Whittling It Down with Moeblobs and GARmbling

Potemayo and Kaiji are not, perhaps, two series which one would immediately think of as candidates for a dual-subject blog entry. What they share, however, is the use of simplification – whittling away external distractions – to focus more clearly on something.

This post is dangerously long and contains spoilers for Kaiji up to and including the fourteenth episode. It also contains spoilers for Potemayo, but if you’re watching Potemayo for its deep and thrilling storyline then you have more serious problems.

The Blob, The Whole Blob, And Nothing But The Blob

Simple
A simple desire, simply expressed

Potemayo is widely noted for taking the concept of a ‘moeblob’ literally: Potemayo and Guchuko are blob-like beings (their existence is never explained, but that’s not the point) who provoke moe reactions. Their size and appearance is an obvious starting point for this process, as we naturally feel protective towards small, cute things. From this point on, however, the two blobs diverge somewhat.

Potemayo is almost entirely defined by needs: not entirely in control of her bodily functions, prone to gluttony and generally useing someone’s head for transport, she slips easily into something like a parent/child relationship with Sunao. Indeed, the very first (in the show’s own timeline) thing she does is express her need to be let out of Sunao’s fridge.

Guchuko, by contrast, cuts her way out of his fridge. This is because, as has been noted elsewhere, she almost purely consists of tsundere traits, and never expresses a need for anything if she can help it. [And so, when the chips are down in the twelfth episode, she's unable to articulate what she wants.] Where Potemayo relies on others for almost everything, Guchuko forages for food, travels around under her own steam and is prone to acts of violent self-defence.

Except, of course, that she’s a tsundere, and the purest, most distilled form too: while most other characters with tsundere traits have their dere moments confused by the presence of romance, Guchuko’s gifts to Kyo are purely expressions of gratitude. [Although Guchuko's grasp of what makes an acceptable gift is hilariously tenuous.]

The clearest demonstration of this contrast is in the fifteenth episode (‘Shopping’), in which Potemayo attempts to become less reliant on Sunao (by shopping on her own) while Guchuko learns (through many vicissitudes) that the world is not in an entirely individualistic state of nature. ['Just a blob and her will to survive'.]

Fictional characters tend to be a fairly shallow collections of traits in any case (hence the problem with archetypes), but Potemayo quite honestly (shamelessly, one might say) takes this a step further and provides us with one weak moeblob, and one tsundere moeblob. It’s like being able to study moe in laboratory conditions, with no uncontrolled influences on one’s agar dish, being able to look at moe not, as it usually is, wrapped around with dubious otaku desire, but reduced to a blob.

Kaiji’s Nose: The Scalpel of Truth, The Razor of Ockham

First Contact
The moment of Kaiji’s first contact with brutal simplicity

From a show which has two characters in whom complications are whittled away to one which has had (so far) three situations where complications are whittled away. For, while Kaiji is an interesting character and the animation’s certainly distinctive, it’s the games which have (for me) been Kaiiji‘s defining elements.

I have noted before that Kaiji reminds me of reality television, and that the narrator’s intrusive presence serves to implicate us, the viewers in the action – we are, after all, treating the spectacle of Kaiji’s distress as entertainment, just like the rich gamblers on the Human Derby. Ugh. [By contrast, the narrator's presence in Akagi is required to make the mahjong accessible.]

The games which Kaiji takes part in remind me of a certain kind of horror film, epitomised by two series: Saw and the rather less famous Cube. In these (taken together, seven so far) films, the protagonists are placed in situations (often gruesome and bizarre) which whittle the myriad of complex choices which life offers to us down to very simple and easy-to-grasp decisions.

Kaiji‘s games are very similar. Other anime genres feature more choice than we have in reality: unless one oozes sex appeal, or its substitutes, power and money, one rarely acquires a harem in real life. Kaiji, however, cuts away complications and presents life in the form of simple, yet momentous decisions.

Visually, too, the same process occurs: when Kaiji must make a leap of faith, he is literally drawn at the edge of a crevasse; when Kaiji needs Furuhata and Andou to help him, he’s drawn swimming towards a quayside where they stand waiting, and so forth.

Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors

Prey
Hobbes just kicked in, yo!

Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors really is, unlike Guchuko’s surroundings, like a state of nature. Or indeed an entirely unregulated free-market system (consider how the losers are reduced to pure labour force, devoid even of clothing). It’s simply easier to perceive the brutality of the system if it’s reduced to a competitive card game, surrounded by financial and psychological trickery. And, indeed, ultimately Kaiji is forced to physically fight to save himself.

It’s this competitive system which Kaiji rejects when he throws away his remaining funds to save one of the other losers, concluding the game with a speech which I will quote at length (granted, this is a fansub translation, but the point is clear enough):

I told you I would throw it away! I’m sick of it! Loss, benefit, money, fortune! I’m sick of hearing all of that! The more we talk about it, the more we crawl around, pitiful and unsightly! Here at the bottom of the cauldron of hell! Don’t you understand that?!

And the hosts enjoy seeing us like this. The fucking pigs that thought of this system, where everyone takes advantage of each other, are laughing their asses off. The more we think about loss and gain, the more obsessed we become, the more we play into those fuckers’ hands! Doesn’t that piss you off?! Doesn’t that irritate you?!

[Note that here once again Kaiji points out to the viewers that they're enjoying his suffering - this is underlined by the next speaker, who is watching Kaiji through darkened glass from upstairs, and comments 'that man will become truly entertaining'.]

I’m not sure Kaiji really has a gift for gambling, but he certainly does have a gift for perceiving the underlying rules of a system – it’s this that he uses to defeat the ‘balance’ player in Episode 3 (‘Showdown’), and this that he uses to produce his buyout plan.

And it’s this faculty of his which helps him perceive that he, Andou and Furuhata will do better if they work together. In fact, Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors brings out a streak of moral courage and compassion in Kaiji: he trusts Andou and Furuhata even when they don’t justify his faith. And when they betray him after the game, he (amazingly) doesn’t become more paranoid and selfish; instead, their betrayal drives home to him the emptiness of treachery in ‘the cauldron of hell’ and this realisation lies behind his decision to save someone else rather than profiting from his survival.

The Human Derby, Part One

Implication
. . . and another one gone, and another one gone . . .
[Are you feeling implicated yet?]

The Human Derby forces Kaiji to apply what he learned about rejecting the survivalist system in Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors. In the first round, he faces a very, very simple choice: push or be pushed. Kaiji perceives that he and all the contestants have the freedom to refuse to push, so they can’t lay responsibility entirely on the yakuza who’ve forced them to play the game or the audience who are betting on them.

Kaiji sees, too, that to push unrepentantly or to refuse to push entirely are the only unhypocritical alternatives. Trying to have one’s cake and eat it by pushing and then apologising reeks of moral cowardice. And Kaiji’s compassion once again comes to the fore – finding himself unable to push, rejecting the system, he defiantly declares: ‘Even if not pushing means I’ll be pushed myself, I won’t push!’

The use of ‘pushing’ is interesting. If you’ve ever read job adverts for the City [Culture Note: Britain's financial centre, producing 2.5% of our GNP in the space of one square mile] or somesuch similar space, you’ll have noticed the use of thrusting metaphors – candidates need, above all, to be driven or to possess drive. It’s all about forcefully pushing the weakest to the wall.

This rather masculine concept (I chose the word ‘thrusting’ carefully) of competition is what Kaiji is rejecting in his refusal to ‘push'; this is rather interesting, as Kaiji is quite a GAR character, and Kaiji is a very masculine show. Perhaps this is a suggestion that it’s not GAR at all to try to succeed by pushing but fail, it’s quite GAR to try to succeed by pushing and suceed, but that it’s even more GAR to recognise the competition for what it is (fundamentally an evil system) and have the (moral) courage necessary to reject it.

The Human Derby, Part Two

My Point Exactly
My point exactly

When presented with the second part of the Human Derby, Kaiji is the first of the participants to recognise how the rules have changed; once again, his ability to understand the systems he’s trapped in comes in useful. The second bridge that must be crossed is not competitive. In fact, the debtors can help each other: Kaiji comes up with the device of marking one’s shoes to help concentration on the girder, and he also tries to instil the group with the courage required to make the attempt.

In fact, Kaiji is swiftly becoming something of a leader. Granted, he’s hardly reached the level of Admiral Spoor, who can berate and encourage a space fleet whilst simultaneously hounding an underling, but he’s come a long way from the tire-slashing dropout of the first episode.

Once the ‘contestants’ are actually on the bridge, however, something interesting happens. The use of visual metaphors – crevasses, quicksand and so forth – from the Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors arc invades the real world. Fear warps the contestants’ perceptions of reality such that they feel imaginary wind and see the bridge ripple in front of them.

And Kaiji realises that he doesn’t want to throw his life away. But he also realises that his fear is distorting his perceptions, and with that realisation the wind disappears and the bridge straightens out. Though some of the other debtors are not so lucky, the gradual reforging of Kaiji’s character has taken another step forwards. Or perhaps I should say, in the words of Kaiji‘s narrator, ‘Forwards! Forwards! Forwards!’

[Incidentally, do you find the very rich diners, who are happy just to watch the contestants on the second bridge without betting, more or less horrifying than the gamblers who were betting on the first Derby? I find the second Derby's spectators more horrifying: they get kicks out of the suffering of others without the stimulation of gambling.]

Most of Kaiji’s companions are not so lucky. And the fourteenth episode makes explicit the process which has been going on since the story began, in the organiser’s speech describing the bridge as a process which will either break or reform the debtors. And the series extends the second bridge as a metaphor for life itself.

I don’t know if this trend will continue – if Kaiji will continue to become more overt in its systems and games. I hope not; the more any cultural object explains itself, the less employment there is for people with degrees like mine. Regardless, so far it’s been a fun ride, so here’s hoping for more MANLY TEARS in future.

Afterword

Fin

This post doesn’t have a conclusion as such. Perhaps I lack the intellectual capability to draw a wider lesson from the observation that both Kaiji and Potemayo use a similar technique.

I was taking both shows apart using the whittling process as my way in, but since Potemayo‘s simplicity is a matter of character and Kaiji‘s is one of situation there was always going to be more to write about Kaiji. Situations change much faster than characters, at least in most traditional storytelling, and these two stories are no different.

Also, what I’m subtly or not-so-subtly doing here is setting myself up for an examination of GAR itself – not with any pretensions to be an authority on the subject, or any hopes to become one, but as an exercise in exploration.

7 responses to “Whittling It Down with Moeblobs and GARmbling

  1. Why this post has NO comments is completely baffling to me. This is easily the best written and best thought out post I have read on an anime blog in ages.

    I honestly had never thought about Potemayo past the simple sugary exterior, but your analysis rings true. There is an underlying theme of character development, as the two main characters from opposite ends of the spectrum slowly learn to move a bit towards the center. As I think back on the series, there are quite a few of these little bite-sized life lessons, illustrating that both independence and dependence are natural and necessary parts of life.

    Perhaps I’ve misjudged the show. I always knew the comedic writing was excellent, but it seems there’s a whole ‘nother level to it that I had overlooked.

    As for Kaiji, well, you know what Guff and I think about the series already. For the sake of simplicity I’ll spare you the repetition of my previous accolades and just say that I agree heartily. I think you’ve done an excellent job cutting through to the core of what Fukumoto’s storytelling is all about.

    I look forward to seeing your previously mentioned post comparing / contrasting Kaiji and Akagi all the more. :)

  2. Thankyou! I imagine too few people are watching Kaiji, and perhaps I didn’t say anything controversial enough to get a response from those who are. Also this post is probably too long. But I enjoyed writing it, which is the main thing.

    I suspect that a lot of Potemayo is just well-written pratfalls. But, whether or not it was written in, you’re right that Potemayo and Guchuko are at the opposite extremes of a spectrum of dependence/independence, and the show’s in part about how that situation changes.

    I’m planning on making my Kaiji/Akagi post part of my GAR series, so we’ll see how it turns out.

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