Kaiji, Kaiji, Kaiji. One of the best series about poor people being taken advantage of by the rich and put through cruel trials to repay a debt. I feel like Kaiji is definitely an anticapitalist work, but it has a heavy focus on the strength and connection between humans rather than solely being a condemnation of the bourgeoisie. But I mean, I'm gonna try to avoid all the commie talk while writing this.
The very first thing you'll notice about this series is the art style. Kaiji himself has a chin like a character from Gakuen Handsome and an equally as sharp nose. The profiles in this show are also really something to behold, with every feature jutting out really intensely, lending to some incredible stylization. This show probably has some of the most diverse character designs in anime, even putting in just as much detail for background characters you might only see once.
While the style might put off some potential viewers, it lends a great deal to the series' emotional aspect. The willingness to push facial features so far leads to some really incredible expressions, particularly with faces of fear and despair. Often, the vibes are enhanced by the use of very dramatic visual metaphors and the passionate accompanying narration.
Kaiji himself is a really unique character. His introduction portrays him as a low-life piece of trash who only cares about drinking and gambling. The story of starts with him being forced into debt as a result of cosigning a missing friend's loan. He is invited to board the Espoir, a cruise ship where he will be able to participate in a gamble to clear his debt. Naturally, he accepts, since he has little hope of making enough money in his regular life. The games they play in the series differ from arc to arc, and yes, there is definitely more that comes after the Espoir. He starts off incredibly naive and easy to take advantage of, but soon his resolve hardens and he grows more and more calculating as things progress.
One thing in particular I want to praise this series for is having the characters' strategies and deductions make sense. Many series fail to nail this, giving us little insight to how a character's mind may work until after the fact, and even then sometimes it just seems inhuman. In this series though, we generally get to follow his thoughts with every action, and when we don't, it's generally after he has picked up on an EXTREMELY subtle cue. Even then, while Kaiji may sometimes seem one step ahead of the audience, his thought patterns are still pretty sensible. He's even capable of making mistakes, a thing he does A LOT over the course of the show. He's only human, after all.
Also, let's not forget themes I mentioned earlier. Even though Kaiji is branded as low-life scum and slowly realizes that he could be betrayed at any moment, he still retains his compassion for others. This series is really about the strength of human connection and a condemnation of the selfish and exploitative. As close as he gets to pure despair, Kaiji really does believe in the human spirit and finds his motivation in cooperation with others. This man never loses his determination no matter what challenges he faces. It's genuinely really heartwarming.
Overall.... this show is great. I don't think I talked up the intensity of it as much as I should have. This show has you on the edge of your seat pretty much all the time because Kaiji is just constantly being thrown into gambles. The fact that he's such a lovable character makes you worry for him more than you would for someone like, I dunno, Yumeko Jabami. Normally you might go in with the expectation a character is going to win and just wonder how they're gonna do it. It's just like any good mystery, like Columbo, you wouldn't expect him to NOT find the killer, right? But Kaiji messes up CONSTANTLY, so not only do you wanna see how he'll get OUT of a situation, but if he'll even be able to in the first place!
You better make sure you have a lot of time to spare before watching this show, because it's hard to put down once it really gets going.