Miranda’s Manga Corner: Kakegurui Vol. 1

Welcome to Miranda’s Manga Corner, where we discuss what I’ve been reading and if it’s worth your time. This week is all about the first book of Kakegurui by author Homura Kawamoto. The anime for Kakegurui came out in the Summer Season of 2017 and is available on Crunchyroll. That’s where I first heard the name.

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The premise immediately grabbed my attention. For the sons and daughters of the rich and influential, academics are not important. Knowing how to read someone, make a deal, bluff, and intimidate your opponents out of a game, those are what’s necessary to survive in the world of high stakes business and politics. So instead of focusing on academics, the students of Hyakkaou Private Academy spend their time after class gambling in various manners all throughout the school.

The idea alone is interesting enough to pique the interest of your average anime and manga fan but for me it held a personal significance. My mom worked in casinos almost my entire adolescent life. As I grew up she would go from dealer, to pit supervisor, to manager, to tristate area tournament organizer. All this to say that family game night at my house wasn’t quite the same as the average family’s. Even as a young kiddo, when we gathered around the kitchen table for some quality time, we didn’t play Yahtzee, Trivial Pursuit, or Mousetrap; we played cards. Blackjack, Five Card Stud, Texas Hold ‘Em, you name it, we played it. And we didn’t just play for fun. We gambled. We’d break out the chips and make real bets on our hands. There is a visceral joy in the weight of casino chips in your hands and a thought out strategy leading to an epic success. This is a feeling that serves as a large motivator for the protagonist of Kakegurui, Yumeko Jabami.

Jabami is a girl motivated by the high stakes chances involved in gambling. Throughout the first book Jabami notes multiple times that in this capitalistic society money is equivalent to life, and as a result gambling is essentially risking your own life. She develops what appears to be an erotic thrill from this simple thought. It’s not enough just to play the game and come up with a winning strategy, there needs to real risk involved. She refuses to use a strategy that guarantees a win. She won’t cheat herself, but she will turn a cheater’s own methods against them to see their faces when they fail.

The story is told mostly from the eyes of her first friend at Hyakkaou Academy, Ryota Suzui, which separates us just enough from Jabami to keep us on the edge of our seats throughout a match. We never know what she’s thinking or how she’s discovered the underhanded methods of her opponents until she wins or, occasionally, loses.

The fact that she loses keeps the manga from being about a super powered new girl at school who waltzed in the door and immediately turned things upside down. Jabami is good, excellent in fact, but she isn’t perfect. There is always a level of excitement as you read how the game plays out because there is a very real chance that Jabami will lose.

My favorite thing about Kakegurui is that it operates a bit like a sports manga. You don’t just see Jabami playing games, you also learn about them, how they work, and the methods people could use to cheat at them. The author notes that this is a bit of a passion project for them and you can tell as various games are explained in depth in the end notes of the book.

Kakegurui isn’t fanservice heavy but the moments are there. Panty shots and a face that leans a bit towards ahegao (incredibly sexualized and lewd) appear once or twice. The somewhat erotic crazed thrill Jabami gains from the mere thought of risking her life through gambling and the way the school operates is visible but in no way is it too over the top. It’s easy to skim right past if that’s not your flavor and never serves as a distraction to the reader.

The art is crisp and detailed. While the scenes transition from close up shots, to all of the faces in a classroom, to the details on the back of 104 cards strewn across a table, the quality rarely drops. Artist Tōru Naomura does an excellent job of bringing these beautiful characters and environments to life. Jabami, Suzui, and their opponents’ faces are always full of feeling, whether that be pleasure, worry, or rage, and they avoid falling flat. The use of large black spaces on pages helps build up the extreme air of pressure placed on the players in a match as they gamble away their livelihoods.

So is it worth your time? Yes.

The fast pacing of this first book and the introduction of both likeable and despicable characters, combined with slick art and enjoyable writing serves as the perfect opener for this manga. Expect more on Kakegurui in the future.