Let’s start with Akagi.
A big pet peeve of mine with any kind of stories involving gambling is that they portray the best players or gamblers as always getting monster hands nonstop. This is what made Saki unwatchable after a while for me. Once we got to the finals, the players (who by virtue of being in the finals are the best players) were topping each other with ever more absurd hands each game to the point where the luck involved was so ridiculous that they should just like, go out and win the lottery every day or something. What the good ones do is show the skill involved in gambling, which allows for compelling narratives rather than just assuming that characters will pull wins out of their asses. Now, characters can play mind games, make the proper bets, bluff, and depending on the story (like in this case, Akagi), cheat their way to success.
This allowed Akagi to develop satisfying stories within each match while at the same time having the kind of AWESOME crazy blowouts that usually are associated with stories that just assuming that gambling is all luck. It is highly improbably that Akagi should win every time, but because he first psychologically destroys all of his opponents, even when luck does come into play, it feels like everything went just as keikaku. Or barring that, he can simply cheat.
The emphasis on the gambling, psychology, and cheating aspect made the show pretty easy to follow despite my limited mah jong knowledge. I can never remember the enormous number of rules and hands and scoring calculations for mah jong, but I almost don’t need to here. Generally, all I need to know is that Akagi will need to get some number of specific pieces somehow, so then I’ll just sit back and watch his plan to get them by hook or by crook. Usually by crook.
Now, for Kaiji, which I found a lot more interesting. My first thought came up during the Restricted Rock Paper Scissors where the games and players were exhibiting the kind of concepts that Sirlin writes about in Playing to Win. Sirlin talks about how games have rigid formal rules. These can be explicit, like that a baseball game lasts for nine innings, or hidden like the damage calculations in a video game, but in the end these are the real rules of the game. Then, there are “rules” that the players assume are part of the game, but technically are not. They “should” be rules based on what the players think the game is supposed to be “about”, but don’t really exist. The best strategy in a fighting game could be to just throw fireballs the whole time, but many players won’t do that or think to do that since they see how the game is set up to appear to be about much more than that. Why are we supposed to just throw fireballs when there are kicks, punches, throws, etc? That’s cheap. It takes some time in during each of the games in Kaiji before characters manage to shake off that scrub mentality and figure out what kind of outside-the-box strategy is the way that the game is really supposed to be played if they want to win.
Once the next game begins, all I could think about is how this anime is one of the most ludicrously anti-capitalist things I’ve ever seen. Like, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore look like Randians compared to Fukumoto here. There really wasn’t that kind of subtext in Akagi. Most of the villains there were simply yakuza, and then even Washizu is mainly evil because he’s gone insane as the end of his life draws near. But in Kaiji, all of the capitalists are completely depraved. And there are a LOT of them, compared to how Washizu was just a lone nut going crazy in his mansion.
Here, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of capitalists who all get their kicks by watching poor people go crazy and then day or become maimed in the most sadistic ways they can think of. A deathmatch wouldn’t be degrading enough. No, these are games where everyone first shits themselves in utter terror before something awful happens to them. And these games become ever more brazen as the show goes on. When we get to the point where the characters need to cross the balance beams between the two buildings where the entire floor is full of global elites are watching, the absurdity becomes almost too much.
In fact, it brings up another anti-capitalist point, in that rules are for the little people and have no bearing on them. They can do literally anything they want to the desperately poor competitors in their games without any fear of retribution, hence how nobody ever seems to care about the witnesses everywhere to a dozen people falling off of a skyscraper and splattering on the pavement below. And while we’re at it, the show also makes it clear that the people competing in these games are generally in their condition due to the endless depression in Japan, rather than through any kind of personal moral failings. They’re the kind of people that end up in unimaginable debt because their health insurance dropped them when they came down with cancer, rather than the people that took out $400k mortgages to buy $200k houses in order to try to pawn them off onto some other sucker for $600k.
Hell, they also go way beyond any kind of rationalization for for sociopathy. They don’t use arguments to justify the fact that even they get rich on the backs, they’re still providing a better job to a Chinese peasant than he’d have as a subsistence farmer. No, here they actively hate the people that make them rich. Hyoudou likes to go up to the people writhing in pain after shattering all of their limbs and smack their broken bones with his cane. It’s not just enough to make someone owe their entire future life’s earnings in debt; they have to also suffer the entire time.
There’s a scene at the end where Hyoudou talks about how people keep defaulting on his loans to them without a second thought. Obviously, this makes him virtuous for giving them a chance, and them bad for taking advantage of him. Of course, this thinking is never flipped around and applied to the capitalists. Those poors should always have thought about caveat emptor, or considered that the people they were dealing with were negotiating in bad faith, or TINSTAAFL when they ended up in some kind of incomprehensibly disastrous situation. But to say that the lenders should’ve scrutinized those they offered credit to more closely, or made them put up some kind of collateral? Unthinkable!
Hell, probably the only thing that I’ve seen that’s even close to this level of anti-capitalist rhetoric were some of the 1920s Soviet propaganda films like Strike that I saw in film school, like where shots of pinkertons firing on striking workers is intercut with shots of cattle being slaughtered. I could maybe even make an argument that the anime is about how the workers of the world need to unite to overthrow the capitalists, both on the macro level, and how they could have easily won some of the games if they all cooperated and then split the prize money amongst each other rather than succumbing to their false consciousness and fighting each other.
(Finally, if you want to say that Kaiji is moe, that says more to me about how the word is becoming more and more debased than sharing any real insight on the concept.)