is in the mid-1900s intentionally offensive works became a significant force in the Japanese literary world.
Perhaps the most popular author who wrote in this vein is Edogawa Ranpo--a pen name meant as a play on Edgar Allen Poe. Ranpo is known largely for his mystery fiction. He's the creator of Akechi Kogoro, sometimes referred to as "The Japanese Sherlock Holmes," and his works have a significant influence on much Japanese fiction even now. Many of Ranpo's works, though--and particularly some of his earlier short stories--center on the gore, insanity, and eroticism characteristic of the Ero Guro Nonsense movement. These sorts of works were meant to unsettle and provoke, directly or indirectly raising societal issues and often drawing visceral reactions from those who read them.
Modern Japanese horror owes a debt to this movement, of course, but today's horror serves somewhat of a different purpose even if it is superficially similar. Ranpo's works aren't "scary" so much as they are "disturbing." Similarly, sexuality in Ero Guro Nonsense isn't meant to be "arousing," but rather through its association with the often gruesome subject matter becomes "disgusting." One of Ranpo's more famous short stories, for example is "The Human Chair," about a man who wants to experience what a chair experiences and so has himself sewn into a chair, eventually becoming infatuated with one of the chair's frequent occupants. Another example is "The Centipede," a story about a quadriplegic soldier and his abusive wife. These are uncomfortable, thought-provoking works, but they aren't "fun" in the sense modern horror can be.
Kakegurui is, in the broadest sense, and homage to this literary tradition. Kakegurui's characters and premise are as absurd as those of "The Human Chair," and the show doesn't lack for gruesome moments. Some of these are as simple as the disgustingly detailed character art, but some are more aggressive--there's a character who enjoys ripping peoples' fingernails off, for example, which is every bit as repulsive as it sounds. This is, I think, the strongest case against Kakegurui being ecchi. While there are moments of eroticism, these play out largely as they do in Ero Guro Nonsense, paired with images or events that trigger feelings of disgust. Moments that are meant to be erotic or sensual are invariably drawn in the off-putting, hyper-detailed style, in many cases featuring glowing red eyes that give the characters an air similar to the sorts of inhuman beasts you might find in monster movies.
Rather than being meant to arouse, the show's sexuality accentuates its grotesque absurdity. There are, in fact, no clear romantic pairings in the show. The innuendo comes at moments of dramatic tension rather than moments of sexual tension and as such often reads as more symbolic than literal. The thrill of what are acknowledged to be self-destructive behaviors--gambling, self-harm, senseless betrayal, et cetera--is what sparks the show's erotic moments, and the resulting arousal leads the characters to continue engaging in those self-destructive behaviors.
Power and Control
If we accept that the gore and eroticism in Kakegurui is purposeful and not present only for its own sake, the logical next question is, of course, "Why?" Why dredge up an old literary movement that is meant primarily to offend?
Kakegurui is fundamentally about power and control. The show follows Jabami Yumeko (and her hapless milquetoast of an assistant, Suzui Ryota) as she gambles against progressively more powerful figures in the school's social structure, defeating them and emotionally breaking them in the process. All of Kakegurui's characters are awful people, including the ostensible protagonists, and near the end of the first season it is made clear that Yumeko is quite similar to the main antagonist--and not in a "one is the good version of the other" sort of way. The only difference between Yumeko and the antagonists is that Yumeko is more competent than most of them and she has less formal authority when the show begins (and is thus cast as an underdog of sorts).
As the show proceeds, Yumeko gradually builds up her authority within the school's social system, not by amassing wealth, but by destroying her opponents as thoroughly as she can. Most of her games end with her opponent suffering a mental breakdown of some sort (in a way that's almost reminiscent of the comically over-the-top acknowledgements of guilt at the ends of Ace Attorney trials). Yumeko's unusual methods are, in fact, what make her threatening to the antagonists. She is fabulously wealthy--to the point where she can wager hundreds of millions of yen without worrying about the potential losses--but she chooses not to buy her way to the top of the school's social structure. And, again, she doesn't do this to be heroic or to change society for the better or anything--she just likes gambling. She enjoys the self-destructive nature of the enormous bets she places, and she likes outwitting her opponents and dragging them down with her.
She's, uh, pretty far from being a heroic figure.
Yumeko's refusal to follow the rules of the community she's placed in becomes a form of power for her, to the point where she intentionally retains her position at the bottom of the formal social hierarchy--by refusing to pay her debts--specifically so that she can compel certain individuals to gamble with her.
Curiously, though, the thing Yumeko pursues (at least overtly) is not control, but rather the lack thereof. She insists that she loves the risk involved in gambling, not winning specifically, and in all but one of the wagers she is careful to leave a chance for an unlucky loss. She has no scruples about cheating in order to stack the odds in her favor, but she refuses to go so far as guaranteeing herself a win, as that would eliminate the risk and, for her, defeat the purpose of gambling. Yumeko, in other words, is powerful enough that she can afford to indulge herself in severe risks. There is no rational value to her in doing so, and her risk-taking almost always does more harm than good for the people around her, but she does it regardless.
There is an obvious paradox in Kakegurui being about power while centering on gambling. All of Kakegurui's characters (with the possible exceptions of Yumeko, Suzui, and the central antagonist) are obsessed with gaining and maintaining power, and they will do anything in the service of reaching that end. Gambling, however, is a voluntary relinquishing of control. Bad luck can result in big losses, and there's nothing you can do about that. Kakegurui reconciles this by using gambling itself as a metaphor for the search for power and control. In the same way that Kakegurui's characters cheat time and time again to make themselves more likely to win their games, they also cheat and lie to and betray each other in an attempt to "win" socially. There is always the chance for a bad draw to send things crashing down, but those with money and connections are able to literally and figuratively load the dice in their favor.
You could, then, interpret the show as implying that the ones who will ultimately come out on top are those who relish and actively seek the risk in gambling--and in life--rather than fearfully trying to mitigate it, but this, too, is an oversimplification. Even in Yumeko's case, gambling--and the power struggle it symbolizes--is not productive. Her acceptance of risk and loss does not make the downside any less problematic. Gambling is a self-destructive behavior, no matter what. Yumeko gets away with it not because she is okay with risk, but because she is so powerful to begin with that she doesn't care. Her combination of intelligence, connections, and money means that she can lose big and there are no long-term consequences for her. She has no disincentive to wager the lives of others in her pursuit of power and satisfaction, and she is, just by virtue of her social connections, effectively above the social norms that normally hold behavior in check. It is possible that Yumeko's very stability and self-assuredness are what make her enjoy risk. She knows that she can't lose, so she seeks the illusion that she might, even as it hurts the people around her.
The use of eroticism is meant, I think, to highlight how completely deranged Kakegurui's characters--and particularly Yumeko--are. The characters derive intense pleasure from putting themselves and others in potentially devastating danger, and Kakegurui chooses to demonstrate that by having significant risks produce apparent sexual pleasure. The juxtaposition of ecstasy with gruesome tragedy creates a visceral, emotional sense that the characters are both corrupt and deranged, which is more powerful than the simple intellectual awareness that the things that are happening in the show are wrong. This is another strike against Kakegurui being erotic for its own sake.
While Kakegurui is clearly about power, the question of why it's about power is somewhat more difficult to answer. I can venture a guess, though, and it has to do with the timing of the original manga. Kakegurui started publication in March 2014, when the global financial crisis was in more recent memory and public understanding of what, exactly, had happened was still settling. For context, The Big Short was released in 2015--questions about why and how the economic collapse had happened were still percolating. I think Kakegurui is an (exaggerated) criticism--bordering on satire--of the types of investment attitudes and behaviors that ultimately led to the subprime mortgage crisis that threw the world into what was quite possibly the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.
It's not uncommon (especially outside of business circles) for people to liken financial markets to casinos, envisioning wealthy investors placing bets on stocks and bonds and the like, hoping the prices will go up. This is a rather simplistic view of the way these work, of course, but it allows works like Kakegurui to use gambling as a stand-in for irresponsible investment. Remember that Kakegurui's characters are scions of extraordinarily wealthy families--children of CEOs and politicians and whatnot--and that they are encouraged to gamble and are rewarded with social prestige for winning and increasing their pools of wealth. Those with money and connections can invest in ways that make high returns more likely, but nothing is ever guaranteed and nobody fully understands how any of it works.
Where this analogy gets interesting though is in the case of characters who gamble with money that isn't theirs, as Yumeko does on occasion. This calls to mind the complex securites that emerged at the height of the housing bubble--mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and the like--which became popular investment choices due to their perceived upside and safety. These were ultimately bad bets, of course, but, like in Yumeko's case, there were those who profited from gambling on them without taking on the risk of failure. The credit rating agencies are perhaps the most notorious example, taking payments in exchange for issuing good credit ratings that inflated the prices of bad securities.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that any of Kakegurui's characters represent particular actors in the financial crisis, but I do think you can make a strong argument for their attitudes and behaviors being a critical parallel to financial institutions in general. Kakegurui's characters use their power and money to make irrational, self-destructive bets, passing the risk onto others while capturing the upside for themselves. This echoes, at least in broad strokes, the sorts of criticisms financial institutions faced in the wake of the recession.
So is it Good?
To bring this back to the initial question--is Kakegurui a strong work, or is it well-disguised ecchi?--I would say that despite its weirdness and its desire to offend, Kakegurui is pretty excellent overall. If you're familiar with the studio behind the show, Mappa, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Studios can work on varying projects, of course, but Mappa's are pretty consistently progressive and/or pointed. I would find it rather hard to believe that the studio behind works such as Kids on the Slope, Yuri on Ice, Banana Fish, and In This Corner of the World would make a generic show built around sex appeal.
It is, though, fair to question whether Kakegurui's presentation is effective. If someone watching Kakegurui is so distracted by the sex and violence that they miss the commentary about how power and money corrupt people, perhaps that means the show pushed too far in its attempt to be upsetting. There's something to be said for trying to provoke an instictive, emotional response in conjunction with the thing you're trying to say is bad--and that idea ties back into Kakegurui's Ero Guro Nonsense influences--but it's definitely possible for structure or style to distract from meaning, and while such works can be fun to break down I do think you have a problem if your intended audience doesn't understand you.
Unless you're someone like Tom Stoppard or James Joyce, I guess, and you write things that are obnoxiously hard to understand by design, in which case, more power to you. Kakegurui isn't Stoppard.
Kakegurui is certainly not for everyone and it is, I think, harder to appreciate if you're not familiar with its literary background. I'm left thinking that it's a "good" show, but that I didn't necessarily "like" it--which, curiously, is how I usually end up feeling about Mappa's work. They have a tendency, I think, to push just a little too hard or a little too far in the service of whatever their message is, and that tends to be somewhat counterproductive, distracting from what would otherwise be a very strong theme.
I have to say, though, "Deal With The Devil" might be my favorite anime opening theme since Death Parade's "Flyers."
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A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition