What I’m about to write is pretty obvious to anyone who has seen the life-or-death gambling manga and anime Kaiji by Fukumoto Nobuyuki. That said, I still want to write about what I think makes its titular hero such a fascinating character. Maybe those who haven’t been exposed to Kaiji yet might find a reason to start.
Itou Kaiji can’t hold a job. He’s lazy and greedy and prefers to lash out at the world instead of doing anything to improve himself. He can be a nice guy, but it often comes back to bite him in the ass, making him extremely bitter. Kaiji is, in a word, flawed. But when push comes to shove, and shove comes to deadly knife fight, Kaiji begins to show his full potential. In a desperate situation, Kaiji is brilliant. His mind is sharp and focused, his ability to read others is top-notch, and his desire to survive exceeds all others around him. Amazingly however, this survival instinct does not take away his human compassion, and he is often seen helping the lost and downtrodden. Deep down (and I mean deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down) Itou Kaiji is a good man.
That’s fairly impressive, but I realize it doesn’t sound particularly special compared to any other similar character. What makes Kaiji special though is that not only is he at his very best in a life-or-death situation, but that he is only ever any good at all when his life is in peril. Most other characters like Kaiji will live a sad life, then fall into danger, and then come out of it stronger than before, now fully aware of their potential as a human being. Kaiji, however, shines brightly when backed into a corner, but as soon as he takes a few steps towards the exit, his star diminishes into near-absolute darkness. It’s somewhat of a classic trope to have someone who is only comfortable in a certain situation, the soldier who excels at war but is at a loss in peacetime, the wrestler who captures a devil shark but has to let it go because he has no other purpose in life but to pursue it. Kaiji is like this, but his “ideal” situation is when his life completely and unequivocally sucks ass. Put back into a comfortable position, Kaiji immediately starts wasting his life again.
Inevitably, Kaiji draws some comparison to the other great Fukumoto hero, Akagi Shigeru, who is in many ways his opposite. Whereas Kaiji is a perennial loser, Akagi is an unparalleled genius who is not only smarter than those around him, but can see deep into their psyches and pick them apart psychologically. Both often find themselves in seedy underworld settings, but Akagi almost never makes mistakes, while Kaiji is almost nothing but them. In this respect, they’re about as far apart as you can get, but one similarity is that they are both at their best when their lives are on the line and they risk dying meaninglessly. As Narutaki from the Reverse Thieves pointed out to me though, while Kaiji inevitably ends up in those scenarios, Akagi has to actively pursue them, because he is too intelligent and talented otherwise to fall into them. Kaiji will lose all of his money instantly and rack up a huge debt on top of that. Akagi will strike it rich and then purposely give away all of his money so that he can never rest on his laurels. In a way, I think if Akagi ever knew Kaiji, he would actually be kind of jealous, because Kaiji’s life naturally puts him at the gates of hell, while Akagi has to always find it.
Kaiji is awesome because of how he is capable of representing humanity at its best, but most of the time is an example of humanity at not its absolute worst, but not something you’d present as an exemplar of mankind. There is a flickering spark of inner strength and greatness in him, but it’s his sad fate that it is only truly visible when all other light has been snuffed out.