Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
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.
Do you like to take risks? We're not talking “eat the expired leftovers” type risks, though – more like a “wager $40 million that eating the expired leftovers won't make you sick” situation. If that sounds crazy, you may not want to enroll in Hyakkou Private Academy, the elite high school in Homura Kawamoto and Toru Naomura's manga series Kakegurui; at this iteration of the crazy manga high school, the entire student hierarchy is based around gambling ludicrous amounts of money on games like “Memory” or “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”
If this sounds like a school completely overrun by ludomania (the formal term for compulsive or pathological gambling), that's probably because it is. But Kakegurui's first volume isn't overtly interested in an examination of the perils of high-stakes gaming. Given the extreme social caste system in place at the school and the treatment of the so-called “house pets” who make up the bottom rung of the social ladder, there's definitely harm being caused, both mentally and physically, but rather than exploring that, the book is more about a revenge story with gambling as the means – when a new transfer student appears at Hyoukka, she's got all the earmarks of fitting in perfectly, but she's much less interested in using school-sanctioned gaming to climb the social ladder and more about taking out players who corrupt the system.
This girl is Yumeko Jabami, and she comes to the school right after narrator Suzui has been destroyed by his classmate Mary Saotome in a game of poker. Since Suzui has no means of paying Mary what he owes her or paying protection money to the student council, he's reduced to the rank of house pet, which means he's no longer seen as a person in the eyes of his classmates, made to wear a tag around his neck proclaiming him “uncooperative” and giving him the new name “Fido.” (Girls are renamed “Mittens;” the original Japanese has them as Pochi and Miike, respectively.) Fortunately, teachers seem to ignore this injunction (although they also don't stop the bullying it causes either), and as the class representative, Suzui is asked to show new student Yumeko around. She quickly agrees to gamble with Mary, against Suzui's advice, and soon appears to be on the verge of losing. But there's a pattern to her playing, and before the game is over, Yumeko is able to reveal the secret of Mary's success, effectively decimating Mary's social standing. This sets the pattern for Yumeko's actions throughout the book as she tries to take on increasingly high-powered students to bring them down one by one.
Given the toxicity of the school environment, which appears to get away with its gambling system under the guise of prepping students to be powerful business leaders, Yumeko's moves are relatively laudable, and she certainly helps Suzui out. She's revealing the seedy underbelly of a school that functions like an early nineteenth century gaming hell, and as the book goes on, the clues that she's following become more apparent to the readers as well. For example, in the first two matches, the villains basically tell us what they're doing before Yumeko lets on that she knows, whereas in the third, which sets Yumeko up for her trickier opponents in the student council, we have the chance to figure out for ourselves that there's something sneaky going on and what the trick might be. This gives the volume the feel of evolving as the creators figure out where they want the story to go, and the additional puzzle aspect makes the story more engaging as it unfolds, especially since Yumeko's third opponent appears to have some redeeming features, while the first two are just awful people.
Toru Naomura's art nicely complements Kawamoto's story, with details being given more or less prominence in the artwork depending on what the reader is expected to notice. In the first two games Yumeko plays, you can find the clues if you're really looking; when the focus shifts to readers helping to solve the mystery in the third game, the hints are much more in-your-face. There is some oddly sexual imagery in a few places, but that's presumably meant to evoke the specific thrill that Yumeko derives from gambling; it's worth noting that when one of her opponents is about to lose, the image of chains on a naked female body is much more about restraint than titillation for its subject. There is some awkward fanservice with Yumeko's skirt being notably shorter than those of her classmates to give us some underwear shots, and all of the girls are drawn as if they're not wearing bras. The characters are primarily female despite the fact that the school is co-ed, which strains credulity a bit, and there's a much greater variety of background girl designs than boy ones.
Even if gambling isn't an interest of yours, Kakegurui's first volume is incredibly readable. The story moves at a good pace and the shifts in Yumeko's character, as well as her still-unknown motives beyond the thrill of gambling, keep you guessing as the story progresses. With imagery that almost belongs in a horror manga and a slightly different take on the hyper-competitive school story, this is a series worth betting on.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+
+ Fast-moving and very readable, mystery feel improves as the book goes on, Yumeko is an interesting character
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