Compulsive Gambler, Careless Lesbian: ‘Kakegurui’ and LGBT Themes

I don’t think of myself as an anime guy. I grew up on Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and One Piece, and I’ve seen a few of the classics (Bebop, Akira, etc) but I’ve always held the genre at arms length. It’s by no means universally sexualized, but the pervasive nature of its fan-service and it’s near-blatant disregard for good gender politics have led me to categorize it among romantic comedies and horror films as a genre I seek to find exceptions to rather than indulge fully. That’s not to say I’m not willing to try.

This week, Netflix released the first season of Kakegurui- Compulsive Gambler in its entirety, and I watched it in one sitting. Aside from a few surface level connections to the Japanese-only season of Yugioh, I didn’t think the plotting or story were especially interesting. The animation and style were par for the course on a big-budget release like this one, and the fan-service was gratuitous, though (aside from a single shot in the opening theme) not terribly explicit. What struck me about the show was the male leads, or- rather- the lack thereof.

The show, for those who haven’t seen it, is about a Japanese high school (aren’t they all?) called Hyakkaou Private Academy, where the sons and daughters (though mostly the latter) of the Japanese elite eschew class in favor of high-stakes gambling matches. Each episode contains at least one game of chance, and the students put their parent’s fortunes and their own futures on the line for fortune, power, and prestige. The anime stars Yumeko Jabami, a woman sexually obsessed with gambling, to the point of never cheating (unlike nearly everyone else in the show) and continually risking everything she has for the chance at a true gamble.

What is notable about this show is that Yumeko and the other gamblers are almost all female. There are three named male characters in the show, Ryota, Kiwatari, and Manyuda. In the first season, the first two hate to gamble. Neither of them has any particular aptitude for it, and when they encounter even the slightest resistance, drop their poker faces immediately. Manyuda, while a good gambler, does so by thinking strategically and making bets he knows he can win. His undoing comes from the singular time he truly gambles.  The women, by contrast- to a player- are all consummate gamblers, bluffers, and cheaters. They are also nearly all homosexual.

None of the male characters is ever presented as a romantic option for the female characters. Even Ryota, Yumeko’s sidekick, who is once even referred to as his companion, never shares the sexual tension afforded the women in the series. The women share long lingering looks and are framed by shots of only their and their partner’s lips. They also touch each other sexually on numerous occasions and one woman even masturbates thinking about Yumeko. I was honestly surprised, as I had never seen such explicit LGBTQ themes in an anime, having never delved into yuri.

I was nearly ready to congratulate writer Homura Kawamoto on how successful his anime was at presenting lesbian protagonists, until I gave it some more thought. In Kakegurui, gambling represents a relationship (romantic, sexual, it’s unclear) between two people, almost always two women. They are intimate, arousing (at least to Yumeko), and the use of cheating in both contexts is quite clever. Each gambling match illustrates a different way for a relationship to fail. Yumeko’s match with Ikishima represents a lack of boundaries and obsession; Yumemite’s represents relationships undertaken for career success; both Mary’s and Sumeragi’s are awakenings.

The issue at hand, though, is that the conflation of love (here specifically lesbian love) with compulsion in general, and gambling specifically paint the former with the negative aspects of the latter. Queer love has a long history in American media of being dangerous and ending disastrously for one or both participants. To Kakegurui’s credit, the matches with the men are equally dangerous, and Kawamoto’s take seems to be that love is a gamble, and one must do it for it’s own sake. He believes that while it might hurt; it’s the only true way to be happy. I like this in a vacuum, but in the context of the world the anime was released into, it comes across as lightly homophobic and heavily ableist. I’m not sure to what extent such conversations are being had in Japan, but this is a cultural artifact that I couldn’t easily see coming out of America.

To be fair, all of the women in the show are self-possessed. Both the protagonist and antagonist are women, and every episode passes the Bechdel test in seconds. There’s even two separate small arcs about rejecting patriarchy. This, in the context of gambling, is very interesting when men have historically dominated the world series of poker, and it is nearly as common to think of women playing for clothing as it is money, but succeeding on one axis of intersectionality, does not excuse failures on others.

Upon reflection, I am glad that I watched Kakegurui. I may even watch season two, depending on my mood at the time. It is endlessly interesting to see any Japanese take on homosexuality, even one as strange as this one. I found the first season to be lacking in any sort of thesis about the nature of the gambling relationships, though. The last episode had a fatalism theme, so this may be foreshadowing some version of “The One” romance between Yumeko and student council president Kirari, but that remains to be seen. Either way, this anime hasn’t been getting a lot of attention (probably due to its mediocre quality) but there’s definitely something here worth exploring.

PS It was a very nice touch for Yumeko’s eyes (which glow when she is sexually excited by gambling) to look scary for the first episode, when we are aligned with Ryota, but become a more normal protagonist glow afterwards, when we align more with Yumeko.

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