It is always disappointing to encounter a show with so much potential, only to have it squandered through pandering to the lowest common denominator.
But before we make a full evaluation, let's review the facts.
It's Like Hogwarts, if Hogwarts was a Casino
Ah, the magical school trope.
It's often overused, but in the right hands it can make for a compelling story. Whether you're learning to become a wizard at Hogwarts, training as a demon hunter at True Cross Academy, or even honing your ninja skills in Konoha, magical schools are a great way to live out your power fantasies.
And they don't even have to be magical. Some "magical schools" are more scientific in nature, such as in Ender's Game or other popular stories.
Or, sometimes, they're all about gambling.
Kakegurui is about a fictional high school in Japan where the students are high stakes gamblers, and their entire lives revolve around games of chance and skill. The best students can achieve riches beyond their wildest dreams, but a terrible retribution awaits those who lose.
One day, a new girl named Yumeko arrives at Hyakkou Academy, where all students are beholden to a strict hierarchy depending on their gambling skills.
Since Yumeko is a compulsive gambler who enjoys losing just as much as winning, she immediately upsets the social order, taking on all comers and racking up a surprising number of wins.
Her winning strategy comes from her irrational behavior. The top-tier gamblers at the school have attained their position by learning to anticipate their opponents, but Yumeko's actions cannot be anticipated, as she often acts against her immediate interests.
But she inevitably draws the attention of the student council, which at this school is an Illuminati-esque cabal of power players who secretly control all aspects of the students' lives.
At Hyakkou Academy, any student who gambles themselves into debt are thereafter designated "class pets", and are treated as beasts of burden who must perform any chore required of them by the "human" students.
As Yumeko craves greater and greater risks, she will face off against each member of the student council and raise the stakes to billions of yen, all in her quest to battle the student council president in a game with the greatest imaginable risk.
One noticeable flaw of this series is the way other characters are shoved aside in favor of Yumeko.
Granted, some of this is just a natural consequence. Yumeko's personality is so imposing that it kind of squashes everyone all comers---which is in keeping with her storyline of overpowering the powerful.
But because of this, the other characters are largely forgettable, especially the other sympathetic heroes, such as Ryota, who functions as the audience's viewpoint. After Yumeko rescues him from being a class pet, he follows her around like a little lost puppy (ironic, isn't it?).
And while Ryota does have an arc, it is an arc that, like the curvature of the Earth, is barely registered to the viewer's eyes.
Other support characters, such as Mary and (later) Itsuki, are even more forgettable.
Yumeko's opponents, however, tend to leave a more permanent impression. The student council is made up of the kind of rogues' gallery you would expect to find in a shounen anime. Each one has their own special skills and poses a unique threat. It is a genuine treat to see each one of them taken down.
But then There's the Panda Ring
Every now and then, Kakegurui takes time away from being a legitimately interesting show to do something shallow and stupid.
I am talking about the way the show tries to pander sexually implicit imagery to the viewer.
In the show's opening and closing sequences, as well as in several episodes, the animators pose the academy's schoolgirls in highly flattering positions.
Any follower of this blog knows that I am not fond of this kind of pandering. And it is even more infuriating in Kakegurui because it has literally no reason to be there. None of the show's storylines are at all sexual. The characters never actually have sex or even get involved with each other. Kakegurui is a series without romantic subplots (an astonishing rarity), yet it wastes the viewer's time with implicit sexual posturing that serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to use as a marketing gimmick.
I am not fond of fetishising characters, but if you must do it then at least make it relevant to the plot!
This is, by far, the biggest strike against the series. And if these shots were subtracted from the runtime, the show would be better off for it.
One Redeeming Quality: the Games
There is, however, one area where Kakegurui lets its creative chutzpah shine, and that is in the gambling itself.
The show is not content to merely use existing games from the real world. At Hyakkou Academy, gambling is a way of life, and one way students show their chops is to invent new games with which to challenge each other.
The series introduces a host of made-up games, all of which could be played in real life. Many of them are fresh takes on old favorites, such as poker, concentration, or, in one extreme case, Russian roulette.
That the show puts so much creativity into inventing new forms of gambling demonstrates that it was written by a great intellect. To have that intellectual appeal interrupted so often by pandering is my primary gripe with the series.
Under different circumstances, Kakegurui could have become one of my top five animes. That it wastes so much potential is reason enough to keep me from watching it again.
Yet the drama, intellect, and high stakes of the shows story are certainly attention grabbing. They would also be worthy of emulation for those wishing to write a story about the insane world of high-stakes gambling.
It is on Netflix right now, if you can stomach it. Otherwise, you may just want to fold, cash in your chips, and go home.
Previous entries in the Netflixing series: