Kakegurui – Compulsive Gambler Vol. 1, licensed by Yen Press, begins the story of Jabami Yumeko transferring to Hyakkaou Private Academy. What sets this school apart from most is that the moment classes end, the students immediately group up into various gambling sessions all around the academy. Almost everyone at the school has millions of yen to gamble with and one’s skill at gambling determines their ranking in the hierarchy imposed by Hyakkaou’s student council. Luckily for Jabami Yumeko, she’s the titular compulsive gambler. Is this series one you should literally put your money on?
The main selling point of the series that initially drew me to the anime when it came to Netflix this past February is the insane faces the characters make once they “go gambling mad.” The artwork by Naomura Tōru is crisp and clean from beginning to end and the ways these young women contort their faces in ecstatic glee or ruinous despair is hilarious. It reminds me of some of the wild faces in Umineko When They Cry because as funny as they are, they’re also a little disturbing, which ties into the series’ themes of how debt and capitalism can ruin a life.
Beyond the great faces, I can’t say enough good about the overabundance of patterns used to fill space in this series. There’s houndstooth, checkerboard, playing card backs, polka-dots, all kinds of eye-popping details all over almost every page. Reading this manga feels like a trip through a classy casino, as everything is just gaudy enough to look busy and flashy, but not to the point of the book’s art feeling tacky. There’s also a great use of mixed media throughout the volume which elevates a particular horror element to an unnervingly real level.
Writer Kawamoto Homura does a good job of gradually introducing the series’ wacky cast of gambling freaks and, more importantly, the complex games of skill and chance they play. Simple roulette is child’s play for the students at Hyakkaou and each game they play is an elevated, complicated version of regular gambling games. For example, instead of regular rock, paper, scissors, we see a game where two students play with cards with the signs for rock, paper, scissors drawn on, but these cards are drawn by a class of students at random, lowering the chances of victory and upping the need for a strong poker face. The games get all the more complex as Yumeko challenges more powerful members of the student council with the stakes getting higher and more exciting each time. Even as someone who has no interest in gambling, I had a ton of fun seeing these students risk it all and go wild.
What I like the least about the series is the hyper-sexualization of its characters. Their ecstasy while gambling almost always turns into a sexual pleasure and while this lends itself to comedy, it’s still a characteristic that objectifies and sexualizes high school girls. Were they adult women, I’d be having a different conversation about catering to the male gaze, but given that the characters are teenagers their sexualization makes me uncomfortable.
Kakegurui – Compulsive Gambler Vol. 1 is a wild ride that entertains even with no knowledge of gambling going in. Anyone who wants a series that blends comedy, light horror, and themes that explore what happens when hyper-capitalist attitudes take over can safely bet on enjoying this series.