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.