After many recommendations and reading lots of hype, I watched Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji. The unsurprising part: it’s rather very good. I’ll get to that in a moment. The surprising part: I didn’t enjoy it as much as I intended. For such a thoroughly human work, I didn’t form any strong emotional connections with any of the characters, even as they were oozing pathos from their digital pores, not even with Kaiji himself, who is rather awesome in his trials. I actually enjoyed One Outs more, despite having zero emotional affinity with any of the characters there as well.
Well, this is irrelevant after all. Kaiji has many merits, the most obvious is the harsh light it casts over human beings and their behavior. I may not have enjoyed watching the show so much, but thinking about it and what it says is rather very pleasurable. I like how unforgiving it is, yet very forgiving in the end for its hero Kaiji, who did more than enough to earn such forgiveness… that translates to an ability to trust in humans again, despite how awful they show up in the narrative.
Among the four gambles featured in the narrative, my favorite is the first: Restricted Rock, Paper, Scissors. I’ll let Wikipedia present it:
(限定ジャンケン Gentei Janken?)
The game featured in the gambling tournament the first night Kaiji spends on Espoir, with an average survival rate of 50%. The rules were outlined after the issuing of war funds, which were done a minimum of 1,000,000¥ and 10,000,000¥. The money was in effect a loan, equaling the debt of the contestant and compounded at 1.5% every ten minutes for the four hour voyage; contestants who hold onto their funds for the length of the trip would have to pay 140% of what they invested, thus putting an incentive to finish games early. Money that exceeded the amount needed to repay the loan to the Espoir hosts would be pocketed by the contestant.
This gamble is similar to the original game but with a twist – the hand gestures are represented by cards, and contestants are given four cards each with the same gesture for a total of twelve. Contestants are also given three plastic stars as collateral to bet on each round of play – whenever one loses a round, the winner gets a star from the loser. To survive the night, contestants must maintain their three star pendants and lose all of their gesture cards. Cards cannot be destroyed or thrown away, to do so is subject to instant disqualification.
Due to the simple nature of the game, single matches can be completed within ten seconds, and players can win or lose in a matter of minutes. Winners are allowed to go upstairs, where any extra star pendants are exchanged for cash and they lounge in a small cafe. In the event of a loss, individuals are taken to away to a back room by men in black suits.
What complicated this game for the contestants is the element of cooperation and sabotage. But first, here are two things that in my view made the gamble an unfair one:
- The undisclosed presence of repeaters.
- The undisclosed rules governing the repeaters.
These are critical matters that remained undisclosed that led to the ruination of contestants. I do think this is unnecessarily unfair, given how the odds of the whole gamble ultimately lead to the participants incurring more debt from the sharks, and how the survivors hardly ever win anything.
The presence of repeaters almost certainly dooms the first-timers, who can be conned by these repeaters. Kaiji himself got conned in his first foray onto the tables, and Ishida’s case was a rather unfortunate one and is a direct result of #2. Predictably, a significant population of first timers are in dire straits and it took Kaiji’s insisting on cooperation (and trust!) to make headway into the game.
However, the odds against cooperation are long. This is because, considering some game theory, Kaiji, Furuhata, and Ando are trapped in something that resembles the Prisoner’s Dilemma. From the Wikipedia entry:
In its classical form, the prisoner’s dilemma (“PD”) is presented as follows:
Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?
[…]In casual usage, the label “prisoner’s dilemma” may be applied to situations not strictly matching the formal criteria of the classic or iterative games, for instance, those in which two entities could gain important benefits from cooperating or suffer from the failure to do so, but find it merely difficult or expensive, not necessarily impossible, to coordinate their activities to achieve cooperation.
In the case of the gamble itself, the success of the whole strategy is for all three to cooperate and win a total of three stars. However, since one of them can gain three stars (the requirement for survival) sooner than the others, that player can choose to exit the gamble — saving himself and dooming the others. Tho longer one stays in the gamble, in the service of executing the strategy, the greater the risk of losing everything.
During the various ups and downs in the execution of their strategy, they are almost foiled by another trio who chose to cooperate. However, Kaiji correctly points out that the cooperation in that group is entirely based on individual gain. When there was no longer an incentive to cooperate, the group turned on itself, leaving the ringleader nearly ruined, if not for agreeing to a deal that was advantageous to Kaiji and his party.
In the end, however, the PD-like dynamics doom the cooperation and would’ve doomed Kaiji if not for some quick thinking and ridiculous nerve on his part. He escapes the loser’s lounge, and exacts justice on his treacherous partners by stripping them of their winnings and using them to rescue Ishida, the unwitting victim of a predatory veteran of the Restricted Rock, Paper, Scissors gamble.
The narrative works like this, Kaiji trusts in others and is constantly failed by them — through by weakness, inability, or outright treachery. However, Kaiji remains resolute in his commitment to survive and win the gambles while minimizing the human cost, and with an intent to save whomever he can along the way.
As difficult and annoying it was for me to marathon this show over two days, it’s even more difficult for me not to respect and even lionize its protagonist: a lowlife on the edge of society, preyed upon the unscrupulous and evil; fallible and pathetic, but insipiringly human, all-too-human.
The dynamic may actually more applicable in the case of Funai and Kaiji’s alliance (given that they are a pair rather than a trio). However, since Funai is actually a confidence man playing a mark (Kaiji), the dynamics are radically altered.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma, including strategies to beat it. [->]
The humanity in this show is related well by The Animanachronism, focusing on Ishida who demonstrated a rather heartbreaking kind of heroism (The Animanachronism 2008/12/08).
Some interesting notes on the Restricted Rock, Paper, Scissors gamble; touching on the conflict between economic gain/survival and solidarity… very much how PD breaks down people (lelangir 2009/02/22).
Kaiji is a work that has Profound implications about class warfare, contractual sanctity (both written and verbal), rational choice theory, and fluid dynamics (Baka-Raptor 2008/08/16).