-Minor Spoilers Below-
I’m going to be upfront here. It’s practically impossible to give an “Enjoyability” rating to this series, hence its absence below. Your ability to enjoy this series will totally depend on whether or not you can get behind some mindless sexual sadism disguised as gambling.
(Friendly reminder that since the entire series is being reviewed, Characters and Score also get ratings.)
If you told me a year ago a show would come along that makes Prison School’s student council and discipline system look completely sane by comparison, I would have asked you to share whatever you were popping. But yes, here we have Kakegurui, an extreme melodrama that finally documents exactly how it feels to go to school in the center of Vegas if you’re an unhinged masochist with an enormous gambling addiction. So basically how it feels for everyone, right?
At the show’s start, straight man Ryota Suzui is a house pet at Hyakkaou Private Academy, where gambling determines the hierarchy. House pets are students so far in debt that they are unable to pay their dues to the Student Council. Ryota’s poor luck against Mary Saotome lands him in his predicament. That changes when Yumeko Jabami transfers to the school and instantly winds up in a game against Mary, where she pulls off an upset despite the latter’s cheating. Thankful to Ryota for helping her have fun gambling, Yumeko helps him pay off his debt while Mary experiences a role reversal as a house pet. From there, the show follows the increasingly risky escapades of Yumeko as she winds up embroiled in gambling showdowns against the student council and other students. The student council itself is the entity that enforces the house pet policy and also simply seems to manipulate the entire school for their amusement and profitability. They’re underhanded to a ridiculous degree. But that’s melodramatic anime for you. As unrealistic as the council is, their methods give the show its basis for intense high-stakes gambling in such an otherwise mundane setting. Kakegurui is, in a nutshell, a show focused on overdramatic gambling in which the players end up staking far more than your usual Friday-night pots.
Sounds good on paper. But there are several factors that hold this show back. The first is that almost everyone cheats or plays dirty somehow. That becomes a given. Now, this is not necessarily a problem. The actual issue here is that the show’s plot twists generally revolve around unveiling the mystery of the cheats. Unlike a good mystery show, though, Kakegurui seldom provides any clues for the audience to latch onto. As such, the audience is left to be a complete bystander, unable to figure out the cheat and forced to wait for the show to reveal it. It’s entertaining enough, but there is a feeling of being robbed of what could have been a fun game of detective. The thrill of mysteries comes from trying to piece together clues, but with this show, there are rarely any actual clues at all. Watching Yumeko discern the cheat is still exciting, but there’s a nagging feeling that it could have been a lot better.
The second issue relates back to the insanity. I’m not kidding when I say everyone on this show is insane, barring Ryota. One girl gambles on her opponent’s nails, another girl gets hot and bothered at the thought of killing herself as a penalty, and then there’s the girl that requests a body part in lieu of monetary debt. And that’s just scratching the surface. In any other show, these characters would be riveting, and even here they start out that way. But after just a couple of episodes, the fact that everyone is unjustifiably unhinged is more taxing than anything. There’s only minor substance to these characters underneath their psychotic exteriors. Some variation exists in the types of crazy we see, but after a while it becomes apparent that the creator of these characters simply designed them within the sole guideline of “demented and probably horny.” And that does not exactly make for an interesting and engaging cast. It’s insanity for the sake of it — not because of any meaning or purpose. Even Yumeko, our protagonist, is insane. She gets a thrill off of risks. Now, she does have some sense of justice, however perverted, but there’s not much time dedicated to exploring that, largely because despite being the protagonist, she’s the character we know the least about. All of her actions are commentated on by bystanders or her opponents, never herself, leaving her as a sort of blank slate that we just don’t know much about. (Not that we know much about the rest of the cast…)
Now, before I move on, I will throw the show a bone. Since this is clearly a melodrama, for some characters it becomes questionable as to whether they actually are insane or if their thoughts and actions are just being stylized as such. Without a doubt a large percentage of the cast is totally bonkers. But there are more down-to-earth characters like Mary and Manyuda who still have their crazy moments but at least seem to retain overall sanity. I feel like if we had more basis for these characters, they’d come off a lot better. But since we only receive minor glimpses at their motivations and personalities, it becomes hard to view them as anything other than twisted and insane, even if it’s just the result of stylistic animation choices.
The last major issue is just how off-putting the show can be. Unlike Prison School that played its sexual humor for laughs or Devilman Crybaby that at least approached its heavy content with serious intention, Kakegurui‘s barrage of gambling-induced horniness (and further things) is just creepy and uncomfortable. Like the insanity, it’s fun enough the first time. But after a while, it’s just unnecessary and borderline disgusting. (I say “borderline” because, again, your mileage may vary here depending on your … preferences.) Now, I will say, the show actually improves in this regard in its second half, and even the first couple of episodes aren’t terrible about this either. The worst offender of this is the character Midari, who orgasms multiple times throughout the show. Once she is more or less out of focus, the show does reclaim some dignity. (Oddly, though, the dramatic tension seems to decline with this shift for the more tasteful. Weird.) I’m hesitant to call these moments “fanservice,” as I am not sure Kakegurui‘s offerings fit the common mold for fanservice. We get a few panty-shots here and there, and maybe even a boob shot or two, but it’s mostly the girls just panting, squirming, and not-so-subtly orgasming, which I’d argue is much more of a turn-off for most people than just typical body-accentuation shots. I think if it hadn’t gone much further than Yumeko, the show would have been fine. But again, as fun as her character was, Midari just took things a little too far at times and made me question what exactly I was watching. Is it a sports anime? A hentai? A sports hentai? I’ll never know.
And now for a minor issue or two. WHERE ARE THE ADULTS? We see maybe one total. Come on, there have to be teachers. Right? RIGHT? Someone stop this awful bullying! And who let Midari on the student council? Oh… Right. (What do these council members even do?) And where did this gambling goddess Yumeko even come from?????
Now, all of those negative aspects can totally be waved under the rug if you’re in this for some solid mindless, smutty fun. This is honestly one of those shows where I’m not sure conventional objectivity does it justice. It’s not a great show. But it can be just silly entertainment. How so? Well, let’s check out the positives.
Kakegurui‘s biggest selling point is bizarrely its insanity, despite what I’ve said. The gambling itself gets overly confusing, the cheating mysteries are monotonous, the characters are forgettable, the plot is standard school sports fare, and the “fanservice” is often more unsettling than enjoyable, largely thanks to Midari. So the only things left are the dramatic tension and the insanity. Admittedly, the tension is there and is generally well-crafted. The games are exciting despite often being convoluted, and the intense score (filled with some really neat bass) and animation only highlight the drama. But as each episode winds down, it becomes increasingly blunted. It isn’t that the quality itself is changing; it’s that after several episodes of high-stakes games, desensitization is rampant. Most shows build up to their intense, climactic scenes, thus raising the stakes little by little; Kakegurui works hard to make each episode worthy of being a climax. The insanity aspect suffers from the same problem. I, for one, love me some psycho girls in my anime, but when every character is practically insane for no discernible reason, it becomes tiring rather than entertaining. However, the insanity is still probably the biggest reason anyone would pick up the show, because it’s just so over the top.
The faces. Up until now, I’ve considered Yu-Gi-Oh! the pinnacle of psychotic facial animation. Not anymore. Whenever a character gets into the game, or reveals a cheat, or, well, does practically anything at all, their eyes get all red and glowy and their mouths contort in twisted sneers. It’s pretty great. If insanity is the selling point of the show, the facial expressions are the best part of the show. I doubt anyone would watch just because they heard the show had amazing faces, but that’s definitely what will stick with those who do slog through this. Besides the expressions, the animation itself coats the characters in a sort of reflective sheen. It’s an interesting aesthetic that sets the show apart from the masses. I won’t argue that it’s a positive or a negative, because it’s really neither. It’s just interesting and provides a sense of uniqueness to the series.
Otherwise, the score is incredibly solid. It’s full of deep bass and really upbeat yet intense tracks that really sell the action, regardless how absurd. The voicework is also top-notch. While I watched this primarily in Japanese, I did on occasion switch to the English dub just to compare. While I do think the Japanese voices were able to turn the insanity dial up to 11 in a good way, the English actors are no slouches. From what I listened to, Sarah Anne Williams especially performed excellently as Midari. Last, there’s the opening sequence, “Deal With the Devil” by Tia, which is just plain head-turning in its style. There are fish… and… and the cast …. and weapons …. and dancing… just watch it. Seriously, just check out the opening. There are few anime openings or endings that I think are just worth watching on their own and out of context, and this is one of them. It was weird, it was zany, it was upbeat, it was stylized, it was fun. So, yeah, check it out.
If insanity is your jam (read: fetish), you’ll probably enjoy the show enough to make it worthwhile. But for most anyone not seeking out a show slathered in melodrama, it’s almost six hours paid in addition to the monetary cost of your Netflix subscription. Watching Kakegurui truly is a gamble, and it will likely only pay off for a niche audience.
- Stupid fun if you can turn off your brain
- Dethrones Yugioh as the champion of crazy facial expressions
- Score is upbeat and intense
- Easily offputting with its over the top sadistic and sexual nature
- Characters have too much crazy, not enough substance
- No fun for audience in figuring out each game's trick
- Student council's power is ridiculous
- Games can be overly confusing