(Neo magazine, Uncooked Media)
After Devilman Crybaby, Netflix’s next complete new anime series is the larkish, capering Kakegurui. It may feel very different from Crybaby but it prods those same guilty pleasure centres that got lots of us into anime. It’s essentially a fight show. A heroine takes on a succession of rival students in a fantasy school; it’s the Kill la Kill playbook. But instead of superweapons and sentient sailor-suits, the duels are fought at tables with cards, gambling chips, raging egos and molten obsessions.
Yumeko is the transfer student, a seemingly naïve beauty, always with a smile and simper. She’s also a deadly gambling genius. She’s like boy strategists like Death Note’s Light or Code Geass’s Lelouch, but there’s a crucial difference; while the other characters have interior monologues, we never know what Yumeko’s really thinking, leaving everyone second guessing her. Her voice whispers lethal seduction to boys and girls alike. She’s played magnetically in Japanese by Saori Hayama, continents away from her role as the deaf Shoko in A Silent Voice.
Yumeko will overturn Hyakkaou Academy, an elite school ruled by its student council and its gambling matches that destroy its pupils. It’s a world as daftly fun as Kill la Kill’s Honnouji Academy. Instead of hyperactive zooming fighters, the gambling duels are fought through faces; perhaps the players are really competing to see who can pull the worst expressions. Expect bulging eyes, grinding teeth and bestial grimaces to have any actual beasts whimpering.
It’s also a shamelessly schoolgirl-fetish show. Most of the players are female, and while Kakegurui is less fanservice-y than the opening titles suggest, it’s still full of lewd suggestions and orgasmic passions (and we do mean orgasmic), bringing the naughty Shimoneta to mind.
But it’s possible there’s a subversive agenda. The boy viewpoint character is as uselessly ornamental as Chris Hemsworth’s man-bimbo in the remade Ghostbusters. The other guys are either monsters (in different ways), or fanboys who worship the academy’s girl idol singer – and there’s a very funny story-arc about this cute celebrity, serving as a sarcastic alternative to Love Live!
It’s even possible to see a hysterically high-sexed girl maniac as a snarky counter-stereotype. She doesn’t fit the “beauty” standards of the other characters, and that seems to have helped her become a frustrated nympho.
Or maybe the show just loves making bewildering creative decisions, much like Yumeko. Yet for both of them, there’s a suggestion of a real personality under all the flamboyant play-acting and fan servicing.