Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
At Hyakkou Private Academy, the children of the super-rich elite engage in school-sanctioned (and sponsored) games of chance, resulting in a strict social hierarchy among the students. Suzui has fallen to the bottom rung of the social ladder, “house pet”, and due to his lack of funds, he has no way to recoup his financial or social losses. At least, he didn't until the arrival of transfer student Yumeko Jabami changed everything. Yumeko is a high roller with the intuition to back it up, and before long she's sniffing out schemes and cheats all over school. Hyakkou Private Academy may never be the same again.
Note: While Kakegurui is not yet available streaming in English, this review comes courtesy of our Tokyo correspondent who watched these first three episodes in Japan.
The title of Kakegurui is often translated as “Compulsive Gambler,” but a more fitting translation may be “Gambling into Madness,” because almost every named character is possessed with a kind of crazed, manic energy that either drives them into absolute despair or euphoria. The characters take a sadistic pleasure in watching their opponents squirm, their facial expressions almost ghoulish at times. Kakegurui is about as twisted as you'd expect a show about high rolling teenage gamblers to be.
It's surprising how well Kakegurui works as a thriller, given how difficult its premise may be to swallow at first. Set in a private school for the rich and wealthy, the social hierarchy is determined primarily through gambling games. The games themselves are laughably basic; students stake their family fortunes on simple variations of Rock Paper Scissors and Memory. The losers become servants of the winners, to be treated like property and ostracized by their classmates. If this school doesn't sound crazy enough, the new transfer student Yumeko possesses such an extreme love for gambling that she outdoes everyone else by a long shot.
The fun of Kakegurui comes from the fact that none of its characters are remotely likable. The male lead Suzui is your typical milquetoast anime protagonist, but in a setting like this where cunning reigns supreme, he comes across as simpering rather than sympathetic. Yumeko frees him from his fate as a “dog,” but her own motivations are purely hedonistic. If her opponents weren't so malicious, Yumeko would probably be considered a villainous figure herself, with her manipulative coquettish behavior and sly way of thinking. The primary appeal of Kakegurui is watching the worst cheaters and scoundrels get beaten at their own game by a person who's only in it for the thrills.
The first three episodes of Kakegurui have mostly followed the same simple pattern so far: an arrogant student challenges Yumeko to a game, she accepts the challenge, plays the fool for a while, and then turns the table on her opponent at the last minute, driving them into despair. But despite the formulaic nature of these episodes, they have yet to feel repetitive. Each successive episode has upped the stakes of the story even further, making for some satisfying climaxes and twists, even when the audience is assured that Yumeko will eventually outsmart her opponent somehow.
These gambits are thrilling to watch, but not really because of the games themselves, which are all incredibly basic. The “tricks” are all simple and easy enough for an attentive viewer to figure out, even before the characters explain it all for the audience. Still, the anime presents these games with relentless unhinged energy, making them engrossing in spite of their predictability.
Much of the adrenaline comes from the music, which perfectly conveys the unhinged nature of the narrative. As the climaxes approach and characters reach their peak level of craziness, the tempo of the music rises to fever pitch, and the piano plays jarring, dissonant chords. Even in the quieter scenes, the soundtrack keeps a menacing undertone. Many of the songs follow jazz progressions, but with diminished chords that sound deliberately out of place. All of this contributes to an atmosphere that feels “off,” keeping the viewer constantly on their toes.
Not only is the music good, the sound direction for this series is quite impressive in general. A special nod must go to Saori Hayami's voice work on Yumeko, which might be her most impressive role to date. In some ways, Yumeko is a very typical role for Hayami, with her ladylike demeanor and hidden depths, but Hayami plays her character with such gusto that Yumeko becomes a distinctive character in her own right. In Yumeko's most crazed moments, Hayami screams and shouts in such an unguarded way that it's genuinely startling. It brings to mind her standout performance in episode seven of When Supernatural Battles Became Commonplace, where all appearances of acting fell apart and only raw emotions came through.
Finally, the visuals of this series are worth mentioning, especially for the contorted facial expressions of the characters. I expect that these faces will be the images that people will remember this series by, even if Kakegurui is aesthetically strong in other departments too. The lighting is especially good, aptly setting the tone for this dark and twisted story. If there is a noticeable weakness in the visuals so far, it's that there isn't much character animation to make this world feel truly lived-in. But when the lighting and staging are as striking and confident as they are here, the anime can get away with having a bit less movement. It makes those contorted faces all the more memorable.
It's a pity that Kakegurui won't be getting its release on Netflix until an unspecified date in the future, because it's one of the most interesting titles airing this season. Regardless of what you think of gambling, it's hard not to get swept up in the thrills of this anime, even when none of the characters are exactly worth rooting for. It's aesthetically strong, featuring some great music and voice acting, and it even has a brilliantly designed OP by Sayo Yamamoto (Yuri!!! on ICE, Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine). Kakegurui is definitely worth a look when it's available in English.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Story is thrilling and full of adrenaline, great music and sound design, Yumeko is one of Saori Hayami's best roles to date
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