There’s a whole genre of anime centered around elite high school settings. The Kakegurui manga/anime is a gambling themed twist on the “special high school” genre, The classes at Hyakkou Academy don’t teach history or math, but how to bet on the Roulette table, play blackjack, poker and just about any other game that involves betting cold, hard cash. Even if gambling is technically illegal in Japan and these high school students are too young to gamble in most nations, it’s all they do each day, and they’re good at it… especially the new girl.
In terms of narrative style, Kakegurui is a shonen action series, where different characters bravely challenge each other, hold grudges, use unique gambling strategies and compete in tournaments. Like Food Wars!, it’s a battle high school where no punches are thrown and no magic is cast. Conveniently, gambling is competitive by nature, and a winner uses a combination of luck and skill to win. This new flavor of shonen action is the right tool for the main character, Yumeko Jabami, to wow the audience with.
Yumeko Jabami, the heroine, is a highly skilled gambler, but she’s not doing it for the money or the social standing; she’s here for the thrill of it. She subverts the entire system of Hyakkou Academy once she transfers there, and it seems no one can stop her from breaking all the rules. Between games, she is cheerful and friendly, but when a game starts, she comes alive and will bet reckless money (among other things) just to see what will happen. She represents chaos and hedonism in a school where everyone plays by the rules in a gambler’s rat race.
Yumeko proves that creative thinking and individuality are not to be underestimated, even when everything is on the line and all the cards have been dealt. This makes her all kinds of enemies, and she can’t wait to challenge them all. Her first opponent is Mary Saotome, who, despite buying off most of the class, can’t beat her in a card-based variant of rock-paper-scissors. With sheer intuition and a love of dumb luck, Yumeko prevails, and she is an even match for Midari Ikishima, who also likes to gamble with incredible stakes (usually, her own safety). The viewer can vicariously live on the edge with a heroine whose gambling style is like a bull in a china shop.
The gambling in Kakegurui is only the means to the end, despite what some students may claim. This show doesn’t just play like casino security camera footage; the real stakes are involved in the social hierarchy. All of the students at Hyakkou Academy come from wealth, and are used to getting things their way. This means standing atop everyone else and ruling with an iron fist, all backed up by their money and skills in exploiting others. It’s a 21st-century jungle that mirrors the business world and political world. A student can either climb to the top… or fall to the bottom in crushing debt and despair. There’s practically no middle ground.
Right away, Ryota Suzui loses a game to Mary Saotome and becomes a “housepet.” This is the term for a debtor, and escaping housepet status is a real challenge. Housepets are degraded and trampled upon by their classmates. In contrast, the student council members enjoy great wealth, influence, and prestige. This system of ruthless hierarchy and social division is a microcosm of the ruthless world graduates will soon enter. In many ways, a business venture is indeed like gambling, where time, effort and capital are all bet on a new company. For every winner, there are hundreds of losers out there, and power and money can get consolidated fast.
Kakegurui suggests that human civilization is a ruthless, winner-takes-all system. It proves that thesis one Roulette table and poker game at a time.
Kakegurui is currently streaming on Netflix.
Many anime have a high school setting, but this one is more like a high-stakes casino with a ruthless social hierarchy.