Netflix's 'Kakegurui' Is a Deranged Anime About High-Stakes Gambling Teens
Hyakkaou Private Academy is one of Japan's most prestigious and peculiar schools, operated entirely by its student council. Hyakkaou's students aren't thriving because of their academic prowess or athletic accomplishments -- they're each propelled by their ability to gamble.
The first season of Netflix animeKakegurui – Compulsive Gambler explored this unique concept, showcasing Hyakkaou's various students locked in flashy, no-holds-barred contests throughout its first 13 raucous episodes. From a student who collects other players' fingernails to another who gets horny at the thought of dying during a twisted version of Russian roulette, the gambling academia series explored deliciously dark territory while playing addictive mind games with viewers.
Season 2, Kakegurui ××, which recently dropped on Netflix after airing in Japan earlier this year, is happy to eschew any sort of setup that might otherwise ease viewers into the new storyline, instead catapulting you straight into the action. It moves at a breakneck pace, even faster than the installments that came before it, and its blink-and-you'll-miss-it storytelling is blisteringly compelling.
But let's back up a bit. Here's what you missed: Mysterious transfer student and protagonist Yumeko Jabami showed up in the first season and turned Hyakkaou upside down with her powerful gambling skills, shaking up the school and the players previously thought to be the best it could offer. Yumeko cares not for the school's pithy ranking system and lives for the thrill of the game, no matter the stakes -- the higher, the better. Aided by student Ryota Suzui and fellow gambler Mary Saotome, Yumeko continues engaging in all-or-nothing gambles in a series of new battles with even crazier consequences.
Not much has changed since the previous season ended, but Kakegurui ×× picks up on one important plot thread: former school council president Kirari Momobami has dissolved Hyakkaou's previous council, and the search has begun for her successor. She's introduced several new members to help do just that -- all members of her Momobami clan who have been hand-picked to aid in the upcoming presidential election. A winner will be selected over the course of 30 days of gambling, and of course Yumeko is in the running. It doesn't seem to actually matter to her whether she's chosen or not. However, little does she know that there's someone that wants that title very much: Mary Saotome.
From the very first episode, Kakegurui ×× is a crazed thrill ride. Its first episode speeds into a new tale, where one of the new council members is locked in a steely gamble with Yumeko and the psychotic Midari Ikishima. The trio take turns cutting strings on a miniature guillotine, with the final outcome including at least one player losing their finger. While the bets from the first season were pretty out there, Kakegurui ×× ups the ante considerably, introducing deadly poison, amputation, and the worst threat of all: Yumeko potentially being forced to never gamble again.
Watching established characters stab each other in the back, scheme, and even cheat their way to victory as Yumeko is able to stop them nearly every single time is just as satisfying as watching Sailor Moon defeat the bad guys each episode. You know what the end result will ultimately be, but it's an addictive rush the whole way there. This tension (as well as the sheer absurdity of each wager) is literally expressed with dark colors, sinister music, and not least of which the absolutely terrifying expressions that etch themselves across characters' faces. I can guarantee you've never seen these menacing, unhinged faces in another anime, and Kakegurui is all the better for it. If you thought Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When They Cry) perfected the art of the "nightmare face," you haven't seen anything yet.
A sweet smile can melt into a psychotic grin with exaggerated features in a single moment. Before you can even blink, the typically demure Yumeko is snarling in a low voice with an eerie crimson glint in her eye when speaking to someone who's wronged her. Visually, it's truly spectacular to behold. The whole of Kakegurui is beautifully animated in the first place, so seeing these awful, twisted expressions feels disturbing and out of place in the best kind of way.
But beyond its excellent animation and ghoulish faces, one of the most intriguing parts of Kakegurui is its predominantly female cast and how it handles their interactions. This show is comprised of mostly women who aren't afraid to identify what they want and go out and get it, no matter the consequences. That isn't particularly rare for anime, but it's always nice when a man or some sort of romantic conquest isn't at stake. In the first season, it appeared that male protagonist Ryota would be the main focus, but the show quickly and completely flipped the script so that Yumeko became the crux of the show. Instead, quite surprisingly, Ryota faded into the background into a support role.
That tradition carries into the second season, with Ryota acting as something of a conduit for the audience and the only member of the cast with some semblance of normalcy. While observing a roomful of students willfully risking having a finger sliced off, he's the only source of fear or trepidation, given that everyone else is so drunk on the high stakes. In this, he could be seen as bland or needless in the grand scheme of things, but he serves his purpose well and with gusto, even coming into the thrill of gambling on his own occasionally. I was waiting at any moment for some sort of contrived romance subplot to form between Ryota and Yumeko, but Kakegurui never had and apparently never will, as far as I can tell, have time for such things. Instead, Ryota is content to stay on the sidelines as a source of quiet strength and concern for Yumeko.
It's refreshing to see a strictly platonic relationship between male and female leads like this, with all (if any) sexual tension coming strictly from Yumeko's obsession with gambling. While by-the-book romance scenes certainly have a place in other series, Kakegurui would be much less exciting of a show with those themes peppered in, so I was endlessly grateful that it continued to refuse to bow to tired tropes.
Though the second season hit Netflix ahead of Neon Genesis Evangelion's streaming service debut, it's easy to miss amid the fervor surrounding the legendary mecha series -- but don't. It may seem like another unassuming school-centric drama at first blush when you're scrolling past anime on Netflix, but missing out would be an absolute crime. If you've already taken in the mind-melting psychological thrills of Evangelion or just want something darker than the typical shonen fare on Netflix, you'll hit the jackpot with Kakegurui ××.