Review: Kakegurui (Seasons 1 & 2)

This review is not spoiler free. If you want to have a very quick spoiler-free summary and rating out of 10, then skip to the paragraph in bold at the very end.

Kakegurui is an anime about a high school centered entirely around gambling. In this high school, a student’s skill and success in gambling determine their social standing, net worth, and even potentially every detail of their future life. The best gamblers are concentrated in the student council, and, on the other side of the spectrum, the students forced into massive debt by gambling losses are deemed “house pets.” House pets serve as slaves to the rest of the student body until they can manage to bring themselves out of debt.

Our protagonist is Yumeko Jabami, a student who enters this high school with a sizable bundle of start-up cash and immediately starts challenging anyone and everyone to high-stakes gambles. The series examines her journey in challenging the student council and their oppressive system from the inside, facing them in gamble after gamble despite their status, superior resources, and attempts at cheating. Yumeko is unique in this school as a genius-level gambler who loves gambling to the point of insanity, encountering extremely terrifying situations where she could lose everything with pleasure. Her insanity gives her an off-putting and intimidating demeanor which is key to her success.

I will start with the world that the series has created, which is entirely self-contained within the high school that every character in Kakegurui attends. In short, I love it. Basically, I think of this series as a mixture of Kaiji, a fantastic show about life-or-death gambling, and Shokugeki no Soma, another fantastic series about a high school centered entirely around cooking battles. I love the concept of an intimidating and powerful student council that functions as the backbone of society, controlling millions of dollars and the lives of hundreds of very influential individuals. The “house pet” system provides a good motivation for the viewer to root against the student council, and the fact that neutral referees are present at the school and one is able to issue challenges to the student council gives the series a good structure for the protagonist to try to win her way to the top. Exciting plotlines are begging to happen in this setting.

Let’s move on to the characters. First, the antagonists. I think the antagonists were very strong, although I do not believe that the series used them to their full potential. The star of the show is undoubtedly the student council president, Kirari Momobami, who boasts a very cool character design and a personality at least as insane as Yumeko’s. She loves gambling, but also is intent on amusing herself by structuring the high school she controls around the concept of the “survival of the fittest,” which is the reason for the “house pet” system. Essentially, she is very similar to Yumeko, but with seemingly fewer morals.

The rest of the student council consists of a varied cast of students who have different and distinct motivations for gambling, which are often explored in their gambles versus Yumeko. Although a couple of the members are perhaps not quite as interesting as others (my mind immediately singles out Nishinotouin), this student council is supplemented in season two by a bunch of members of Kirari Momobami’s extended family who come to win the coveted position of student council president from her. These family members are generally strong antagonists as well. Although we have not explored all the antagonists thus far, that really is a testament to how much potential there is for future seasons of this show.

Not all of the antagonists were used correctly and there were a couple I did not care for much at all. I feel that in general Kakegurui does not dwell enough on some of their antagonists, leaving them to be defeated in a single episode with little emotional impact, and then fade away. I have a lot of scattered opinions on this matter, and I will elaborate more on that when I get to the gambles themselves. But I will say that the finger guillotine challenge left a character useless after the first episode of season 2. Student council member Nishinotouin was also useless after Yumeko’s duel versus her. We learned almost nothing of Momobami family member Honebami during the gamble involving her, and the same is true to a much lesser extent of the male antagonist (Ibara Obami) who also participated in that gamble. Maybe it is alright that we don’t get to know all of the antagonists a whole lot, but to be honest I think it’s still a shame at this point that we did not get more substantial gambles involving them. Otherwise they just seem like props for the protagonists to knock down.

The most disappointing antagonist was Rei Batsubami, who was the subject of a big reveal at the very end of season 2. The reveal was that she was a contestant in the election and had designs of avenging her and her mother’s treatment at the hands of the Momobami clan. Her emotional development in the last couple of episodes made little sense and I have no idea why her experience with participating in a gamble would have changed her at all. She was also not very smart for an end of season antagonist. I would have rather had the tower gamble be the finale of the season.

We will now move on to the protagonists. The protagonists were honestly not as strong as the antagonists, and essentially comprised of four characters (although defeated enemies acted more friendly after Yumeko’s gamble against them). These four were Yumeko, a weak-spirited boy named Ryota, a haughty tsundere-type character named Mary, and a rather boring rich girl named Sumeragi. Mary is a good and developed character and possesses good gambling intellect and an emotional range that Yumeko does not display. Ryota takes up unnecessary space and does not add anything of value to the series, his main contribution being that the other characters must incorporate his simplemindedness into their plans. He is bad at gambling and has really no interesting personality traits. Sumeragi is the subject of attempted touching character development, but I do not think she has any right to have the lofty expectations she harbors regarding being on the student council given her gambling skill. She is also boring and seems oddly romantically obsessed with a dude who treated her terribly. Let us not forget that she STOLE DOZENS OF FINGERNAILS FROM PEOPLE DIRECTLY OFF OF THEIR FINGERS. Big yikes.

Yumeko herself is extremely interesting and I love the way that the show focuses on the fact that gambling is inherently an insane activity. Thus, the one who is most insane and enjoys that insanity is the one who is the true superior gambler. It is fun to watch Yumeko stare death, financial ruin, social subjugation, or dismemberment in the face and to watch her just laugh and express how much fun she’s having. As the series progressed, though, I became disappointed that we focused too much on Yumeko winning through sheer luck and her mental quirks rather than on her pure intellect and gambling strategy. Yumeko doesn’t really display any growth through the series thus far, nor does she show much of her inner thinking process. She doesn’t seem to truly ever struggle emotionally. Still, maybe that sense that she has it all together and will ultimately come out on top is fun to watch. However, she wasn’t quite good enough at gambling to make her invincible, which dulled that fun as well.

This leads to our discussion of the gambles themselves. The design of the gambles in Kakegurui are very interesting in that the characters devise very elaborate and unique games to gamble on — the stakes are very often not money at all, and cheating is allowed so long as it is not discovered. The characters are not just playing cards, they’re fucking around with finger guillotines, guns, idol performances, macarons filled with spicy sauce, auctions, poison, and giant towers with puzzles in them. Sometimes also they just play cards or something. But the creativity in the formats of the gambles is to be lauded here.

However, the games are also extremely confusing. More than half the time, I did not fully understand the details of the games they were playing. This became such a problem that I had to pretty much just trust the characters to say who was winning and who was losing, even after the characters literally explained it to me. Often the games involved a lot of math or the interplay of several rules which were new to the viewer, and this affected the amount of attention I could pay to what was truly going on.

Further, the games became a bit stale over time and Yumeko basically won just by being insane. The character who won the gamble in the end was often rather arbitrary. People regularly defeated themselves by becoming too overconfident or too scared, and the gambles weren’t focused enough on Yumeko being extremely intelligent and purely better at gambling. Often the odds were essentially a coin flip, and Yumeko was too lucky in this regard for my liking. I’m going to rapid fire some examples of what I mean by this. Yumeko’s match at the end of season 1 was decided by pure chance, which just so conveniently for the plot happened to end in a draw, keeping her and Kirari involved in the plot at the school. In the idol gamble versus Yumemi, Yumeko is kept in the game just because Yumemi wanted to make the match close. The game with the finger guillotine was literally just a game of chicken where Yumeko got lucky. She didn’t know that the machine was rigged, so she could have very, very easily lost a finger. Her game at the end of season 2 was literally a coin flip. In the match versus Momobami’s assistant in the puzzle tower, Yumeko won specifically because she threw logic aside and tried to find a solution outside of the obvious way to solve the puzzle, which I honestly don’t think she had a good enough reason to do to justify it all working out for her.

I understand that some degree of chance is involved in a gambling anime, However, bringing the ratio too heavily toward chance really makes me lose interest in the gambles. If I wanted purely chance-based gambling, I could just flip a coin myself, I don’t need to watch an anime for that. I wanted more from some of the gambles as well, for instance, I would have liked to see a lot more singing and dancing from the idol duels. Unfortunately, they just kind of skipped over that part, but it would have been fun. Most importantly on the chance subject, the long-awaited duel of Yumeko versus Kirari Momobami was based entirely on chance, and this is emphatically just not what I wanted to see from a clash of the two most interesting characters in Kakegurui.

As this review draws to a close, I want to mention a couple of things. First, I really need to point out how absolutely incredible it was for Kakegurui to give us so many amazing and strong female characters. Representation matters, and the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of anime feature a male protagonist, a male antagonist, and a supporting cast that also very strongly consists of males. I’m not going to be satisfied until half of significant anime characters are women, and so I greatly appreciate anime that bring us closer to that reality.

Second, I thought that the series was a bit too grotesque at times. Dismemberment and the threat and reality of bodily injury was pretty nasty stuff, and the facial expressions of the characters were often twisted in a horrifying way that put me off. I did not need for the characters to feel sexual thill about gambling either, and it honestly made me uncomfortable. There was a potentially triggering assault scene in the first few episodes which was also too much for me. I know that one of the themes of the show was the insanity of the gambling and the extreme characters involved, but I think it went too far in these instances.

Overall, I enjoyed this show quite a bit. The cast of antagonists, the main protagonist, and the setting of the show were very entertaining. The high stakes of the gambling and the calculations involved in the games took a lot of creativity to design. However, the series lost points in my opinion for some weak characters, poorly executed gambles, missed potential, and content that I found uncomfortable. Ultimately, this is a mostly-thrilling underdog story about high stakes games, and I would certainly recommend watching it.

I rate this series a 7.8 out of 10.

Final Score: 7.8/10.

-Gray