At the center of Kakegurui is Hyakkaou private academy. Unlike your traditional private school, straight A’s don’t earn you much respect here. You won’t see students fawning over the captain of the football team either. No, what these students respect is something a bit more nefarious: gambling. The majority of these students are children of the ultra-wealthy, and apparently their parents don’t mind if they bet and lose hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars on card and table games like blackjack and poker. Within the four walls of the academy, future politicians, kingmakers and power-brokers engage in a vicious psychological war revolving around gambling. In this brutal world, who will be left standing?
Kakegurui is just over a year old, and the first 3 volumes are currently available on Amazon in Kindle format. After a recommendation from a reader to check this series out, I found myself quite fascinated and read through them all in a hurry! Below are my thoughts on the first volume, with the other two reviews to be posted in the coming days.
NOTE: Since the gambling obviously involves money changing hands, and the series uses Yen, I’ll be doing loose conversions to USD for the sake of comparison.
Within Hyakkaou academy, at the top of the heap, is the powerful and widely-feared student council. Students are obligated to pay dues to the student council in order to stay in their good graces and avoid having their futures ruined. Those who are skilled at gambling end up exploiting the less fortunate students, reducing them to the status of “Housepet”. This is the situation of our unfortunate protagonist, Ryouta Suzui, as Kakegurui opens in volume 1. Having lost badly to fellow student Mary Saotome at the start, Suzui finds himself relegated to the lowly class of “Housepet”, derided as “Fido” and essentially at the mercy of his fellow students.
Into this hopeless scenario enters the mysterious Jabami Yumeko! A transfer student with a unique last name, her arrival immediately piques the interest of her classmates, and it falls to Suzui to show her around the campus.
Saotome, Suzui’s earlier tormentor, is annoyed that he gets to enjoy some glimmer of joy in his days as a housepet, and therefore sets out to make an example of Yumeko from the start. Challenging her to a unique version of rock, paper, scissors, the first official game of the series takes off.
Now, if you’re familiar with No Game, No Life, and enjoyed the various game types they showcased during the series, you can get an idea of what to expect within Kakegurui. The games are certainly interesting, and the explanations typically aren’t too convoluted. After a few matches in which Yumeko loses quite badly (she loses the equivalent of $20k in a few rounds), she asks Saotome if they can play one more game. Except, she raises the stakes:
With $100,000 on the line, Saotome is a little put-off, but still is confident in her victory due to one small caveat: she’s cheating.
That’s right, within this academy of gamblers, cheating is widespread. Rather than discourage the practice, students are encouraged to devise the craftiest methods so that they don’t get caught. Even if you are discovered, changes aren’t made retroactively, the method is simply shut down moving forward. In Saotome’s case, since this specific version of rock, paper, scissors requires cooperation from the rest of the class, she developed a signal to get the majority of students to write in “paper”, thus giving scissors a much stronger advantage in traditional play.
In a thrilling final play, after Yumeko reveals that she knew about Saotome’s strategy all along, she turns the tables on Saotome and puts her $86,000 in debt, lowering her to the rank of Housepet. As a thank you to Suzui, she bestows enough funds on him to buy him out of his Housepet ranking. When he realizes that Yumeko didn’t know for sure that she would win the final hand of rock, paper, scissors, he realizes just what kind of person Yumeko is.
Of course, just being a compulsive gambler wouldn’t make Yumeko a threat. Her attention to detail and intellectual prowess makes her a force to be reckoned with. As a result, her arrival and subsequent victory immediately puts her on the Student Council’s radar, including the newly minted member: Itsuki Sumeragi.
Itsuki’s father owns a prominent toy company in Japan, and as a result she was able to buy her way into the student council. Despite the “Pay-to-win” strategy, she still is highly skilled, particularly at card games. Therefore, when she challenges Yumeko to a game of two-deck memory, the rest of the academy is certain that Yumeko’s fate is sealed.
Now, even though this was only the second proper match, I was already able to see exactly where the match was heading fairly early on. That being said, sometimes it’s not about whether you know the destination, but if you enjoy the journey. In other words, even though I knew how it was going to end up, I still thoroughly enjoyed the match between Itsuki and Yumeko. Even when it took this nasty turn:
This is where Kakegurui distinguishes itself from more light-hearted series like Food Wars! It definitely leans more to the darker side of the human psyche. As we come to find out later, many of the student council members are seriously deranged, and bet for far worse things than money.
After the unsettling revelation of Itsuki’s “collection”, Yumeko doubles down and demonstrates her skill by exploiting Itsuki’s “cheat”: the back of the patterned decks were distinguished by the slightest of markings to demonstrate certain cards. In a matter of minutes, Yumeko was able to memorize all of them and re-create 27 consecutive pairs for a victory.
With two big victories under her belt, Yumeko was making some serious waves within the academy. When Suzui and Yumeko hear that Saotome is challenging a student council member in an attempt to get out of her debt, they arrive just in time to find Saotome losing badly to Student Council member Yuriko Nishino-Touin.
Nishino destroys her opponents with her trademark game: “Life or Death”. A variation of roulette, the devastating element of the game comes down to the “swords” integrated in the gameplay. These swords affect the game dramatically, as a “life” sword increases your winnings 30 times over, and the “death” sword causes you to lose 30X your initial bet. As a result, Saotome goes in $100,000 in debt and leaves nearly $500,000 in debt! Her utter despair and anguish is communicated well in the relevant panels, and really has you itching for Yumeko to lay some gambling whoop-ass upon Nishino. Luckily, we don’t have to wait too long.
After a cursory explanation, Yumeko gets to the bottom of Nishino’s trickery and nearly has her on the hook for over $20,000,000 before the president of the student council intervenes, providing an opportunity for a last minute cheat to secure Yumeko’s loss.
As the first volume closes our heroine finds herself a staggering $3,100,000 in debt. The lowest of the low, Yumeko finds herself tumbling down from her previous victories, and sets the series up for further excitement in volume 2.
Overall, I’m a fan of the series. The art isn’t particularly spectacular, but it does shine in moments of conveying extreme emotions. If you ever wonder what people look like or sound like when they lose $100,000 in a single game, some panels within Kakegurui will help you get a better idea. The structure is pretty one dimensional right now, with Yumeko hustling her enemies and provoking them with some well-placed smack talk. Initially I was annoyed that so much of the drama could be avoided if her opponent just walked away after they initially beat her, but then I realized they are all gambling addicts. The most impressive element of Kakegurui is the psychological aspect. You can feel the desperation that these kids feel as they bet it all in an attempt to regain some form of dignity, and plunge to the depths of despair along with them when it inevitably goes south.
Check back on Thursday when I post my review of volume 2! (Preview: It gets better!)