Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler Volume 1 begins when Yumeko Jabami transfers to Hyakkaou Private Academy, and finds that it is less a school than an informal casino for high rollers and ‘deal makers.’ Though the ‘three Rs’ at Hyakkaou are not reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but roulette, rolling dice, and rock, paper, scissors (for very, very, high stakes), Jabami soon shows her cards–she is even more an expert at cruel, no-limits gambling than her new classmates, and soon has them eating out of her hand. Not only Kakegurui‘s initial point-of-view character Ryouta Suzui, aka Fido, whom she rescues from the debt-indentured misery of living as a combination concierge, butler, valet, footstool, and house pet–but also the despicable cheater Saotome, whom Jabami bets into submission with a stake of ¥10,000,000 (circa 90,314 USD).  Though Suzui was saved from debt slavery, Jabami proves to be another kind of usurer as Suzui fades into the backdrop, remaining only an occasionally referenced cipher, and Jabami usurps the point-of-view.

Kakegurui‘s conceit is one that we’ve seen before in manga, although with a different table setting. While this isn’t the only point of comparison, it’s almost as if all the dining tables of Food Wars were turned over, revealing on their reverse roulette and blackjack tables. For what it comes down to is constant battling for superiority, with the social stage of the academy backdrop the prize for the victor.

However, Kakegurui is much more than another tournament manga in a school setting. Let us stop to contemplate the narcissistic and sadistic kids of Kakegurui, bad apples that must not fall far from the high-rolling Trumpian elite that spawned them. Kawamoto has stocked this gladiator pit full of bloodthirsty Trumps for our entertainment, because, in the words of Moliere, “the duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” The contempt we feel for nearly every character in this manga was intended by the author for our edification.  In pitting these vicious, money-gouging, ludomaniacs against each other, Kawamoto schools the audience how and why not to be such ludicrous monsters.  If there is a single character here that we are meant to love, it is Jabami, who makes the vice of gambling not only into her virtue, but her superpower. 

While Kawamoto’s script is excellent, if there is a weakness it is that he allows for just enough character and plot development to service the series formula, which is to say, the free play of fictional games. Jabami bombs every would-be opponent with the same custom move, so that if she was a Super Smash Bros character, every button on the remote would produce the same effect: coy schoolgirl plays dumb bunny until her opponent’s cheat is exposed, at which point she powers up and super smashes them. If that sounds repetitive, it’s actually a lot of fun, much as I’ve enjoyed watching Soma Yukihira of Food Wars game his opponents in the same way. Like mythology and Western comic books, the point of Kakeurui is not how opponents are beaten, but that they are beaten with regularity and order restored in the universe. Am I saying that Jabami is a superhero gambler, much as Soma follows the pattern of a superhero chef? Yes I am.

Moreover, joining Kawamoto’s social critique and superhero morality is a third layer, that of a didactic but nonetheless highly entertaining picto-essay on gambling and gaming, not only as vice but as a pastime for consumption, again not unlike the food theory we get so much of in Food Wars.

Not only has Kawamoto sweetened the pot with so much head candy, but the artist Toru Naomura deals an excellent array of panels and pages. She has not only fantastic character designs, but also a sense of stagecraft, so that when vast sums change hands, the horror of the rock-bottom loser and the elation of the sky-high victor are both depicted persuasively. Naomura wins by betting on the house, which is to say a horde of distinct characters, each with their own repertoire of expressions. As Katherine Dacey of The Manga Critic remarked: “When Jabami plays her cards close to the vest, her eyes resemble dark, placid pools, but when she’s trouncing the competition, her eyes go supernova, turning into a set of concentric, fiery rings.” But it isn’t just Jabami—even supporting characters like Suzui, or villains that get a thirty page allowance and are then cut off, seem to have a full file of head and figure poses.

Not only is Kakegurui worth your time, but this is one of those cases where I can say that I’m excited to see where this manga goes next. Kakegurui is more must-read manga for your summer reading pile, joining a slew of other great first volumes from Yen, like Girls’ Last Tour, The Royal Tutor, and Delicious in Dungeon.

Kakegurui Volume 1 arrived in stores on July 18th, 2017, and if you find it sold out, you can order it from this list of booksellers on the Yen Press site.

Kakgeurui: Compulsive Gambler Volume 1

Yen Press sent the review copy.

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