Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler, Vol. 1

Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler resists easy labels, combining elements of a tournament manga, high school drama, and instructional comic. The plot focuses on Yumeko Jabami, a wealthy girl who transfers to Hyakkaou Private Academy, one of those only-in-manga institutions where the curriculum emphasizes poker and roulette instead of reading and writing. Although Jabami seems demure, her pleasant demeanor turns to maniacal resolve at the first mention of gambling. Within hours of arriving at Hyakkaou, she’s engaged in a high-stakes game of rock, paper, scissors with another student, betting ¥10,000,000 on the outcome. (When in Rome, I guess?)

To make the contest more exciting, author Homura Kawamoto adds a few novel rules, transforming a simple set of challenges into a complex game of chance involving cards, ballot boxes, and voting. He also raises the dramatic stakes by initially portraying Jabami as impulsive — even foolish — in her decision to stake ¥500,000 on a single face-off. By the end of the game, however, we realize just how cunning and observant Jabami really is, as she not only triumphs over her snotty opponent Saotome, but does so by figuring out how Saotome was cheating and using that information against her.

What really puts this chapter over the top is the artwork. Toru Naomura stages the contest like an extreme sporting event, using her entire bag of tricks to convey the contestants’ intense effort — sweatdrops, speedlines, split screens, sound effects — and mimicking the kind of camera work that ESPN trots out for the X Games. The fluid, inventive layouts are also key to making these betting matches come to life, artfully illustrating the rules of play without too much speechifying; even the most inexperienced Go Fish player could follow the game and calculate Jabami’s odds of winning. Naomura’s most effective gambit, however, is the way she draws Jabami’s face. When Jabami is playing her cards close to the vest, her eyes resemble dark, placid pools, but when she’s trouncing the competition, her eyes go supernova, turning into a set of concentric, fiery rings that mimic the line work in Saul Bass’ iconic Vertigo poster:

For all the swagger with which Jabami’s first match is staged, it’s clear that Kawamoto is more interested in the mechanics of gameplay than in the development of three-dimensional characters or the introduction of new plot twists. Each of the subsequent chapters follows the same basic pattern as the first, with Jabami besting her opponent after blowing the whistle on her for cheating. Then there’s the fanservice: Naomura never misses an opportunity to draw an extreme mammary close-up or a glimpse of underwear. And ugly underwear, I might add; Naomura’s artwork is solid, but her application of plaid screentone is so clumsy that it screams MacPaint.

Despite these shortcomings, volume one of Kakegurui is a fun, trashy read that has the good graces not to take itself too seriously. I’m not sure if the premise is strong enough to sustain my interest for more than a few volumes, as the series’ cast of schemers, cheaters, and sadists seem doomed to repeat the same patterns of behavior from chapter to chapter. I put my odds of continuing with Kakegurui at 3 to 1, but other readers may find the psychological combat between Jabami and her opponents enough to persevere through seven or ten installments.


5 thoughts on “Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler, Vol. 1”

  1. Aaron says:

    Kakegurui from what I’ve seen on 4chan discussions is it gets compared to Kaiji a lot. I haven’t read Kaiji so I can’t comment on how accurate that comparison is. I liked the intricacy of the life and death game Jabami had with Yuriko Nishino Touin in chapters three and four. I’ll keep reading it if only because it has an interesting protagonist in Jabami and over all the concept is something that could grow. Or it could simply be an entertaining tournament series time will tell.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      I’ve seen other folks comparing Kakegurui to Kaiji, especially in the forums at Baka Updates. I didn’t know anything about Kaiji either, so I looked it up. It looks like Kakegurui is a more polished version of Kaiji, albeit with a younger, more attractive cast. Since the likelihood that Kaiji will be licensed in the US is slim to none, gambling manga aficionados will have to make do with Kakegurui!

      1. Aaron says:

        The only Kaiji fans I know of are people who watched the Anime and since Kakegurui has an Anime adaptation out now those comparisons that I guess Manga fans have been making for a while have boiled over into that discussion.

        Given that Netflix has Kakegurui’s Anime adaptation liscincesd and it’s similarity to Kaiji can be used as kind “sour grapes” rationalization for not liking Kakegurui. Again I have no real idea one way or the other I’ve just noticed the similarity since that is what seems to come up on discussions aroubnd Anime adaptation of Kakegurui. That and Jabami being some Anons  Waifu

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