Basing a series on a tyre-slashing, out of work bum who attempts to pay off his debts through high-stakes gambling might not sound like the most auspicious character to use; however that's exactly what Kaiji does and even at the ends of society, the show exudes a manly fragrance that's hard to shift. Dense with dialogue, the first three episodes are a tense, sometimes tortured look at a man pushed to the edge.
To say that the series is heavy on confabulation would be an understatement; most all of the introductory episodes are taken up with overwrought monologues either from the narrator, the delightful Fumihiko Tachiki, or from Itou Kaiji's many foes describing everything from what happened in the last episode to the byzantine logic used to win the most recent gamble; it's initially comical but surprisingly, rarely feels protracted. While most of the monologues are posturing and chest-beating, each episode is pocked with tiny victories and defeats which keep things moving along to what can only be hoped is a monumental climax. What the series lacks in visceral action is more than made up for by the most animate of faces; each one able to convey a range of emotion above and beyond what's ordinarily expected of anime characters. Only the most tertiary of characters are left stoically straight-faced yet even then the art style adds volumes to what could have been merely perfunctory.
When Kaiji isn't talking, it's revelling in the tiny details; turning over a card or orating a monotone speech are gifted with flourishes of sound and animation turning the mundane into the entertaining. It's a excellent trick, but that's all it is and it masks a lack of forward progression in the overall plot and, in the most typically shounen of ways, protracts otherwise potentially short scenes. The first episode very much sets up Kaiji as a character: down on his luck and out of work, he pulls pranks on foreign, imported cars before he is slyly duped into attending a gambling cruise in an attempt to pay off his considerable debts. The predictability of the plot is never in question, however it becomes blindingly obvious that any kind of positive luck that comes his way is certainly either yet another trick or only has the façade of positivity. The moral that is repeatedly hammered home is that only Kaiji can effect his redemption - no one else. It's a bitter message not not helped by the cast which consists wholly of yakuza, back-stabbers, dead-beats and losers in nearly equal measure.
The underlying message is all the more poignant for the recent recession in Japan, the questionable morality of obtaining money through gambling is offset by the work the protagonist puts in to win it yet still maintaining his scruples. While that idea may work across genders, the series obviously leans towards a male demographic. Above and beyond teenage titillation, the first three episodes of the series contain no women whatsoever, and given the heritage laid down by Nobuyuki Fukumoto with cult favourite Akagi, this isn't surprising. The appeal to older men, bread-winners, ex-students and the like is manifest. This certainly isn't a detraction from the series, it delivers a more rounded, psychological experience, eschewing action for empathetic characters and plot that's all too easy to get swept up in. Kaiji perhaps epitomises translation difficulties, not in terms of dialogue but in terms of theme and personality: relying on the huge salary-man demographic of Japan while perhaps less instantly relevant overseas. In essence, all the hallmarks of another cult series.
If there is anything to contend with it is the aforementioned length of each scene: while the plot could be rattled through in half the time, it wouldn't be the same story without the internal monologues of Kaiji and the vocalised guile of his opponents. Kaiji is as distinctive as its art-style and the promise of fresh situations culminating in suitably grandiose terms is too much to ignore.