Gambling. An exercise in which people bet their money on games of chance. That doesn't sound like a particularly exciting premise for any story. Yet, within the world of Japanese anime and manga their exists a subset of works that focus entirely upon this activity. These are the works of the "gambling genre". But what exactly is the "gambling genre", and how did it arise?
It all started with one game : Mahjong. For those unfamiliar with this classic Chinese game of tiles, feel free to read the Wikipedia article because I don't have the faintest clue how it's actually played. The most important thing about this game, at least from the interests of providing an exciting story, is the factors that go into the game. Mahjong involves skill, strategy, and calculation, as well as a certain degree of luck and it is also often played as a game where money is involved, in other words, a gambling game.
If the game was based solely on luck, then there wouldn't be anything particularly interesting to say about it. But instead, players have to out think their opponents to defeat them. At least, that's how the game is presented within the gambling genre. Because of this psychological component we move beyond the simple idea of a game and we arrive at a battle of minds. This is perhaps the most appealing because it produces tension, in much the same way that bluffing in poker produces excitement.
Whole series revolve around characters playing the game of Mahjong and little else. Indeed, their are whole anthologies devoted entirely to various different Mahjong manga. These Mahjong stories served as the base for what later became the "gambling" genre.
The "gambling genre"
I have not seen nearly enough of these works to speak with any kind of authority on the matter, but I will briefly outline the defining features of these works, at least with regards to the shows I have seen.
Firstly we need some kind of game. This may be a real game, like mahjong, or a simply a set of rules, like the "games" in the anime/manga series Kaiji.. Either way, it is essential that some framework exists with grounded rules. Without properly defined rules, any game falls apart and becomes nothing more then a series of activities.
We then place our protagonist in a variety of situations, and see how they can use their cunning to exploit the rules in some way. Often our protagonist, or his rivals, will show just how clever they are by bending and even breaking these rules. How far they succeed in these endeavours often demonstrates how powerful the character is meant to be within the story.
The gamble itself is also defined and integrated into the rules. Perhaps the story will start with some relatively reasonable wagers, but by the very nature of these stories there is a constant need to up the ante. Perhaps millions of dollars is no longer an exciting wager, so why not try a limb? Or perhaps even your life?
These stories tend to follow one character through a number of events, so it's important that the protagonist is interesting. If they aren't, why would be care abuts their victories or defeats? It's not like there are large overarching plots to keep the audiences attention : these are just people playing some kind of game. Perhaps the game will be played for high stakes, but even then, if you don't care about the characters (love them, or hate them) there's very little to keep a viewer engaged.
Antagonists have to be as lively and intriguing as the protagonists themselves, or we wouldn't be cheering for their defeat. Often this means that they have done something bad to the protagonist at some point, so that we feel that their defeats are justified. For this reason they tend to be simple "bad guys", although better shows will work to flesh these figures out. .
Finally we come to my favourite aspect of the genre : the mind games. Perhaps these games are inherently ludicrous. Perhaps human beings don't think that fast. Perhaps these people are too clever. But I don't care.
Witnessing two characters clash intellectually can be as fascinating as two sportsmen battling physically.
I'm not entirely sure why I find this particular concept so appealing, perhaps a battle of intellects appeals to my nerdish side. Or perhaps it's that because deception and manipulation are so fascinating that making whole stories out of them seems only natural.
How well a characters can plan, bluff, trick, and lie is directly proportional to their success within these stories. To deceive your opponent is crucial, to manipulate them is best.
From a story point of view, the best feature of psychological warfare is that it creates tension. It's all about withholding information, a powerful way to build suspense, especially when characters wager high stakes on the outcomes of these games. It often becomes a game of "who knows what", because knowledge is power.
In One Outs, it is the audience who lack the formation and the main character is the figure who knows more then we do. In Kaiji, the hero really doesn't know what the other guy has got, and neither do the audience. When a character risks it all on a hunch you can't help holding you breath.
Being Over The Top
By "over the top" I refer to the tendencies of these works to feature wacky situations, contrived plot devices and ridiculous speeches. Compared to the above three concepts, this feature is far less important. If you lack a game, players, and psychological warfare then you don't really have a story. You can survive without being over the top, but it just isn't as fun..
I derive a good deal of pleasure from the extreme nature of the situations that our heroes find themselves in, whether it's the craziness of the games themselves or the seriousness of what's being gambled (perhaps your soul?).
These stories also seem to be about completely insane characters. For all their skill and planning and cunning these "games" they play also tend to involve luck. Yet, because these characters are "manly men" they will throw reason to the wind, dispense with logic and bet it all on the roll of a dice.
To accompany such extreme situation, we need powerful dialogue. Hopefully it will include metaphors, similes, visual aides and be largely composed of rhetoric. This language seems highly fitting for the absurd situations that these stories tend to revolve around. Kaiji certainly delivers on this concept, providing oodles of exaggerated dialogue in every episode.
Now that I've gone on to discuss some of the common features of these particular works, I thought it would be helpful to introduce and recommend some works from this fine genre.
"Tokyo, 1958. A 13-year-old kid, Shigeru Akagi, drives off a cliff in an rigged game of chicken, swims to safety and walks into a Mahjong parlor, where a man with heavy debts is gambling his life with the yakuza. Despite having never played before and given only a few minutes to learn the rules, he then proceeds to crush his opponents andmerely by playing mahjongturn them into broken shells of their former selves. This is the start of the genius Akagi's legend in the underworld. " - TV Tropes
Do you understand mahjong?
In many ways, this seems the closet work to those original "Mahjong" manga, especially as the main game being played in this series is mahjong. However, not knowing the rules of this particular games should not discourage you from investigating this series. Indeed, the main character Akagi seems to have little need for rules or logic as he pulls of increasingly insane stunts to defeat his foes.
Production and Direction
This series is produced by the venerable studio Madhouse and it's general production quality is high. The direction, editing, dialogue and so forth create a fantastically particular mood and the tension remains high throughout thanks to the efforts of this particular team who seem to have done an excellent job adapting the Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga of the same name.
As enjoyable as this show is, I find it problematic for two fairly major reasons.
Firstly, the focus of the show is based around mahjong. While what I said above is true and you really don't have to have any understanding of the game to watch this show, I still feel like I am missing something. It would be easier to follow if the game that the characters where playing was something I actually knew and understood, something universal. This is an issue that the creator of the manga actually address's in his later work, Kaiji. Still, while this may just look like a silly game, this show contains plenty of "dramatic language", which is always enjoyable.
Secondly, the main character. I said above that the hero has to be interesting to watch, and Akagi certainly fits the bill. He's cold, calculating, brilliant and ruthless. However, he tends to win. A lot. This is sometimes called "boring invincible hero" syndrome and it certainly afflicts Akagi. If you feel that the main character can never loose, the tension (which is really the heart of a good gambling show) is lessened.
Nevertheless, I recommend checking this show out. If you don't enjoy it for some reason you can still examine the other works that I will be recommending.
One Outs : Nobody Wins but I!
Hiromichi Kojima, the star batter of the Lycaons, heads to Okinawa to train and bring himself out of a slump. There, he meets Toua Tokuchi, a 134-kmph/83 mph pitcher and the undisputed king of a gambling form of baseball called "One Out." At Kojima's urging, Tokuchi signs up with the Lycaons. His contract differs form the usual, though, in that he gets 5,000,000 yen for every out he pitches, but loses 50,000,000 yen for every point he gives up. - ANN via TV Tropes
Familiarity and Simplicity
Here we seem to have, at least on the surface, a simpler game then Mahjong. I mean, it's just baseball, right? Even if you aren't too familiar with the sport, the concept of losing one point or gaining one point for the team seems fairly simple.
This sense of familiarity may well make One Outs a more approachable show then the aforementioned Akagi (well, apart from the opening animation, which features Tokuchi in a variety of revealing outfits and oddly symbolic poses. This is extremely strange because, as far as I can tell, there isn't a drop of homosexual subtext to this work. It's best to think of it as a strange irregularity).
This isn't indicative of the show, but it sure is weird how the knife got censored out of his mouth in later versions of the opening. Too symbolic for some?
Also, while this show involves a lot of baseball, it isn't really a "sports show". Even if you are put off by the "sports" premise, I still recommend checking out this series.
Tokuchi serves as your standard, Akagi-type protagonist. He is intelligent, ruthless, cunning and brilliant. Like Akagi, he is calm and composed, not a character who lets any of their emotions appear on the surface : because that would be a weakness.
He also possess a skill outside of simply gambling (although we are informed that he is proficient in all forms of gambling), he's a pitcher. However, his ability to strike-out batters has more to do with his ability to psychologically destroy his opponents then any particular type of pitch he makes. In other words, he's a badass.
Teamwork is key
However, unlike Akagi, Tokuchi can't just rely on his own brilliance. He is part of a team and so he needs everyone on his team to be performing at their best. This dynamic helps to this work apart from similar shows in the genre. He also gets to deliver fantastic, over the top speeches, which is necessary skill for any main character within this genre.
While this series is very good, and certainly worth a look if you find yourself enamoured with this particular genre, it's not without it's flaws. The pacing, for one.
At times, the length of matches feel reasonable, on other occasions they seem to drag. This is especially problematic if the audience has already worked out what Tokuchi is going to do before he does it. As soon as the audience acquires that information the tension drops, which isn't a good thing for stories built entirely upon suspense.
It can occasionally get a little hard to follow as well, but generally isn't a problem.
Tokuchi is, unfortunately, another 'boring invincible hero'. How far this affects your enjoyment of the show is entirely down to you. For many viewers the enjoyment of these works is not whether the main character will win, but how. This is much the same as in Akagi, where the audience is always waiting for Akagi to pull off some baffling move to defeat his opponent.
Like Akagi, this is another show that feel happy to recommend to others, even if it isn't my personal favourite.
The author of the manga that this work is also the man behind Liar Game a manga series I have yet to explore. Hopefully someone in this thread can outline that work as I lack the expertise.
Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji The Suffering Pariah The Ultimate Survivor
After graduating from high school in 1996 in Japan, Itō Kaiji moves to Tokyo to get a job, but he fails to find steady employment because of his eccentric disposition and because the country is mired in its first recession since World War II. Depressed, he festers in his apartment, biding the time with cheap pranks, gambles, liquor and cigarettes. Kaiji is always thinking about money and his perpetual poverty frequently brings him to tears.
Kaiji's unrelenting misery continues for two years until he is paid an unexpected visit from a man named Endō, who wants to collect an outstanding debt owed to him in Kaiji's name. Endō gives Kaiji two options - either spend ten years to repay this outstanding debt, or board the gambling ship Espoir ("hope" in French) for one night to clear the debt. Using a con, Endō pressures Kaiji into accepting the deal, believing he will never come back from the voyage. - Wikiepedia
My unbridled love for Kaiji
Rather then attempting to maintain any sense that I'm providing a neutral introduction to these works, I'm just going to have to come right out and say it : I love Kaiji. It's easily my favourite of the shows that I will be discussing in this thread and certainly the show I'd recompensed that people watch if they could only pick one. Nevertheless, I will try to avoid singing it's praises too loudly.
More of the same?
So, it's a gambling anime, produced by Madhouse, based off a manga written by the Nobuyuki Fukumoto and with Masato Hagiwara voicing the main character. So, what's different about this particular work?
Well, as it turns out, quite a bit. Lets think back to a couple of the main components of a "gambling story" that I listed above : the game and the players. What's so fascinating about this particular work is how it approached these two concepts.
For a start, the game. Unlike Akagi or One Outs, the show doesn't revolve any real game. Instead, the stories revolve around a number of simple games made up by the author. This proves useful for a number of reasons. Because these games are made up, no prior knowledge of the game is assumed and so everything is explained to the audience so we aren't lost.
Also, these games tend to be fairly simple, little more then a set of rules. Once they've been explained you might go "is that it? How can something so basic lead to any interesting situations?". Luckily, the true genius of Kaiji is that even though the games themselves are intuitive on the surface, their actually a whole host of complicated factors that tend to be revealed as the story progresses. This helps to keep things interesting. Their simplicity also allows the audience to follow the logic of the characters with ease, something which isn't really possible in Akagi.
The twist comes from the stakes which are being put on the line over these very simple games I won't spoil anything by going into detail on the nature of the games or the nature of what is being bet, but it's always something crazy like "well, if you don't land the rock on that leaf, you're going to spend the rest of life as a slave in a mine". You get the picture. This, of course, leads to some truly glorious and over the top narration, and it's better in Kaiji then in any other work.
Another key factor that differentiates Kaiji from the rest of the pack is the protagonist : Kaiji himself. While he may look awesome in his jacket, have a head shaped like a banana and be a gambling genius, this is where the similarities between him and a character like Akagi end. Namely, Kaiji can actually loose. And he will.
Watching Kaiji build himself up, gather his strength, concoct his plans and attempt to execute his strategy and actually loose is the real appeal of the show (although he wins as well). We, as an audience, can feel much closer to Kaiji because he actually seems like a human being, very different to the gambling gods Tokuchi and Akagi. Watching Kaiji enjoy his victory is all the more powerful because we have also watched him weep with despair. Because his victory is not a forgone conclusion tension remains high throughout this work, and actually manages to increase as we near the end of the show.
In conclusion, if you want to go watch one show, make sure it's Kaiji. If you really enjoy that, then definitely go and check out the other works mentioned because you will probably enjoy them as well.
JoJo's Bizarre Adventure Part 3 : Episode 10
While I have now discussed the works which feature gambling as their primary theme, I still feel the urge to recommend some works which provide something similar.
In this vein, I want to talk about JoJo's bizarre adventure, an anime I hope most people have seen (if you haven't, you really should). I won't go into the details of the plot here, save to say that it's kind of an action show where people fight with super powers.
It's all mostly irrelevant for the episode I'm going to be bringing up. In episode 10 our gang of heroes are looking for a particular location. One man offers to tell them, if they'll indulge him in a minor spot of gambling.
As you may imagine, this situation soon goes awry and the characters are now gambling for some very high stakes, but on completely inane things (which way will a cat walk). It may sound strange in concept, but as with many of these tales the execution is what makes the story so compelling. Suffice to say the characters playing their games are doing their best to exploit the rules (which happens in pretty much all gambling stories, but is strangely never punished) while also engaging in psychological warfare with the antagonist.
A gambling story with a supernatural twist, well worth watching (like the entire show!).
I'm sure many of you are familiar with this work, although you may be confused as to why I would bring it up.
Upon closer inspection, however, DeathNote can be viewed as falling into (my) definition of a gambling story. We have a game (the rules of the DeathNote and it's affiliated owners), we have players (two equally interesting protagonists) and we have high stakes (for Light, it's capture and imprisonment. For L, it's death) and we also have plenty of melodrama. Like any good gambling story this whole work is about characters interacting and exploiting a set of rules as well as engaging in psychological warfare with each other.
For these reasons it's as gripping and intriguing as any other work in the field, although the core "mechanics" of the games are placed within the framework of a far more complicated plot then the other works mentioned.
Like any of these stories discussed, how far you enjoy what's going on will rest on your own acceptance of the twister logic employed by the various characters to further their ends.
In conclusion, the gambling genre contains many fascinating works and I hope those unfamiliar with these shows will take the time to investigate one of them.
And for those who have seen the shows above, do you enjoy them?
Are there perhaps other works, in anime or manga, that you'd recommend to fans of the "gambling genre?"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahjong : Mahjong and the like
http://www.awopodcast.com/2009/09/anime-world-order-show-82b-chow-yun-fat.html : Listen to this episode of AWO if you wish to hear a lengthier review of "One Outs"
http://www.awopodcast.com/2008/07/anime-world-order-show-70-unassailable.html : Listen to this episode of AWO if you wish to hear a lengtheri review of Kaiji
http://gargarstegosaurus.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/the-manly-tears-of-kaiji/ : The Manly Tears of Kaiji