The majority of people have a narrowly defined view of cartoons; simply put, cartoons are just for kids. They’re generally colorful and comically exaggerated, sometimes meant to mimic real life and paint things in a humorous light, but more often than not, they explore the realm of the fantastically impossible.

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Cartoons are chock full of talking animals (and fictional creatures), hilariously ridiculous scenarios, superpowers, and giant pianos and anvils falling from the sky. Though it has in recent years begun to include shows with satirical undertones and social commentary, it’s still a genre that is often reserved for children.

Anime, on the other hand, is defined as “a style of Japanese film and television animation, typically aimed at adults as well as children.”

Below, in this two-part series, you’ll find a list of what we consider the best gambling anime TV series for adults interested in intense, high-stakes shows that feature gaming risk as a prevalent theme. Get out some popcorn, open up a couple of windows on your desktop – one to look up and watch the gambling anime series, one to have Planet 7 ready to roll when inspiration strikes – and read on!

A Brief Introduction to the World of Anime

gambling anime charactersBefore moving on to recommendations, it might be helpful to clarify what exactly gambling anime is (though this can be a tricky task, as there are different schools of thought regarding what qualifies as anime and what doesn’t). Some refuse to consider productions that are not of Japanese origin as anime, and others categorize all animation as anime, regardless of style or country of origin – but purists emphasize the presence of limited animation as a clear requisite of a true gambling anime production.

Limited animation refers to the process of creating animated cartoons without redrawing entire frames. Instead, common parts are reused between frames. The repeated usage of certain images eliminates the need to draw every single new cel, saving a significant amount of time and production costs. (According to Merriam-Webster, a cel is “a transparent sheet of celluloid on which objects are drawn or painted in the making of animated cartoons.”)

This style was used through the 1960s to the early 1980s for many Western Saturday morning cartoons, but if you’re familiar with the style of more recent animated features (for example: Disney movies like Moana and Zootopia), you’ll notice that the characters and surroundings move smoothly, imitating as closely as possible the way that movement appears in real life. In gambling anime, that seamless quality is not present; instead, it relies on stillness and lack of fluidity to create its own unique visual representation of movement.

Anime includes television series, short films, and full-length films.

Many productions (like all five of the gambling anime series on our list) are inspired by manga, a style of Japanese comic books and graphic novels, similarly geared towards adults as well as children. As mentioned earlier, where cartoons are often primarily for humorous entertainment, anime often focuses on themes with adult content like the complexities of life and the human experience. Read on for a list of some gambling anime series that explore some of the darker elements of human nature

Gambling Anime #1: Tohai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai

Directed by Yuzo Sato and written by Hideo Takayashiki

Alternative Titles: Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness; The Legend of Mahjong: Akagi

Air Dates: October 5, 2005 to March 29, 2006

Number of Episodes: 26

Duration of Episode: 23 minutes

As you might be able to determine from the bit about descending into darkness, Akagi is a gambline anime that just gets increasingly darker as it progresses. From start to finish, it’s all about mind games and manipulation.

Akagi Shigeru is, as the title suggests, a genius. He’s also a cocky teenage punk. On the run from the police on a rainy night, he saunters casually into a sleazy den of yakuza (Japanese mafia) in the middle of a game of mahjong. He enters at a moment of deep anguish for a compulsive gambler named Nangou. He has bet his life in a game of mahjong, attempting to repay his debt of over three million yen, but with each round, he gets further and further from winning. When Akagi appears, the yakuza attempt to throw him out, but Nangou seizes on this moment as a last chance to reclaim his life. He says he knows the boy and asks Akagi to sit down at the table and play in his stead. There’s only one tiny detail: Akagi has never played mahjong before – he doesn’t even have the slightest idea what the rules are. However, it soon becomes clear to Nangou and the yakuza that the boy has a natural talent for gambling and a razor-sharp instinct.

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Akagi learns the rules of mahjong quickly (with the viewers learning alongside him), observing his opponents’ moves and using his intuition to manipulate them, eventually winning the game to everyone’s shock and disbelief. Not only does he prove himself a skilled master of the game, but it soon becomes clear that he is cold, calculating, and completely fearless. While he’s far from a sympathetic character (he’s certainly no hero), you’ll find it hard not to admire his reckless disregard for potentially fatal situations. He’s intelligent – he knows that he’s being drawn deeper and deeper into a violent, dangerous world, but he just doesn’t care. Nothing fazes him, and he doesn’t hesitate once. The fact that he’s bringing down the bad guys just adds to his mysterious allure, in spite of being, essentially, not a very likeable person.

Suspenseful and engrossing, Tohai Densetsu Akagi: Yami ni Maiorita Tensai manages to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats throughout each episode. Unlike with some of the other gamblers on this list, the audience is not waiting for the outcome of the game. It isn’t a matter of whether he will win or not – there’s no doubt that he will. The tension doesn’t come from the question of his success; it comes from the thoughts and feelings of the other players and observers. It comes from not being able to predict what will happen to Akagi and the other players. He’s sure to win, but what repercussions will come of it? If you take “The Genius Who Descended Into the Darkness” as any indication, it’s sure to be an epic journey.

Gambling Anime #2: Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor (Season 1 of Kaiji)

Directed by Yuzo Sato and written by Hideo Takayashiki

Alternative Title: Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor

Air Dates: October 2, 2007 to April 1, 2008

Number of Episodes: 26

Duration of Episode: 23 minutes

Kaiji Itou is your classic beer-guzzling hoodlum, collecting stolen hood ornaments from fancy cars and gambling away what little money he has. After three years wasting away in Tokyo, he finds a stranger at his door asking about a former coworker, and that’s the moment when everything in his life changes irrevocably.

gambling anime casinoAs it turns out, this coworker had wheedled Kaiji into cosigning for a loan, then disappeared. After about a year’s worth of interest, Kaiji is left with a debt of 3,850,000 yen – an inconceivable sum of money that will take him about eleven years of hard work, according to the loan shark’s calculations, to pay off. But, there is a way out. The debt collector proposes a highly risky endeavor – embarking on a cruise on the ship Espoir. It’s a four-hour cruise with an exclusive guest list consisting only of the most desperate debtors, much like Kaiji Itou himself. They are all given a chance to gamble – even to potentially win enough to make a hefty profit for themselves. But if they’re not one of the lucky few, they get taken away from the world for one or two years of hard labor.

The loan shark refuses to disclose what kind of gambling will be involved or what kind of labor Kaiji will endure if he loses. Although reluctant, Kaiji is unable to resist the pressure and manipulation of the debt collection agency. He signs the contract and boards the Espoir in hopes of turning his whole future around.

At first glance, Kaiji seems like an unlikely protagonist. He’s lazy, sneaky, and rough-mannered (and also, at times, not terribly bright). But he’s determined, and he’s committed, and his desperation is palpable. Just like the protagonist, the art style takes some getting used to. It’s particularly angular and gritty, matching the dark intensity of the story; jawlines and eyebrows drawn as angry slashes, and Kaiji’s facial expressions seem to range exclusively from frowns to sneers to grimaces. With each of his streaks of luck and devastating turns, the viewer is pulled along for the ride. Kaiji and the others are pitted against each other; each gambler has his back against the wall, and the show manages to build tension masterfully while demonstrating the darkest shadows of human nature.

If you enjoy it, there’s a second season to look out for. Gyakkyou Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen (Kaiji: Against All Rules) picks up where the first season left off. Though it may not maintain the same fluid arc, it’s still worth revisiting Kaiji’s trajectory considering where he starts in Season 1, and it does offer a satisfying conclusion to his storyline.

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Gambling Anime #3: One Outs

Directed by Yuzo Sato and written by Hideo Takayashiki

Alternative Title: none

Air Dates: October 7, 2008 to March 31, 2009

Number of Episodes: 25

Duration of Episode: 23 minutes

One Outs is ostensibly an anime series about baseball, but it will appeal to sports and gambling anime fans alike. Not a fan of either? Don’t worry – enthusiasts are confident that the storyline draws all viewers in, regardless of their interests. This show is a must-watch for everyone.

Unlike the good-for-nothing Kaiji, Toua Tokuchi appears from the outset to have much more going for him than a simple gambling habit and the debt it comes with. He’s involved in a different form of gambling – instead of entering a game with multiple people with all betting as players themselves, it’s Toua himself that spectators bet on.

The game is called “One Outs,” a simplified one pitcher vs. one batter version of baseball, where spectators (and players) place bets on either the pitcher or the batter. Unlike Kaiji, Toua is easily identified as a winner. His level of confidence is astounding, and it’s literally infuriating – he’s often challenged by people who want to teach him a lesson in humility (which usually doesn’t work out so well for other people).

The story begins with Hiromichi Kojima the cleanup hitter for the Saikyou Saitama Lycaons. The Lycaons are the weakest team in the Japanese professional baseball league, and it’s Hiromichi’s last chance at a championship after 21 years on the team. He forms a training camp in hopes of preparing for victory, but everything changes when the team’s only pitcher injures his finger. In the team’s search, they stumble upon Toua and convince him to sign a contract: for every “out” he pitches, he is paid 5,000,000 yen (about $45,000), and for every point he concedes, he loses 50,000,000 yen. It’s clear from the unusual contract and the high stakes of each play that Toua has no doubts about his own ability.

According to the One Outs fan page, “Tokuchi’s most important ability is probably his ability to seemingly read minds. Tokuchi is able to observe his opponent and pitch a pitch that will completely defy all his batter’s expectations.” He’s also able to control the number of spins on the ball, and the unpredictability is what causes batters to strike out most of the time. “It’s as if the ball was moving away from the bat,” one opponent remarked.

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As the show continues, Toua is pitted against characters who are out to manipulate the team for their own gain. Although it takes some time to earn his teammates’ trust, Toua eventually shows that the risks he is taking might be exactly what they need to finally win the championship.

Gambling Anime #4: Kakegurui

Directed by Yuichiro Hayashi and written by Yasuko Kobayashi

Alternative Title: Kakegurui: Compulsive Gambler

Air Dates: July 1, 2017 to September 23, 2017

Number of Episodes: 12

Duration of Episode: 24 minutes

Kakegurui is what you get when you have a boarding school full of wealthy private school students hungry for thrills and in possession of way too much cash. Gambling at night is essentially this school’s equivalent of extracurricular activities, and the stakes just get higher and higher.

The school is described in the opening lines of the first episode: “Hyakkaou Private Academy. Approaching 122 years old, the school’s pride is its tradition and social status.” It appears to be an impressive, prestigious institution, and it is – some of the most affluent and privileged students of Japan are enrolled here, many of whom will eventually become powerful figures and leaders in society. By day, the education these students receive in school is important, of course, but the school transforms nightly into a den where the dynamic combination of power, money, and manipulation is everything and everywhere. Social status is determined by your gambling skill, and this is where the students gain their true preparation for the real world – how to manage and make money by manipulating others.

Unlike the others on this list, this gambling anime features a female protagonist: Yumeko Jabami, a sweet and seemingly naïve transfer student. Before her arrival, Ryota Suzui helps set the scene for the viewers. He’s spent the evening losing against Mary Saotome, resulting in a massive debt. Now he is her “pet” – anything she asks for, he must do. After his loss, he explains: “This is how things work here. Money is everything here. Along with… your gambling prowess!” As the new kid, this side of the academy’s “curriculum” is entirely unfamiliar, but Yumeko is eager to get started. Having been the one to show her around the school during the day, Ryota can only look on helplessly as she begins a game of rock-paper-scissors at the invitation of Mary Saotome. Mary has been on a winning streak, and there is no way to warn the new girl of what’s headed her way. That moment of anxiety is short-lived – the stakes are low, and Yumeko wins. But the game is far from over. Mary accomplishes win after win, until Yumeko proposes one final round, with everything on the line. After she wins, it is revealed that she discovered Mary’s cheating methods, and Mary becomes the new “low man on the totem pole.”

What makes Yumeko Jabami such an interesting character is her intense drive. She’s a high roller, but unlike most other gamblers, her chief motivator is not to win – it’s simply to enjoy the excitement of the risk. In spite of her knowledge that Mary was cheating, Yumeko’s last win was only a matter of chance.

As the series continues, Yumeko continues to derail the longstanding system and hierarchy that Hyakkaou Private Academy has in place while the rest of the students plot to take her down. Sure, she’s a little crazy, but it makes for some unforgettable vicarious thrills.

Gambling Anime fans often get a bad rap for being childish or immature, but as this list proves, much of Japanese animation involves a lot more complexity than many might expect. They offer compelling explorations of philosophical and psychological themes, and these gambling-themed anime series are a great introduction to the universe of anime and the thrill of risk.

A staff writer at Planet 7, Kate Church is an avid reader, professional writer and lover of games. After taking her Bachelor of Arts degree in English writing and a minor in journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, Kate has traveled the world, seeking out adventure, knowledge and games of skill and chance.