Reviewby Theron Martin,
Episodes 1-12 streaming
Hyakkao Private Academy isn't your ordinary school for the scions of the wealthy; it's a place where gambling has virtually been institutionalized by the Student Council, to the point where students who fall into debt are given housepet names, subjected to systematic derision and abuse, and generally regarded as social outcasts. Ryota Suzui finds himself in that unfortunate position after succumbing to losses under the ambitious blonde Mary Saotome. Both of their worlds change when newcomer Yumeko Jabami arrives and proves that she fits into this scene all too well. In an environment where gambling determines everything and cheating is just part of the game (unless you get caught), Yumeko quickly shows the rest of the school that she's in a league of her own, even when the proverbial deck seems to be stacked against her.
The thrill of risk and the ecstasy of a big victory make gambling quite a sexy endeavor, while the devastation of a big loss and the destructive addiction it can foster simultaneously make it very ugly. That dichotomy is the focus of this adaptation of Homura Kawamoto and Toru Naumura's manga, which aired during the summer of 2017 in Japan and is now finally available on Netflix for English-speaking territories. Despite a lack of more standard fanservice outside of its theme songs, Kakegurui turns gambling into an exercise in eroticism while also showing how it can bring out the most unflattering sides of its victims.
The concept relies on two major hooks. The first is the setting, which is one of those improbable elite schools that could only exist in fiction. Gambling being imposed as a force of social control by the current Student Council President, rather than existing as part of the school's official policy, only makes it slightly more believable, but even that plausibility is utterly drowned out by the ridiculous amounts of money the students throw around; even the child of an extremely wealthy family being able to throw around millions of dollars on high-stakes gambling at school strains credibility to the max. (Granted, we've been conditioned to accept these kinds of fantasies in anime, but still.) The near-total lack of adults in this academy is also perplexing, as beyond the teacher who initially introduces Yumeko to the class in the first episode, I'm not sure that an adult character ever actually appears in the story. It's also concerning how this system promotes gross bullying with no protections in place for anyone. Still, hand-waving all of this should be pretty easy for fans of these kinds of elite high school melodramas.
If you can get past those hurdles, the second hook of Kakegurui takes hold. This is essentially a story about battles of wits, the kind of story where the protagonist goes around systematically outsmarting everyone and the thrill comes from watching how dramatically she does so. To foster the sense of mystery inherent to this premise, Yumeko is the focal point character but never the viewpoint character; her actions are always seen from the perspective of others (most commonly Ryota or Mary), so we never actually find out what she's thinking until her tricks are revealed. She's ultimately more of a cipher than any of her opponents, with this season only offering the faintest hints of her backstory. As a result, she becomes the gambling equivalent of a force of nature, an intractable entity who might not always win but can never truly be defeated because she revels in the spirit of gambling more than anyone. She is the personification of compulsive gambling, both alluring and terrifyingly demonic to those who cross her path.
As a result, the series is far more about sensationalism than plot or character development. The Student Council is a motley assortment of colorful but also largely standard anime bullies. Of them, the pierced freak Midari is the most over-the-top, a girl who literally orgasms over the prospect of whether or not she'll die engaging in Russian Roulette. Yumeko's many adversaries face her down through a wide array of creative gambles, including interesting variations on rock-paper-scissors, poker, roulette, Tarot cards, and even an idol contest. All of this is hyped up as much as the most enthusiastic sports dramas, often with effectively creative twists. And while the outcomes of the matches are usually predictable, there are still plenty of surprises, and the thrilling execution easily makes up for any predictability.
None of this would work half as well without strong supporting technical merits. Director Yuichiro Hayashi (Garo the Animation) helms a team at Studio MAPPA in presenting sharp character designs and backgrounds, vivid school uniforms, and all manner of dynamic and extreme facial expressions and vibrant eye colors. Action consists mostly of dramatic gestures, so the animation doesn't face many inordinate challenges, but it maintains consistent quality save for a few outliers like one awkward idol performance scene. The show's eroticism stays fully-clothed, though there are many aggressive and sexually suggestive scenes throughout. A snappy, jazz-infused musical score capably ratchets up the attention when needed.
The opener and closer also deserve special mention, not just because they contain the series' most overt fanservice. Opener “Deal with Devil” is a sexy, jazzy number which focuses on the female cast in suggestive situations, including a conspicuous panty flash or two. Closer “LAYon-theLINE,” which depicts Yumeko strolling toward the camera with a gradually escalating level of euphoria, is both a musically and visually striking number with a spectacular climax near its end. I'd easily consider it the best credits theme for a 2017 anime and recommend checking it out even if you don't watch the series as a whole.
Per their usual practice, Netflix provides the series with dubs and subtitles in multiple languages. I wasn't sure at first about the key performance of Erika Harlacher as Yumeko, but she gradually grew on me as she nailed Yumeko's most ecstatic moments. Other casting choices and performances were generally fine, with kudos going to Sarah Anne Williams for her spot-on take on Midari.
Despite some absurd and even cringe-worthy aspects of the premise and a lack of development for the main character, Kakegurui accomplishes what it sets out to do quite effectively, delivery dramatic, high-stakes gambling between teenagers in an entertaining fashion. A second season has been confirmed for later in 2018, and hopefully that one won't be delayed until next year for western audiences.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Striking visuals, gripping tension, great theme songs
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