The Kaiji Series is pretty much Fukumoto giving himself free range at creating whatever gambling games he wants and putting his own main character into them. The manga debuted back in 1996 in Kodansha's Weekly Young Magazine and has been running in the magazine since, though it has taken breaks in between each major part of the story. Right now the series is on it's fourth part, Tobaku Datenroku Kaiji: Kazuya-hen, and this April will be the debut of Gyakkou Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen, which will adapt the second part of the series, Tobaku Hakairoku Kaiji. But let's not get ahead of ourselves and let's take a look at the first season, Gyakkou Burai/The Suffering Pariah Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor, which covers the original manga, Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji (Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji).
Kaiji Itou is a bum. He has no job, and when he does have one it isn't for long, he has very little luck when it comes to games of sheer chance, and he releases his anger by stealing the emblems of expensive cars and slashing their tires. One day, a man comes to Kaiji's door saying that he's a debt collector. The man, named Endou, reminds Kaiji of a time when he had co-signed a loan of 30,000 yen for a co-worker named Takeshi Furuhata, and since Furuhata is nowhere to be found it's up to Kaiji to pay back the loan. Unfortunately, Kaiji didn't realize the interest rate on the loan was insanely high, and now he owes Endou 3,850,000 yen! Naturally, Kaiji starts losing his mind until Endou tells him of a cruise liner called the Espoir, which is french for "hope", and how the ship hosts a gambling game where Kaiji can not only earn enough money to pay back the insane loan, but can also walk away with extra money for himself. Kaiji naturally signs on, not knowing that the ship is a trap to capture and eventually torture people in debt and that it's only the start of an eventual battle against Kazutaka Hyoudou, a rich old man whose love of gambling results in many others getting hurt, both physically and financially.
This first season of Kaiji covers four games: Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors, the Human Horse Race, an original game called E-Card, and a Tissue Box Raffle against Hyoudou himself. While the names of these games sound simple or just odd, each of them are just insane. Restricted RPS takes the old children's game, puts the possible hands onto cards, and limits your use of each, resulting in there being a larger bit of strategy used. The Human Horse Race is simply a horrible race between people on small girders over a giant gap, where one fall not only is a loss, but can potentially injure you. But that's not all, as the winners of this game then can compete in a variation where the girders are not only electrified but are laid out between two high-rise buildings, and falling will only result in death! As for the last two games, I won't explain them as it would be spoiling a bit too much. All I'll say is that when you get to this point you won't stop watching the show.
The great thing about Kaiji is that it is a very different beast than Akagi. Obviously Kaiji's games have to be explained to all so it's easier to follow, but Kaiji himself is very different than Akagi. You see, where Akagi is a genius who knows what to do and how to torture, Kaiji is generally a loser. He make mistakes often throughout the show, is prone to breaking down and crying when all looks hopeless, and, well, he's extremely "human". But though Kaiji generally has bad luck, he also is a great observer, and when all looks hopeless he is able to extremely analyze his situation and create a possible solution that can pull him out of hell. And this is where the anime excels. Much like Akagi you just want to find out how Kaiji is able to get out of the situation he's in, and the insane games he gets himself into can almost be considered villains in and of themselves.
Though the games are more like the villains of the show, there are other characters who have importance. Funai is a manipulative ass who acts as the rival for Kaiji in the first game, and he fills that role well enough, though you never see him again after that. Endou is rarely seen after the beginning, but he makes his impact very felt in that small role (he'll become more important in Season 2). Sahara is a co-worker of Kaiji's in the middle half of the show who puts himself into the Human Horse Race to become rich, and you end up caring for him much like you do with Kaiji. And then there's the two major villains, Tonegawa and Hyoudou. Tonegawa is Hoydou's second-in-command and is able to talk his way out of anything. He's just so conniving and evil that when Kaiji finally takes him on you just want to see Tonegawa get destroyed, and yet you gain respect for the man at the end as well, a sign of excellent character development. Kazutaka Hyoudou is very much like Washizu from Akagi, with the main difference being that Hyoudou could be clinically insane at points. Hyoudou's love of gambling and seeing either someone utterly crushed or able to climb out of hell becomes so obsessive that you can't see this man ever having lived a "normal life". He's just so crazy and you can't not pay attention when he talks.
Kaiji shares the majority of Akagi's staff, so anything I said about Akagi when it came to writing, directing, and music applies to Kaiji, though I will say that Hideki Taniuchi's soundtrack here is even better than Akagi's. Whereas over time I absolutely loved only a few tracks from Akagi, Kaiji has a lot more tracks like that, and since Kaiji has a focus on recovering from absolute defeat, there are a number of more uplifting song here than in Akagi. The voice work is also excellent. Masato Hagiwara plays Kaiji here, and if you didn't know this before hand you almost can't tell that it's necessarily the same person! Hagiwara's Kaiji is nothing like his Akagi, and only a couple of times does he bring about a similar performance. Kaiji's screams of defeat and crying are excellent and his voice when he starts to return to life are a very different style than Akagi's evil snickering and condescending wordplay; giant props to Mr. Hagiwara. Masane Tsukayama, who played Washizu in Akagi, also returns to play Hyoudou, but these performances are very similar, with the main difference being that Hyoudou sounds a little older than Washizu, but that's just fine as the characters are very similar in general. Hakuryuu voices Tonegawa, and it seems that this is the man's only anime role, and I would guess that he either focuses on traditional television work or he's a stage actor, but Hakuryuu's performance is absolutely perfect for Tonegawa, giving the man all the evil style that Tonegawa embodies. The other characters are similarly voiced excellently, but the other actor to give focus to is Fumihiko Tachiki, who plays the narrator. You'll recognize him as the voice of Evangelion's Gendou Ikari, Bleach's Kenpachi Zaraki, as well as being the narrator of the currently-running Level E anime. Tachiki's voice is just so identifiable and original, giving the narration a true "voice of god" feel to it, much like Tohru Furuya's narration in Akagi.
The opening and ending themes of Kaiji are very appropriate for the show. The opening theme is "Mirai wa Bokura no Te no Naka" by Masato Hagiwara (as Kaiji) with Redbourn Cherries. The song itself is a cover of an early 90s song performed by The Blue Hearts, which Fukumoto has admitted is his all-time favorite band. The song itself is much like an old Ramones song, where the full version is under three minutes long and the overall sound is crazy and rebellious. It grasps Kaiji's theme of beating those above you and showing that the future is truly in your own hands excellently, and both the cover as well as the Blue Hearts original are great songs. The ending theme is "Makeinutachi no Requiem" by Hakuryuu (not as Tonegawa) and is the complete opposite of the opening. The song is slow, melancholy, and all about how hard it is for the losers to come out on top. These songs are complete opposites and work great against each other.
Gyakkou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor is an excellent follow-up to Akagi, but when it comes down to it I still prefer Akagi in the end. Whereas I love seeing Kaiji recover from ultimate defeat and the games he gets involved in are just insane and watch-worthy, I still just feel that Akagi's sense of "How does he do it?" beats out Kaiji's sense of "How will he save himself?" But, I must admit, it's very, very, close to call, & most fans do prefer the loser over the genius. Kaiji was given an official, English-subtitled online stream via Joost, with ANN also hosting it, but it only lasted throughout 2008 or so and has since disappeared. Much like Akagi, and Ring ni Kakero 1, Kaiji is another anime I would instantly buy if it was ever licensed for North American release. Really, after Akagi and Kaiji one has to wonder how Madhouse could possibly follow up with another gambling anime. Well, it would take adapting from a different mangaka and having the focus be on something completely different: Baseball. And, can you believe it, it's just as good!