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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Gyakkou Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen: He's Got 99 Problems But a Debt Ain't One

You can argue that this show isn't that "obscure" since it literally finished airing this week and had its fair share of viewers (one of ANN's reports on viewership ratings in Japan had this show with a rating of 3.4, which for a late-night anime is really damn good, I believe). Still, I reviewed Season 1 so I should definitely do this show as well.

This past February I reviewed Gyakkou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor and downright gave it absolute praise. It's interesting characters, crazy gambling games, and overall tense-as-all-hell style was just absorbing and easily made its way as one of my absolute favorite anime of all time. At the end of the last episode came a short segment where creator Nobuyuki Fukumoto, voice actor Masato Hagiwara, and the segment host herself revealed that a second season of Kaiji would be coming out, with Fukumoto promising that the wait would be about 1-2 years. Well, it took 3 years but Kaiji finally got its second season, complete with advertisements that teased Kimi no Todoke (the show that Kaiji took the time slot of, and called "KimiTodo" for short) fans and called itself "Yaku/Anti-Moe Anime". Now, 26 episodes later, Gyakkou Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen/The Suffering Pariah Kaiji: Destruction Record Chapter has ended and not only has it been as good as the first season, but it's actually surpassed it!

[3/2016 ADDENDUM: Since this review, CrunchyRoll now streams this series under the title Kaiji: Against All Odds]

[NOTE: This review will contain spoilers regarding the end of Kaiji Season 1, so read at your own risk...  Though why you still haven't watched Kaiji yet, if you haven't, astounds me.]

After the eventful night at the Starside Hotel Kaiji Itou's life is even worse than it was before he stepped foot on the Espoir. The Human Horse Race's crazy second game resulted in the deaths of Sahara and Ishida, who Kaiji started forming bonds with, the E-Card match with Tonegawa resulted in him cutting his own ear off in order to win, and the Tissue Box Raffle against Hyoudou resulted in four of the fingers on his left hand getting cut off. Kaiji was able to get his ear and fingers reattached by visiting an underground doctor, but that only resulted in his debt to Teiai increasing even more. Now he's on the run, but after running into Endou, the loan shark that got him into all of this, Kaiji was handed over to Teiai and now works in an underground forced labor camp, where he can pay off his debt with 15 years of work. Unfortunately, the food they offer is too good to resist saving money and the only reward that matters, the day-pass that lets one out into the world for 24 hours, is much too expensive. Still, gambling games are played even there and that gives Kaiji a chance to get a day-pass... But even if he gets it, the only way he can possibly pay off his debt is by playing a game that Teiai owns and rigs horribly against the gambler.

Whereas Season 1, Ultimate Survivor, showed off four games, Hakairoku-hen only offers two: Underground Chinchirorin and the Pachinko "Bog". Don't think that showing fewer games results in a lesser title, though, since both of these games receive much more detail and focus than any of the four in Season 1. Chinchirorin, or Cee-Lo as others might know it as, is what Kaiji plays in the labor camp and focuses on getting the best possible roll of three dice against the dealer's own roll. However, the rules have been altered in some aspects in order to best-accommodate Ohtsuki, the foreman in charge of Kaiji's group, and his two lackeys so that they can win whenever they want. The Pachinko "Bog", on the other hand, is a pachinko machine where each ball played costs 4,000 Yen, but results in a payoff that no other machine can even hope to offer (when Kaiji plays it the jackpot is over 700,000,000 Yen!). Because of that, the Teiai-owned casino that has it has rigged it so that no player can even win it, outside of two people (Hyoudou and Tonegawa, natch), but the changes made are subtle-enough that it's not blatantly obvious.

The biggest change is that unlike Season 1's games, where Kaiji had to come up with a winning solution as he was playing them, Hakairoku-hen's games allow Kaiji to either play (Chinchirorin) or observe (the Pachinko "Bog") them before going in big, which results in Kaiji coming up with much more in-depth and strategic methods of beating them. This one change results in the show being pretty different from the previous season, since it can move at a slower pace during the non-playing portions yet still have that original intensity during the actual game-play, but no matter what this show does not left go of your attention. Even after an episode has ended you want to watch another one just to see what happens next. So while the Pachinko "Bog" takes up roughly 2/3 of the show (it's introduced at the end of episode 9 and Kaiji's game with it lasts from the end of episode 15 to the beginning of episode 26), you honestly don't care because the show is paced so excellently and the reveals are so crazy-yet-genius that you wouldn't want it to end at all. It's obvious that the Pachinko "Bog" is meant to be the main focus, while Chinchirorin is more of a means to get to the machine, but both games get their fair focus, even if the balance does look lopsided at first. Even the titles of each season make sense, as Season 1 was all about Kaiji simply trying to survive the games he ways playing, while Hakairuoku-hen is all about Kaiji creating strategies so that he can destroy his opponent and come out with big wins.

Of course, the games are only half of Kaiji, so what about the characters? Well, this season does an even better job than Season 1, with there being even more recurring characters with importance. Season 1's major players were mainly Kaiji, Tonegawa, and Hyoudou, but here in Hakairoku-hen you get the 45-ers (a group of debtors who end up in a similar situation as Kaiji in the labor camp and help him out), Sakazaki (a middle-aged man who wants to beat the "Bog" so that he can win enough money to be able to win back the love of his wife and similarly-faced daughter), Ishida (the son of the Ishida that Kaiji met in Season 1, who ended up in his own debt and entered the labor camp), and even Endou himself ends up helping out Kaiji, but stays true to his loan shark ways. Tonegawa is out after his loss to Kaiji and is replaced by Yoshihiro Kurosaki, who actually remains wary of Kaiji and knows not to underestimate the underdog. This one change alone makes him potentially more dangerous than Tonegawa and though he only appears in a few episodes, Kurosaki's presence is definitely felt here. Hyoudou also only makes a few appearances during the pachinko match, but his power-induced insanity is still maintained; in fact, Hyoudou looks to be even crazier than before.

The two main villains of this show, though, are both worthy of being Kaiji's enemies. On the outside Ohtsuki gives off a friendly feeling and looks to honestly care about the men of his labor camp group, but in actuality he's an evil master of messing with his men's minds, giving them free beers and loaning them pericas (the labor camp's own money) like it's nothing, and when Chinchirorin is being played he's even more devious. Unfortunately, that deviousness is also his biggest weakness, and becomes the biggest factor in Kaiji's plan to defeat him. Ichijou is the manager of the casino that the "Bog" calls home, and is probably the closest this series will ever get to having a "bishonen"-looking character. But don't let his good looks fool you, as Ichijou is even more evil and devious than Ohtsuki. His strategy to keep the machine rigged is highly planned out and hard to crack, and the methods Kaiji uses in order to have a "fair" fight with the machine involve things that you would never think of. There are even episodes of the show that give insight into Ohtsuki and Ichijou, giving them reasons behind what they do, and while it doesn't necessarily "humanize" them it at least gives you ideas as to why they are the way they are.

Much like the previous three gambling series Madhouse did Hakairoku-hen maintains most of the major names behind it. Yuzo Sato is once again the director, and his way of keeping the intensity and mood of the show perfect hasn't changed one bit in the three years since One Outs. Hideki Taniuchi returns to create the soundtrack, and from what I was able to tell no songs from Season 1 returned. In fact, the music takes on a different style where a lot of the songs give off more of a battle-vibe, which completely works here. Also, the use of "zawa" in the background during big revelations has been joined by the use of "usso", or "liar", during moments that are unbelievable or just plain silly. While I can't exactly say which soundtrack is better yet, what I can say is that Hakairoku-hen's music is simple excellence. The opening theme, "Chase the Light!" by Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas, is a completely different song than what you would normally hear and at first listen might sound completely inappropriate for the show. As you listen to it more and more, though, you understand that the song actually is fitting, since it gives off the feeling that a lot is on the line in this show, and it definitely is; let's just say that Kaiji is no longer playing for his own financial survival anymore. In fact, the full version of the opening theme goes through a few changes in style throughout the song but ends off with an epic feel that makes it a true surprise favorite of mine through this year. The ending theme, "C Kara Hajimaru ABC" by wasureranneyo, is a very upbeat song, the complete opposite of Season 1's ending theme, and is actually very much a punk-style song, with the full version being less than 3 minutes long. Also, the ending theme footage is actually a bit of a spoiler, since it's literally showing how Part 3 of the story, Tobaku Datenroku Kaiji, starts off. Finally, the show comes back full circle by ending off with "Mirai wa Bokura no Te no Naka", Season 1's opening theme; not only is it great to hear that song used for the show once again, but considering what happens at the end, all I can say without spoiling is that the song truly fits that moment. Production and music-wise, Hakairoku-hen maintains the Madhouse Gambling Series' excellence.

The voice work is likewise excellent, with all returning characters maintain their seiyuu, so there's no reason to talk about them once again. Ichijou is voiced by Daisuke Namikawa (Prince Baka from Level E, Rock in Black Lagoon, and Hisoka in the reboot of Hunter X Hunter), and he just delivers. When Ichijou is calm, cool, and collective he still sounds devious, and when he's teetering on the edge of sanity and composure he really makes you feel it. Ohtuski is voiced by Cho [a.k.a. Yuuichi Nagashima] (Headmaster from Hidamari Sketch, Brook from One Piece), and he is able to honestly sound like a caring man when you first see him, but shows off a truly evil side when he's pushed. Sakazaki is voiced by Issei Futamata (Yusaku Godai from Maison Ikkoku, Ohtaki from Ah! My Goddess, and Yuuki from Ring ni Kakero 1: Shadow), and he pulls off the character with all of the nervous anxiety and honesty that the character has. Finally, Kurosaki is voiced by Kenyuu Horiuchi (Balzac Asimov from Tekkaman Blade, Pain from Naruto Shippuuden, and Chief Editor Sasaki from Bakuman.), and much like his character he makes his presence felt heavily in the few episodes he's in. The show even tosses in a cameo performance by Tatsuya Fujiwara, who plays Kaiji in the live-action movie adaptations, where he voices a specific "Black Shirt" Teiai employee in the last episode. Once again, the Gambling Series delivers.

Gyakkou Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen is simply an excellent anime and if you have already seen Season 1 then you have no reason to not watch this season. It continues the story in ways that you could never imagine and easily surpasses the first season in just about every way. Now, in my review of Season 1 I did say that I still preferred Akagi over Kaiji, but after this new season I honestly can't say which is better. On the topic of Akagi, though, I do have to say this: At Otakon a couple of months ago I was able to get the R2 Volume 2 DVD of Kaiji that I got for cheap a year ago signed by Masao Maruyama, one of the founders of Madhouse and the executive producer of many of their shows; even though he has his own studio now he still works with Madhouse. The next day, at Maruyama's Q&A panel, I asked him if Akagi and One Outs might get continued due to Hakairoku-hen; though One Outs got no answer, Maruyama said that Akagi Season 2 is something that he, Yuzo Sato, and a producer at NTV named "Nakatani" (my guess is Toshio Nakatani) all want to see happen. Not only that, but Maruyama felt that the Akagi anime fulfilled all of the requirements that an anime needs, in his words, in order to get a sequel: Eestablish a new style of storytelling, introduce characters with "strong characteristic", and successful DVD sales.

That alone made me happy, but the very last shot of Hakairoku-hen features a number of hand-drawn pictures done by people involved in the production, with two of them being pictures of Akagi. I say that because one of the pictures of Akagi is signed by Yuzo Sato and has a message that reads "Akagi futatabi", which translates to "Akagi once more/again". At this point I am calling a second season of Akagi all but officially confirmed. There's plenty of material to adapt (the anime stops in Volume 13 and the on-going manga is up to Volume 25 right now), and there's even a 6-chapter pre-Washizu story arc that was skipped over in the anime that could easily be adapted in 2-3 episodes. Here's hoping that Akagi Season 2 is sooner rather than later. In the mean time, if you haven't seen any of Madhouse's gambling anime, Akagi, Kaiji Season 1, One Outs, & Kaiji Season 2, then why are you still reading this? Go watch them!

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