Kaiji May Have a Better Series, But Akagi Would Whoop the Shit Out of Him in Gambling

Kaiji and Akagi, both adapted by Madhouse from Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga, share many surface similarities — the art style is the most obvious, but they’re both also filled to the brim with scumbags who derive great pleasure from inflicting physical and psychological torture on any human who stumbles onto their path; shady mob underworld settings; and a focus on gambling through heavily psychological games. However, these elements lead both series down wildly different paths — this is most apparent with the protagonists.

After seeing Kaiji first, it’s clear that, storywise, it is superior to Akagi in every way — the latter series just is not as suspenseful, interesting or even as dark, although it has plenty of dark moments peppered throughout. Where Akagi really succeeds, however, is with its protagonist, the unflappable Shigeru Akagi. Where Kaiji is a breakable, flawed man — despite his abnormal strategic ability — Akagi is a lean, cold gambling machine. He lives for the gamble, thirsts for the gamble, and the more on the line the better. Akagi’s behavior goes far beyond an addiction to gambling; although his face rarely betrays his emotions, he seems to float aimlessly through life, only truly coming alive when he pushes himself and his opponent to the brink of destruction. It’s this different approach to gambling that makes Akagi an interesting series.

The main difference between Akagi and Kaiji, gambling-wise, is this: Kaiji desperately wants to survive, and he plays the games in such a way to ensure his survival against seemingly impossible odds; however, Akagi knows he will survive, and instead plays mahjong in such a way as to thoroughly destroy his opponent. Victory is not his goal — rather, it is annihilation. This is why, I think, Akagi is so successful in gambling, whereas Kaiji is more often a failure (although there are usually extenuating circumstances to Kaiji’s failure because 1) The people making the rules are assholes, and 2) The people who participate in the games are assholes).

Akagi has that cutthroat edge to him. He is presented as neither truly good or truly evil; he certainly does some messed up things — for instance, shooting the bullies in the knee caps before his match against the blind mahjong player — but he also does some good things, such as helping out that poor bastard who loses his entire paycheck in a mahjong match against his co-workers at the factory. What motivates Akagi is the thrill of putting his life on the line and eviscerating those who put theirs on the line as well. He doesn’t really care for what is “right” or “wrong”; therefore, he is able to coolly step back and evaluate the best course of action based on the psychology of his opponent(s) and what their moves reveal about themselves. Then he moves in for the kill like a shark ripping apart a seal. *insert unintentionally hilarious visual metaphor here*

The very qualities that make Kaiji an ultimately good person — compassion for the people who share his plight, a desire to bring justice to those who exploit the “trash” and a refusal to sink to the lowest depths possible to win the gamble — also ensure that Kaiji will at the very least have a difficult time overcoming the machinations of the maniacs who run the sadistic gambling tournaments. Akagi doesn’t care about any of that. All he has is a single-minded desire to push himself and his opponent to the brink, and then tear his opponent down and rip his heart out, Temple of Doom-style, and raise it to the heavens for all to see.

Digitalboy has written in the past about two types of good characters: Those who are honest and legitimately deep, and those who are simply memorable. Kaiji is a great example of the former, and Akagi is a great example of the latter. Akagi does not change much through the course of the series. He is pretty much the same at 13 years old as he is in his 20s — calm, cold, detached, able to psychologically analyze and pick apart the weaknesses of his opponents with frightening accuracy. This cold-bloodedness makes him memorable as hell, however: In a series flush with yakuza and evil mahjong maniacs, Akagi is the most frightening man of all. I would be scared shitless to have someone like Akagi staring me down with my life on the line.

That ties into Akagi‘s major weakness, though: There’s a fair amount of suspense, but it’s mostly tied into how exactly Akagi will beat the hell out of his opponents, since it is a foregone conclusion that he will always win. And, I think, the nature of mahjong also makes it more difficult to ride the suspense. You don’t need to know mahjong to enjoy Akagi – I sure as hell don’t know the game — but it comes off as a fairly complex game, and there’s of a focus on it here than in some other gaming anime I’ve seen. (Shion no Ou, for example, focuses about equally on the murder mystery and shogi.) Kaiji has incredibly simple games, so it’s easy to get caught up in the sense; half the time in Akagi, I had no idea what the hell was going on, although the cues certainly make it clear who has made a great move, and who has made a shitty move.

(Even worse are the couple of episodes where Akagi lays out his complex strategies for defeating his opponents — fascinating from a psychological standpoint, boring as fuck from a storytelling standpoint.)

Still, Akagi is plenty good in spite of its flaws. It is worth watching just for the experience of Akagi doing his thing and ripping his opponents apart like vintage Michael Jordan.

12 Responses to “Kaiji May Have a Better Series, But Akagi Would Whoop the Shit Out of Him in Gambling”

  1. Interesting. These titles are on my list to check out because I like shows where they describe the strategies behind what they are doing (whether game or sport or combat). The artwork looks intense, too, because of the harsh angularity.

  2. This I can agree with.

    Akagi would beat Kaiji’s zawa zawa self every time, even blindfolded. Not that Kaiji sucks at gambling. It’s just that Akagi is a natural. There’s this guy we don’t know who he is, who his family is, what and what he does and why he does. Simply put like you said, Akagi is a gambling machine. He is not evil. He’s not really the good guy but he might as well might be in this story. Simply, Akagi simply craves the thrill of gambling. Not for the money, he just lives for thrill more than any other.

    The narrator (and the bystanders) in the show did a perfect job in Akagi. I doubt it could’ve been that interesting without them. I (still) didn’t know what was going on either but I knew something epic was going on that mahjong table every single episode.

    My only possible problem with Akagi’s character was little we knew about him. I don’t know if they ever revealed it, but I’m sure Akagi was probably homeless and probably had a history that made him into what he is now. Then again, we could argue that not revealing that info is what made him such a terrifying force.

    I always recommend others whenever the topic of Akagi/kaiji comes up to check out Kaiji first. It’s just easier to think how it’ll catch their attention more than Akagi even if both of the shows are great.

    • lol I love the narrators. Couldn’t find a way to work it into this post, but their overwrought metaphors just kill me. I like how each narrator kind of fits the tone of each series, too — Tohru Furuya has the sharp, cool voice that explains Akagi’s strategies with the necessary edge, while Fumihiko Tachiki just goes balls out crazy with the drama and how enormously the odds are stacked against Kaiji.

      Yeah, Kaiji is a good gambler, but he simply sees each game for what it is and adapts himself to the game. Akagi sees the game and bends it to his will. That’s what separates the two.

      I’m on the side that prefers the mystery of Akagi’s background; I like him better as a force of nature who just swoops in and runs roughshod over everyone in his path. I don’t really sympathize with him in any way — I just think he is really badass. Knowing who he is and where he comes from would be meaningless to me.

      • I’m late, but I agree that the narrator is just amazing (for Akagi; I have not seen Kaiji yet). Since mahjong is a nonaction game for the viewer (by this I mean more of the action happening in the thought processes of the players), the narrator spoils the story, but at the same time tells the exact moment where Akagi will pull off something amazing (more like cheat).

        • Ah man, if you like Akagi’s narration, you are going to LOVE Kaiji’s narration. That’s like half the fun of the series!

          • Now that I’ve just finished Akagi, I see what you mean by the metaphors. Those last ones had so many right after the other. The dragon flying against a storm, and so on. I’ll be sure to check Kaiji out.

  3. I remember Dagger reccing this eons ago, but reading this post made me bump this series close to the top of my to-watch list. :)

    • Success!

      I’m not sure which to recommend you watch first between Akagi and Kaiji — the latter is better, but I think I appreciated Akagi more by seeing Kaiji first. If you want to see a badass mahjong player rip through his opponents, then watch Akagi first, but if you want to see some interesting struggles and tons of intense twists, then watch Kaiji first. Probably worth noting that Kaiji’s villains are more interesting and threatening too.

  4. I know I’m about a month late with this but thing you have to remember about Akagi is that he didn’t start in the manga named after him. Akagi first shows up in Ten introduced as god of gambling in his later years. As the story went on Akagi became so popular a side character the manga Akagi was started.

    Akagi is about how god became god.

    • No worries at all on the timing of your comment. I see — and appreciate! — comments whether they’re posted the day of or months/years after the fact.

      I did read a bit about how the character Akagi started in a different manga. Fukumoto got pretty lucky in striking gold with such a strong, interesting character.

  5. [...] that OoFuri season 2 has ended, I wanted to watch another show of this type. Fortunately I had read a review by Shinmaru of Kaiji and another series based on a gambling manga by the same author (Nobuyuki Fukumoto). Kaiji [...]

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