Content Warning: Discussion of nonconsensual kink, torture, fanservice
Spoilers for season one of Kakegurui
The first thing I saw from Kakegurui was the grotesque faces. It was a reaction clip on Twitter, and any sort of interest I had in the initial post was gone. All I could think about was this blonde girl with the most horrific grimace. So I tried to find more. The monstrous grins with teeth bared often covered in sweat. It was something so different from what I typically watch that I had to know what it was immediately. After scouring through numerous comments and deciphering fan names for the characters I found it: Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler.
Learning about the plot didn’t sell me on the series. Kakegurui takes place at a wealthy, prestigious academy whose social hierarchy is determined not by talent or academic standing but by gambling. Students who accumulate wealth through gambling reside at the top, ruling over those who weren’t so lucky. Those who can’t quite cut it form the lowest of the low: the “house pets” of the school. They have corresponding collars and tags so that no matter what, no one forgets who and what they are.
The men of the series do little more than provide jumping off points or even just a faint voice of misguided reason.The ones that do make more than a casual appearance still don’t do much. They might have a big moment or two, or in the case of Ryota, who initially appears to be our main protagonist, cry and bemoan the system of the school.
But while “pet”-grade student Ryoji is the supposed point-of-view character, the real center is the titular compulsive gambler Jabami Yumeko, a bright and bubbly girl who changes completely when challenged to a bet. The first antagonist and later co-lead is Mary, who starts as one of the top gamblers of the school and experiences an almost Biblical fall from grace. And then there’s the student council, the most talented and prestigious members of the gambling student body. It soon becomes clear that within Hyakkaou Academy, it’s the women who get shit done. That was where I found what had first caught my interest in the first place: the women of Kakegurui.
The whole series revolves around the idea of beating society at its own game; specifically, it looks at the challenges women face and how they deal with them. When Yumeko matriculated and completely dismantled the school’s classist structure, it was hard to not immediately fall in love. The cast features a slew of women, each different in personality but incredibly skilled in the realm of gambling. They’re smart, savvy, and wittier than one would expect from a show that relies heavily on fanservice.
Throughout the first season, there are three characters that I found most interesting because of the incredible characterization they each go through. I felt like it was something I hadn’t quite witnessed as often as I would have liked. I was drawn to them; but not all for the same reason. But the one thing they all had in common was the sheer amount of depth the characters had.
One character, Ikishima Midari, was both a point of fascination and utter dread for both the viewer and the other characters. While both Yumeko and Mary are intense, powerful, and wickedly smart, Midari was on a whole other level. While the plot and Yumeko both have a streak of sadism that runs rampant throughout, Midari pushed it as far as it would go.
Aroused by violence, bloodlust, and the thrill of high stakes gambling, Midari shows the other side of the coin when it comes to the academy. While most of the violence and danger is always present, but slightly subdued, she ramps it up and makes it a point to have it in your face.
Yumeko initially appears as a hypersexual woman who thrives off disrupting the order she sees around her. Both Ryota and the viewers watch as her chipper facade crumbles into something else. Often depicted with a red tinge, she goes from the high school student first introduced to a devilish gambler in seconds. She’s not a silly or naive girl looking to try her hands at something new— she’s calculating, smart, and intuitive. Mary Saotome’s story was similar. Introduced as a momentary villain, we soon see that the system she had dominated through slick gambling isn’t forgiving. She loses to Yumeko, and becomes one of the lowest at the academy.
When Mary is first introduced she feels like an extreme amongst the others. While the gambling plays a part in everyone’s academic lives, Mary derives a twisted sense of joy out of it. It isn’t until we see Yumeko’s true nature that she’s actually one of the more normal students out there.
Where the two women could have been pitted against one another, it instead veers off into a bizarre, ever evolving friendship. Yumeko quickly becomes enamoured with Mary, though the latter takes a while to warm up to her. Even then, Mary is still waiting for the other shoe to drop that will send her back to the bottom once more.
They felt like a breath of fresh air. It no longer just felt like “a gambling show but horny.” Instead, I was watching women navigate a world that was inherently unjust to everyone that resided in it. The school they attended required being cutthroat, vicious, even cruel. So the women that were there filled that space. They did what they needed to in order to achieve a place where they could feel comfortable.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Kakegurui is without glaring issues. Some of the characters thrive off the newfound freedom they discovered in brutality. Amongst the ever-present sexualization and even the occasional bloody violence, there’s a sort of unspoken statement to the characters. Because these negative traits keep coming up within that show, that gives the characters a sort of clearance. They too can be gross, sexual, or even cruel without that becoming their sole personality trait. While still holding true to tropes, like Midari being a sadist, they are no longer one dimensional. And while as a viewer you’re pushed to the point of discomfort more than once, you were watching them exist as a rounded character.
Midari, Mary, and Yumeko all interact with one another throughout the first season in different ways that helped take the storytelling of the series into a really powerful direction. Mary and Yumeko are strongly coded as queer, Mary displaying classic “tsundere traits” and Yumeko constantly showering her with physical attention. The two are constantly touching, with hugs and hand holding that makes Mary blush. They start the series off as enemies, but their relationship moves into a place of admiration and even quiet lust. Midari is incredibly sexual, her masochism one of her most dominant traits.
At times, the fanservice lends itself to the story. Showing the passion and ferocity that ties into the gambling. It’s high stakes situations morphed into something brimming with over the top sexuality. It’s campy and kitchsy, drawing the eye to how ridiculous the premise actually is.
The fanservice and sexuality of the series helps remind us as viewers of the absolute shit-show that is Kakegurui. A caste system built into a school regulated solely by gambling sounds like a mad-libs type game. It feels almost as far fetched as waking up as a slime.
And that’s why it has moments where it works to the show’s advantage. The ridiculousness, the overt sexual tension tied into something as simple as drawing a card, it’s to keep hinting at an extreme plot peppered with extreme characters.
But often these moments begin to feel too much. The gaze lingers just a bit too long, focuses somewhere it shouldn’t.
While most of the fanservice adds to the story – Midori at the very thought of experiencing pain, Mary gaining power, even Yumeko just having a good time- there are times it’s just blatantly thrust into scenes. They feel like random punctuation, nonsensical in the spots they can appear.
When the stakes get high, the characters undergo a shift in appearance that draws attention to what lies under their beauty. Their faces become distorted, grinning, and ugly as a reflection of their true personalities. They become a reminder that girls aren’t inherently the cute schoolgirl or dreamy wanna-be idol, but can be nasty, rude, and violent.
But part of the draw of these characters was also the part that left me gritting my teeth. While the system could be liberating for the characters who had the luck or skill to claw their way through it, it was also damning to those who weren’t capable of breaking out.
While many of the characters feel more genuine within their sexuality, it’s the same thing that’s harming them. There are heavy implications that the housepets of the series are often abused, physically and sexually. One unlucky gambler lives in fear of the student she is indebted to. The show hones in on her absolute fear of the upperclassmen that she owes, as he controls every aspect of her life.
But even as this happens, the views glaze past some of these incredibly troubling moments to focus on bodies instead of the trauma. It seems to dance around the issues that all of us can see: the harassment and abuse.
Although the script has a number of opportunities to address these issues, it instead opts to titillate the viewer. We know the chances are there; these are characters we see growing, whether it be in good ways or bad. We want to root for them, hate them, and everything in between. But the show tends to ignore that and focus on the physical and sexual nature that comes out of the wild world of gambling they all reside in.
Yumeko is unapologetic in who she is, harnessing everything she has in her arsenal. At times, that means her entire physical self. Unfortunately for Yumeko this is often shown using upskirt shots, impossible physics and general fanservice.
These moments contribute nothing to the plot, and can in fact act as a distraction from what’s happening in the moment. While the grotesque faces remind the viewer of the true horror of the school, the fanservice does little more than titillate.
Still, even after watching fingernails get pulled out of their nail beds, idols fall from grace, and even high school students respond to the name Fido, there was something about it that kept me coming back after each episode. A stellar opening, a cast of characters that were more than just an academy uniform. The otherwise fantastic, well-rounded story fell into a number of narrative traps experienced anime fans are familiar with, but with its self-awareness, always pulled itself out of dangerous territory before it became irredeemable.
Kakegurui scratched an itch I didn’t know I had. It was strange, exciting, and bizarre. Its characters had a sort of freedom, one that allowed them to be grotesque, grim, even sexual on their own terms. While they weren’t totally immune to overt sexualization, I couldn’t help but root for them. I wanted Mary to become the powerful woman she wanted to be. I wanted Yumeko to have the fun and thrills she was seeking out.
There’s a sort of revelry in the chaos presented in Kakegurui that brought a feeling of comfort. If these women were capable of doing whatever the hell they want and accomplishing things on their own terms, maybe it meant that I could too. But hopefully with a few less panty shots.