Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor questioned economic structures at an unmatchable level.
Despite what some people will try to tell you, anime is political — all media is political, even if the creator didn’t intend it, because subconscious biases find their way into work. Most anime, however, doesn’t have much to say about economics, as it’s just not relevant to the stories they’re trying to tell. Even shows like Aggretsuko or Shirobako which focus on working life tend not to question the economic structures that lead to working environments being what they are.
And then we have Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor, a show about gambling and mind games that really, really hates capitalism.
Kaiji is about a bum by the name of Itou Kaiji who spends his time playing pachinko, drinking beer, and stealing the hood ornaments from imported cars in a petty act of revenge against the rich. When he finds himself responsible for a former coworker’s debt, the loan shark there to collect offers him a chance to pay it all off at once by participating in a night of high-stakes underground gambling, arranged by their company. Instead of conventional games, they play a mind game specifically designed to encourage deceit and backstabbing — because the main purpose of this whole event is to serve as entertainment for the wealthy observers, so they can laugh at the lengths to which people will go for money when placed in a desperate position. These are the same people that put the participants in this position to begin with, mind you.
Even worse is the Human Derby, where people are made to cross high balance beams while the onlookers scream for them to push each other off — resulting in broken limbs at best — which is about as literally dehumanizing as you can get. And as though that wasn’t horrifying enough already, the winners are denied the promised prize money unless they cross an electrified beam dozens of stories off the ground, so that the observers can watch them become consumed by terror and fall to their deaths. Kaiji is the only survivor. At the end of the night, he challenges Hyoudou — the president of the loan company — to a last double-or-nothing gamble. He loses, and leaves deeper in debt than ever.
There’s no ambiguity in the way this is presented — it’s impossible to aggressively pursue wealth while still maintaining any semblance of empathy. The villains are, without exception, sociopaths who make statements like “money is more important than life” as they push desperate people into rigged games just to watch them suffer. Hyoudou — as the instigator of all this — is naturally the worst of the lot. He openly admits that he’s probably not entirely sane, and his own employees are clearly terrified of him because he humiliates them for this amusement and assaults them at the slightest provocation — but he’s the one paying them, so their hands are tied. Those immediately below him oppress and humiliate debtors because they think that gives them some kind of power or security, but as soon as they slip up, they’re punished in ways just as grotesque as the ones they inflicted on others. It’s not just the ones on top, either.
Many of the opponents Kaiji faces in games are just as willing to throw innocent people under the bus for a few more dollars, rather than banding together with them against the ones who forced them into this position. This is a fundamental tenant of capitalism — pitting the middle class against the lower, and the lower class against itself, by convincing them they have a chance to make it to the top if they just scratch and claw hard enough. No one but Hyoudou is safe, not even his second in command. It’s an absolutely vicious condemnation of greed, and more importantly, the systems that allow this sort of obscene wealth to exist unchecked.
So if greed equals cruelty, where does that leave our protagonist? He is still participating in these games to make money, after all — it would be easy for it to come across as hypocritical. There are a few things that keep it from slipping into that territory. First of all, Kaiji doesn’t win. He doesn’t always lose either, of course — that would be exhausting and frustrating to watch. But even when he comes out on top, the most he ever manages is to break even — at the start of the show, he gets stuck with someone else’s debt, and it’s only after 50 episodes that he finally manages to pay it off.
His main goal isn’t wealth — it’s to get loan sharks off his tail. And most importantly, while he never explicitly says as much, Kaiji firmly denies the adage that money is more valuable than life. Over and over again, he chooses to buy other people out of their debt — often total strangers, or even people who were kind of jerks to him — rather than keep the money for himself, even when he desperately needs it. And most of the time, when he does win, it’s not through his own strength or wits alone — it’s because he put his trust in others and worked with them. The game is rigged against the poor from the very beginning, and backstabbing each other only plays into the hands of those in power — the only chance Kaiji or any of us have is to band together.