Gambling Apocalypse: KAIJI, Volume 1 (2019 DENPA edition) – Nobuyuki Fukumoto

5 out of 5

400+ pages about…  rock, paper, scissors.  Sold?  And yet, Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s ‘Gambling Apocalypse’ is madly addictive, perhaps ironically so, in a “maybe just one more page” mentality, given that part of its focus is on behavioral loops like that, specifically when it involves matters of chance.  The setup and concept are, perhaps, absurdly both overly complex and ridiculously simple: down-on-his-luck Kaiji ends up owing money to the wrong fellers, and gets conscripted into an “opportunity” to win it back in what turns out to be a giant game of the card game mentioned… with the playing house a ship that’s set sail, the players all people in similar owing-money situations, and losers of the game escorted off by black-suited guards to a private room from which screams escape.  Kaiji will quickly take to calling the game “restricted RSP” owing to that it’s not done with the usual hand signals, but instead a limited batch of cards with the symbols on them, which have been doled out to all the participants along with three star badges each, the badges representing how many opportunities, essentially, they have before they’re done.  Money has also been put into circulation for unspecified reasons, and everyone is told that they’re debts will be accruing ridiculous interest as the evening goes on, giving some impetus to actually play and not just hang around.

That’s a lot, but it’s also just akin to explaining the rules of a card game; the rest of Gambling Apocalypse takes Kaiji – and us – through the mental escapades of what playing “restricted RSP” can entail, starting with the more obvious psychological games – trying to guess what someone else will play – and then delving in to stock market type analyses of studying the odds: keeping track of how many of each card remains in play; watching trends in players’ playing styles; sensing when it will be more or less risky to start in on some new gambit.

Fukumoto’s writing style has an odd patter to it, at least in translation, stretching single sentences across word bubbles and across panels at an imbalanced pace, but you get used to it easily enough, and it starts to very precisely fit the pacing of the story, allowing a thought to properly stretch out or compress, based on the accompanying art, suggesting when Kaiji is speaking passionately or with precision.  The ease with which the character jumps in to making calculations on percentages is also seemingly discordant with the layabout type to whom we’re initially introduced, but Fukumoto makes it work by sort of “pressuring” Kaiji into that position, taking us through every sweat-soaked moment of panic he goes through that results in his taking a new step forward in decision making.  And the creator really hammers home how risky all of this is: that being “bold” isn’t necessarily something to be prized, so much as being mindful of the uncertainties involved in any given choice.  Speeches swing back and forth between being cautious and telling people to “man up,” but it’s done within the framing of character, and is then pounced upon by a story that offers instant reversals of fate due to relatively unpredictable factors.  So at this point, Gambling Apocalypse rather brilliantly walks a tight-rope of judgement over what occurs; it’s possible later volumes will lean toward one side or another, and then my feelings will change on this first collection, but for now, that was part of the addictive formula: there was really no telling, at any point, what could happen next.  …In rock, paper, scissors!

Fukumoto’s art is clean, angular and simple, but the creator has a great eye for panel distribution and, as mentioned, pacing, and the simplicity is broken up by visual metaphors – crossing bridges, things of that nature – that are suddenly heavy with detail, making for interesting juxtapositions.  The translation for this DENPA printing would seem to be well done; no stumbles over language, and if, as I suspect, that dialogue pacing is an artifact of the original, I’m glad it wasn’t changed, as it’s definitely part of the experience.