I love over-the-top stories. When realism doesn’t matter anymore, and it’s all about putting on the biggest spectacle the world has seen. It’s just pure entertainment. And Kakegurui is as over-the-top as they get.
Hyakkaou Academy is your average fancy school for rich kids. Except these kids are really, really rich, with family incomes the size of Mt. Fuji. The creme de la creme of Japanese society. And what do they choose to do, with these disposable incomes?
Gamble it all away.
Hyakkaou has a complex hierarchical power structure built around gambling. A variety of games of chance — some classic, some variations on the classics, and some wholly original — are played at this school for high rollers. Millions of yen change hands at these games. The all-powerful student council controls these afterschool activities with a mafia-like tight grip. Fail to pay back your debts, and you will be designated a “housepet”: the bottom rung of the school hierarchy, complete with a dog tag, destined to serve the whims of others until you can pay back your debt. And how do you earn the money to pay these debts back? Gamble some more. It’s a hopeless, vicious cycle.
Into this casino masquerading as a school steps an unknown variable: new transfer student Yumeko Jabami. Jabami looks innocent on the outside but reality, as always is different. Jabami’s true nature is that of a compulsive gambler. She desires neither money nor status. She doesn’t even desire winning. She just loves the gamble: the thrill of the play, and the rush of blood it gives. After making a splash at the gambling tables, she sets her sights on the shadow figures behind it all: the student council. What effect will this unpredictable element have on Hyakkaou’s society?
First off, I want to clarify something. If, from the premise, you were expecting any sort of commentary on power structures and class conflict, you will be disappointed. There isn’t enough of that. Jabami’s motives for tearing down the student council don’t exactly stem from a desire for justice. This does not mean Kakegurui is bad; it only means that its approach is different from what one might initially suspect from the premise.
As mentioned earlier, Kakegurui is about the spectacle of it all. Like in Akagi (reviewed last week), it is very satisfying to watch one person mercilessly crush their opposition. But where Akagi is focused on victory and does everything in his power to win, Jabami will even willingly put herself at a disadvantage as long as it makes for a thrilling and exciting game. This does lead to a fair number of losses for her. I like that. It makes sense, given her playstyle, that she won’t win all her games. Plus, it keeps things interesting.
And ‘interesting’ is a good description of Jabami. You never know what she’ll do next. She is far and away the star of the show. The only other character who comes close to her in terms of allure is the student council president, a mysterious and charismatic figure who influences all the happenings in the manga. The end of volume six suggests that she will play a greater role in the chapters to come.
The supporting cast can be broadly divided into two groups. You have the antagonists in Jabami’s opponents, mostly student council members. And then there is Jabami’s inner circle of ‘friends’. This group is mostly composed of former opponents (expect to see the ‘enemies to friends’ trope in action). The exception to this is Suzui: a former housepet who befriends Jabami on day one. He is the definition of boring, and there’s no indication that that’ll change. He feels like an audience stand-in character, being rather untalented at gambling and therefore serving to mirror our own confusion during games.
Now the opponents are an interesting bunch, especially the student council members. Each of them has their own quirk: one is a pop idol, another collects fingernails, and so on. While one or two might be a bit too quirky (read: crazy) for their own good, they are mostly done well. Each of them gets a fair degree of character development through flashbacks detailing their backstories. This serves to tell us about how they ended up where they are, as well as shed light on their preferred playstyles and strategies.
I would have liked more of this approach for some of the other characters as well, especially Jabami. I get the desire to keep her mysterious, but a few scraps of backstory would’ve been fine. They’d only deepen her characterisation. And while I earlier stated that Kakegurui is an over-the-top series where realism doesn’t matter, you do want to know more about these characters’ private lives, which isn’t touched upon at all. I don’t think I’ve seen a single character go home from school. Do they have parents? Did those parents also go to Hyakkaou, and are they aware of the gambling culture there? What do they learn in class? We don’t learn anything about these people outside of the context of the games. Kakegurui needs a bit more non-game time. Of course we don’t need an entire chapter of downtime; that would be too boring. But a few pages wouldn’t hurt.
With so much focus on the games, they’d better be interesting. And they are. Many of them are interesting variations on familiar games like poker or roulette. The rules are explained clearly with the use of diagrams. The way the change in rules impacts strategy is interesting. Cheating is rampant, as is expected in a non-professional setting. Sometimes the cheating is blatant: when there are no repercussions, why wouldn’t you? Games occasionally devolve into who can out-cheat the other. This may sound lame, but it’s done in an interesting, back-and-forth fashion. You will keep guessing at the next move. Some of the games are a bit hard to predict though, especially the wholly original ones. Slow down your reading speed for these, as you will want to pick up every detail.
Kakegurui was a blisteringly fast read, and these six volumes flew by before I could even catch a breath. A new arc seems to have begun, and I am excited to read more.
Art: B. The heavily-rendered, ‘computerised’ art style is not exactly to my taste. It’s a bit too clean. The art makes heavy use of screentone, which increases the amount of grey in the panels by a fair bit, sometimes making it too dark to make out details immediately. It needed more white space, more breathing room. Where the art excels is in the rendering of faces, especially when expressing extreme emotions: it adopts a sketchier, horror manga-esque style that really works well. Jabami’s full range of moods is depicted well. Some of the shot angles can get a bit too fanservice-y for my liking.
Dialogue: A. For such an over-the-top manga, there isn’t a lot of cheesy, over-the-top dialogue. In fact, I sometimes wonder if these characters are really schoolkids, because there’s no trace of ‘teen-speak’. The exposition for the games is handled well, with clear rules explanations, and there’s not too much internal monologuing. The use of shifts in font to depict shifts in personality (especially Jabami’s mood swings) is a nice touch.
Story: A. A gambling addict upsets the social hierarchy at a gambling-obsessed school for the elite. The games are fun, over-the-top, original, and exciting. However, there isn’t much outside of the games. There is some social commentary, but was there a missed opportunity for more?
Characters: B+. Quirky, interesting characters, especially Jabami. The use of flashback to tell character backstories is handled well. However, this character development is uneven, with Jabami and Suzui getting little.
Kakegurui is such a fun read, you’d have a hard time disliking it. Further volumes could easily raise this score.