GAR (IV): Akagi vs. Kaiji, and Moral GAR

The Vigil
This is what happens when a Victorian imagines a knight¹

[This is part of a series of entries considering GAR. The first one sets out what’s happening. The second one reinterprets the epic tradition through the lens of GAR. The third one examines the relationship between GAR and gender.

Contains minor-to-moderate spoilers for Akagi and for the first sixteen episodes of Kaiji.]

Akagi and Kaiji are closely linked by sharing the same manga-ka and by the similarities in their anime adaptions. Comparisons are quite revealing, and allow us to draw some wider conclusions about the nature of GAR, as well as the role of weakness and sacrifice.

I: Akagi; Inhuman GAR, Amoral GAR

Akagi

Akagi is considered to be more-or-less the embodiment of cold-blooded GAR. He carves a path through the underworld of mahjong, dissecting his opponents’ minds and then crushing them utterly in a wave of double, triple, quadruple and quintuple-bluffing; he is prepared to risk death – and a nasty death at that – to succeed; and he takes positive pleasure in the disintegration of his enemies. Light-o and Lelouch pale into insignificance next to Akagi: unlike those pretenders, Akagi never begs for mercy – he never needs to.

But Akagi isn’t human. In fact, Akagi is Alucard.

Bear with me here. Alucard is of course the uber-vampire from the manga Hellsing (twice adapted into anime form), who wields an array of magical powers, a pair of oversized firearms and superbly over-the-top dress sense in the service of the Hellsing Organisation, defenders of Crown and Church.

Alucard is essentially despicable, a gruesomely violent fighter who takes great pleasure in causing pain and death (he’s also brilliantly snobbish about inferior vampires). But because Alucard serves a ‘good’ master, he only ever fights opponents who are mad or bad or some combination thereof. And so we find it acceptable to cheer him on.

Akagi is Alucard, except with Man Gans instead of man-guns. Akagi, like Alucard, enjoys taking his opponents apart; the difference is that Akagi does it mentally where Alucard would do it physically. And Akagi, like Alucard, is very, very hard to defeat. Just as Alucard laughs in the face of decapitation [now there's an odd phrase], anytime anyone thinks that they have Akagi on the ropes, they’ve usually just been playing into his hands all along.

Akagi is essentially evil – or perhaps ‘inhuman’ would be a better word. Akagi is summoned by Nangou’s wish for help, even from a demon; by rights he should be dead, having plunged over a cliff in a suicidal game of chicken. And then there’s the pleasure he takes in his enemies’ disintegration, and his absolute lack of sympathy for anyone. He’s more a force of nature than a human being, utterly inhuman in his willingness to throw his life away – in fact, he seems to have a positive will to death (not dissimilar to Alucard’s search for worthy opponents).

Akagi Chuckles

But we can cheer for Akagi because, like Alucard, he fights monsters. Akagi’s opponents all take similar pleasure in defeating their enemies. Several of his earlier opponents are physically deformed – Urabe has a bizarrely protruding set of teeth, and Ichikawa is blind – but it’s the series’ final and most compelling villain, Washizu Iwao, who is most overtly monstrous: the characters refer to the plan to defeat him as ‘monster hunting’.

We see that Washizu is corrupt, murderously vampiric and certifiably insane, and that’s before it’s revealed that he believes himself to be – indeed, judging by the animation, may actually be – possessed by demons. Credit should also go to Tsukayama Masane’s brilliantly guttural voice acting, which works so well with Washizu’s lengthy internal monologues.

Then there’s the painting of a devil on the wall behind Washizu’s seat, which is frequently drawn to the viewer’s attention. Since it’s devouring someone, this may in fact be the devil, as portrayed eating Brutus, Cassius and Judas in the Divine Comedy. [A common reading is that the three sinners being eaten were chosen as archetypal rebels against the proper spiritual and temporal order (betraying Christ or Caesar); one could link this to Washizu's role as a blackmailer of politicians and a subverter of democracy, rich enough to effectively rule Japan behind the scenes.]

With opponents like these, we can accept the painting of the Crucifixion behind Akagi’s seat. The painting suits his preparedness to lose his blood in his attempt to defeat Washizu, but I think the resemblences end there. Akagi is a conscienceless assassin, not perhaps immoral, but most definitely amoral. It may bethat the cold-blooded GAR which Akagi typifies is inherently rather amoral – looking at other examples (I mentioned Light and Lelouch), there seems to be evidence to support this.

II: Kaiji; Human GAR, Noble GAR

Kaiji on the girder

What a contrast, then, to Kaiji! Kaiji is really a bit of a loser. I wouldn’t say he is even especially good at gambling in the same way that Akagi is (though Kaiji rarely gets to play complex games anyway); rather, he’s good at perceiving the way systems work.

Kaiji also cries frequently, and I don’t think the tears are always MANLY. Certainly they are on occasion mourning something valuable (‘ISHIDAAAAAAAAAA!’), but sometimes Kaiji is simply crying because he’s been beaten, or because he’s in a difficult situation.

This is not to criticise Kaiji – I’d cry too in some of the predicaments he finds himself in – but to show that he’s not, in simple bravery terms,like Akagi who, for example, takes an undeserved sword blow to the shoulder and merely sweats a little more. It’s Kaiji, not Akagi, who’s ‘The Suffering Pariah’ – I’m not sure Akagi suffers, in a normal, human sense.

Kaiji isn’t as brave. But the GAR provoked by Kaiji is better quality. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Kaiji is a human character, vunerable and all-too fallible. This means that we can actully relate much more easily to his GAR moments. When he overcomes his own weaknesses and the scheming of his opponents to survive Restricted Rock-Paper-Scissors, stakes his life on his trust in Furuhata and Andou and, when they fail to come through, scrambles his way out of what – following Karura’s practice – I’m going to refer to as ‘the Room of Naked Men’, we feel involved. We know all too well what it’s like to try and fail, or to try and succeed in only a very limited fashion.²
  2. Kaiji’s actions refine the sacrificial elements present in that 4chan description. It took considerable courage for him to throw away what winnings he had in order to save Ishida from the Room of Naked Men, and I think even more courage to reject the cruelty of the Human Derby.

When first considering the Human Derby, I wrote:

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.

You’ll note that I slipped the phrase ‘moral courage’ in there, with self-effacing brackets around the ‘moral’ content. Moral courage is a rather antiquated description for courage which is displayed not in the face of physical danger (guns, knives et cetera) but in the face of overwhelming contrary opinion or a general atmosphere of turpitude. [Once I let myself release one old-fashioned word from its rusty chains, another will soon follow.]

Now it’s time to remove those brackets around ‘moral’ and consummate the comparison: what I’m arguing for is ‘moral GAR’. Moral GAR is the courage to fight the same over-the-top, GAR battle we’re now familiar with, but with an added refinement of self-sacrifice and compassion, often against prevailing behaviour (as the Human Derby revealed, plenty of people are willing to push others off the girder of life when the chips are down).

Not that the standard rewards for success are bad things. I do not wish to denigrate normal GAR or to draw too strict a distinction between GAR and moral GAR. They shade into each other. But the more inhumanly competent (Akagi) a character is, the harder it becomes for him (or her) to make sacrifices or to face impossible odds, while it’s Kaiji’s very humanity that lends his particular blend of GAR its nobility.

Notes

1. Note the long hair, the vapid expression and the suspiciously unadorned surroundings (suspicious, that is, in a pre-Reformation context). Also, I’m no biologist, but wouldn’t lactic acid from an oxygen debt be hurting his arms, holding that sword up for a sustained period of time?

2. Unless you, dear reader, are actually successful like Akagi, and are in possession of wealth, fast cars, attractive members of the opposite sex and a big house. If this is the case, may I recommend some cheering meditation on the Danse Macabre and on Breugel’s Triumph of Death. (The Animanachronism – depressing rich people for more than a month now.)

Blogiography

  • If you want to know what all the Akagi fuss is about, here’re a couple of reviews: one from Karura back when the Azure Flame was unReloaded, and one at Otakuism.
  • Here, too, is an interesting examination of Akagi’s thought process and the suppression of emotion at Whai Whai’s Anime Blog.
  • As Kaiji‘s still airing, there aren’t any convenient reviews of it yet, so the best I can suggest is a browse through Nano’s Kaiji tag.
  • And finally . . . the practice of appropriating ‘Tank!’ for anime that aren’t Cowboy Bebop is long-established, but Akagi and Kaiji suit the tune more than any other candidate I’ve seen.

10 responses to “GAR (IV): Akagi vs. Kaiji, and Moral GAR

  1. The way I see it here, is that Akagi is the type of GAR that would make a good villain, the “JUST AS PLANNED” person whose raw skills you admire but you hate anyway (Tonegawa is close to this in Kaiji, although he’s not GAR per se; the loophole he exploited on Brave Men Road was ace). Kaiji, like you said, is the type of GAR that you as a person could root for, very human and weak in ways but able to really pull off a badass limit break when the chips are down. In this case the latter is better, but that might just be because the latter fits the archetype of a protagonist better.

    Incidentally, I’ve actually only seen the first episode of Akagi so far, and was nonplussed due to the as-mentioned type of GAR Akagi sports. (The mahjong-head-explode-itude didn’t help either) I’m assuming it improves and has better mind-game and perhaps some emotional-wracking fun later on, but does it come close to Kaiji?

  2. I disagree with the comparison between Akagi and Alucard, as I find it hard to call Alucard GAR at all. Simply put, Alucard is way too powerful and immortal; he’s a deus ex machina personified. Because Alucard can’t die he always fights full out without caring about anything. To me, GARness requires a certain sense of mortality, a conscience recognition that the character can die. Alucard lacks this. Akagi, on the other hand, despite how untouchable he seems, is still a human and can die. He just chooses to say “fuck you death,” which adds to his GARNess. It doesn’t mean Alucard isn’t fun to watch, but in the end Akagi is the richer character. Kaiji is similar in that he can die, he just hasn’t come to the Akagi point of screwing death yet, which lessens his character somewhat in my eyes.

    Spoilers here now for Akagi (manga):

    It’s also interesting to note that in the author of Akagi’s previous story, Ten, a full two volumes are devoted to showing Akagi’s death later in life. This link, under manga, has a good summary of what happens to him: http://www.truepariah.net/ Basically, Akagi chooses to end his life rather than live a wasted life with Alzheimer’s. That could be called a moral courage in its own right, but it also shows that Akagi is human, though perhaps it is his life philosophy which should be called inhuman.

  3. @ CCY: In my opinion (which counts for little), Kaiji‘s a much more accessible series – also, the Akagi anime adaption has a very poor ending. But I still found it pretty good, so I’d recommend you give it a few more episodes.

    @ Demian: Possibly part of the problem is that I’ve only seen the anime adaption of Akagi, in which – while yes, Akagi is not physically immortal – he’s undefeatable. I agree with you that Alucard’s physical immortality makes it hard for him to be GAR, and in a sense I think his search for an opponent who can properly threaten him is also a search for an opportunity to be GAR.

    Regarding your last sentence, I wonder if we could classify Akagi as an Alucard-esque soul searching for challenge and wanting to savour life or not have it at all, but in a human body which obviously does degenerate and can be killed.

  4. I’m still not sure I can buy Akagi (as described; still have only watched episode 1) as GAR to begin with. The repellant personality prevents me from looking up to or empathising with him in the way GAR seems to require.

    I think there’s a difference you didn’t properly underline between immoral GAR and amoral GAR. Amoral does not mean enjoying killing people and so on, it’s a lack of caring about it. Suddenly I can’t think of many examples off the top of my head: maybe the black dude from Black Lagoon whose name I forget. That’s amoral GAR – I could respect that guy as a pro who mostly didn’t go out of his way to be a bastard. Apart from that one time with the nazi leader, I guess? Even that was kind of giving him an out.

    Compare the described Akagi or Alucard: these guys actively take pleasure in watching suffering. This is decidedly immoral, not amoral, and I think you have to consider it badass rather than really GAR.

  5. To be fair, I’m kind of having a hard time with the amoral/immoral GAR. I think you argued it well that it depends on the context (i.e. the bad guys beating up on the worse guys). Is admiring someone’s Machevellian plot really all that GAR? I suppose it is now that I think about it. But it does kind of fly in the face of the whole noble hero/last stand aspect of GAR.

  6. I have to consider it GAR. Definition by use and example (which I stated was the foundation I was starting from) requires me to – Akagi is continually held up as the embodiment of cold-blooded GAR, and so there must be a sense of the word that fits. Words don’t come from dictionaries, they come from mouths, and lots of mouths use ‘GAR’ about Akagi.

    [This is the difficulty and the joy of being descriptive rather than prescriptive: you don't have to come up with your own ideas, but you have to accomodate some decidedly odd ones.]

    I think what I’m trying to convey by the term ‘amoral’ is not that Akagi’s enjoyment of suffering is morally neutral, but rather that he has stepped outside a normal human moral framework. He – and the series Akagi as a whole – doesn’t operate morally. We’re never really asked to consider his actions from a moral standpoint (though we should). ‘Amoral’ may not be the best word, of course, but ‘meta-moral’ or ‘extra-moral’ would require extra explanation.

  7. Pingback: 20/20, Perfect Visions: Kaiji @ Mega Megane Moé

  8. I personally only read a small part of the manga
    and never returned to the topic
    But after a while I found the anime and it was less hideous so I could watch it without my eyes starting to bleed..
    Anyway after reading the Hellsing manga I must say that comparing to Akagi Alucard is more human!

    NOW LOTS OF SPOILERS ON HELLSING MANGA AND OVA’S:
    Yup! while Akagi played with death Alucard actually seeks Death!! (fro a human since he is a monster and he wants to be defeated and redeemed by the so called human strength)
    also from what I realized from the hellsing manga is that Alucard has sinned and he regrets it, Alucard as a count (if I remember corectly) also seems to regret losing to the helsing master at his time and seeks death from someone with similar strength!
    while I don’t see Akagi having any regrets, redemption seeking or actually seeking something! He just likes the danger!
    Comparing him to the merciless Alucard in the anime might fit at first look but if you dig up deeper they are not similar at all ^^

  9. Well well well! I’m not too well-versed on Hellsing, not having read the original manga, so I’ll take your word that Alucard is seeking death . . . which perhaps would make him a little more human than Akagi. It’s hard to judge, and perhaps if I’d read the Akagi manga I’d know more about Akagi’s character. I have a feeling that he might have a will-to-death too.

    In any case, interesting comment!

  10. Pingback: Baka-Raptor » Blog Archive » Five shows that restored my faith in anime

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