Somewhere in the Akashic records of my Google Drive, there is an outline for a post on Kakegurui, the bizarre yuri-baiting gambling anime. It never saw the light of day because I generally don’t publish anything I don’t feel I can say something unique about, and if you know anything about Kakegurui, you likely already know the general consensus towards the show.
For an anime revolving around people risking their wealth, life, and limb, all for the thrill of rolling the dice, it’s shockingly toothless. You never wonder whether gambling wunderkind Yumeko will succeed. If she loses, it is precisely because the stakes are low enough that she can afford to. If there’s too much on the line, her victory is foregone. Even so, this essay isn’t about Kakegurui.
I hesitate to compare this season’s Tomodachi Game to Kakegurui. It’s not quite a death game; it’s barely a gambling anime. There’s money up for grabs, but at the start of the show, you might wonder why anyone would risk everything to clear twenty-million yen in debt. That’s about $155,000 US, which some people blow on liberal arts degrees, or spend on a house in the Midwest. Is it a lot of money? Sure, but that kind of debt won’t ruin your life.
Spoilers, I guess, but it turns out that Tomodachi Game is not about the money, so hold off on moving to Ohio (shudder). It’s actually right there in the title; it’s about friends, and how fragile our relationships are when there’s a little money involved and all eyes on us. It makes for an effective social commentary on our obsessive pursuit of money and social status, enabling us to hurt people we care about, and yet…
…I still hate Tomodachi Game.
Yuuichi was taught early on that there are more important things in life than money, like friends. There’s the lovable airhead Shibe, calm and intelligent Mikasaa, sweet and artsy Kokorogi, and the quintessential popular girl Sawaragi. Oh, and the last two both have crushes on Yuuichi and they make it super obvious, just in case you were wondering what kind of show this was.
Yuuichi may be poor, but with friends like these, he’s richer than if he had one of the mountains of cash that Elon Musk sets on fire just to feel something anymore. He scraped up the cash to go on a school trip, only for the entire class’ funds to be stolen, with suspicion falling on him. Even so, his friends don’t waver, and they refuse to believe he could have done something like that.
They’re proven correct when they gather at the school that night, learning that they’ve been entered into the Tomodachi Game. The rules are simple: one of Yuuichi’s best friends is in the hole for twenty-million yen, and signed them up to complete a gauntlet of children’s games.
They split the debt between the five of them, accruing penalties and rewards for their performance in these games designed to pit them against one another. However, they’re just such great friends that they immediately agree to proceed, because they’re sure that whoever signed them up did it out of trust and a genuine need.
Even if the others are dumb enough to believe that, Yuuichi is not. He knows there’s a traitor among them, maybe more than one, and he’s determined to learn their motives. Yuuichi and his friends are more than what they claimed to be: murderers, thieves, Machiavellian manipulators, just to name a few. We can’t even trust our protagonist as the curtain’s slowly pull back on his dark past. With all that out of the way, the games can begin in earnest.
In spite of the lackluster visuals and nauseatingly saccharine dynamic of Yuuichi and his friends, I was intrigued by Tomodachi Game. The first game presents an interesting dilemma. The group has to answer yes-or-no questions unanimously, being punished for incorrect answers, only for Yuuichi to learn that each participant gets a chance to lessen their individual debt by sabotaging the group.
Yuuichi’s slow realization that one or more of his friends is trying to throw each other under the bus is gripping. He can’t be sure who has already betrayed him, but when his turn to come up with a question arrives, he sticks to his gun and protects Kokorogi from being slapped with all of the debt. Thanks to his intervention, they get out mostly unscathed.
During this game, Yuuichi comes across as manipulative and cunning, but ultimately a force for good. He puts himself at risk for his friend, and see his thought process for a game with simple rules, so it’s easy both to root for him and feel the tension. That momentum doesn’t last.
The second game is just a mess. In theory, being based on a board game should help, but it just makes the rules even more confusing. The group are given the option to write notes revealing each others’ darkest secrets to a Twitch chat, rewarding whoever offered the juiciest gossip. It’s convoluted, but it’s a fascinating way of examining the way online interaction is inherently dehumanizing and judgmental, which works in this kind of story.
But it falters here because we take a backseat from Yuuichi’s perspective. We learn who the traitor is and follow their machinations, draining all tension from the story. Back when we got to see Yuuichi’s side of the conflict, it felt like he was trying to outwit an invisible threat who had him pegged. It was genuinely compelling.
But we aren’t rooting for the traitor. They say at one point that their motives are pure, but for the entire second game, they’re a mustache-twirling villain with comically evil plan. I was engaged in seeing Yuuichi struggling to weed out the traitor while keeping his real friends safe, but we don’t even know what Yuuichi is thinking anymore. I don’t care what the result is because I didn’t get to see what his plan was, because the writer is just going to pluck it from thin air at the end anyway.
And that is what brings us to what killed Tomodachi Game, the tired “but that was my plan all along!” crap.
You may be familiar with the concept; the earliest example that I could find was in the genesis of detective fiction. Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin was guilty of waiting until the last minute to show his cards, going over every clue that the audience wasn’t allowed to follow.
While Poe did invent the genre and deserves at least a little slack because of it, I wasn’t the only one annoyed by such a cheap ploy to make his lead detective appear more intelligent. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously wrote a scene where Sherlock Holmes criticized Dupin for that very reason. Just as a side note, though, Doyle occasionally did the same thing, so he was a bit of a hypocrite.
Why did I bring up Kakegurui originally? Because it is littered with this kind of sloppy writing. Any time we don’t see Yumeko’s perspective as a play-by-play, you know she’s planning some stupid 4D chess nonsense where she reveals she anticipated her opponent’s every move. It’s the crutch of a lazy writer that I absolutely despise.
Yuuichi and Yumeko would probably get along. He keeps quiet for the whole second game, testing his friends’ loyalties individually, and now that we aren’t privy to his line of thinking, it comes out of nowhere when he explains everything at the end. The game’s proctors are stunned by how brilliant he is, but when he has access to information we didn’t, no wonder he looks so smart.
I won’t say there’s only so many ways to write a story or character like this; there’s are infinite possibilities to creatively portray the same situation, but here are two easy and effective methods off the top of my head. Like in the first game, keep the audience in the loop. Any discoveries that Yuuichi makes should be given to the viewer so we can see his plan coming together. The other way is to drop clues throughout so we can figure it out ourselves. It’s integral to good detective detective figure, to which anime like Tomodachi Game or Death Note owe a great deal.
I won’t speak in regards to the third game, as they’re repeating the same mistake there by giving us enough to know Yuuichi is planning something, but nowhere near enough to deduce what it is. It’s just frustrating that the series is so hellbent on convincing you that the protagonist is a genius that they will twist the story to make it happen.
I don’t hate anime simply for being bad. I hate anime that have a lot of potential and let me down. Tomodachi Game could have been perilous and clever, but instead chose to pat Yuuichi on the head for being such a smart boy, forgetting what kept us engaged.
I usually end this type of critique with a recommendation of what you should watch if this anime disappointed you, so try Death Parade. It has a solid premise, some great psychological elements, and the same idea of taking established games and introducing high stakes.
So, comment down below what your favorite psychological battle anime is. It’s a shame we don’t get more gambling anime aside from Kaiji or Kakegurui, but if any come to mind, let me know on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I talk about all the anime I’m reading right now. Until next time, thanks for reading.