Back when I was first starting out, I wrote an editorial about fanservice where I mentioned that I don’t normally care for it. 99% of the time, fansevice is neutral at best and an annoyance at worst. The remaining 1% is this season’s Kakegurui, a show that actually benefits from its fanservice. Fanservice almost never adds anything of value to a show, but I can’t imagine Kakegurui having the same entertainment value without it. So why is that? To find the answer, let’s look at why fanservice generally doesn’t work.
In most anime, fanservice is either the anime’s main purpose, or something that’s there without being the anime’s priority (there are some obvious exceptions like Keijo, but most anime with fanservice fall into one of these two categories). In the former case, the anime has virtually no reason to exist. I can understand sex appeal, but if that’s an anime’s only purpose, then it might as well be a hentai. Shows like Queen’s Blade and Ikki Tousen obviously don’t have much of a story to tell, and the sexual content is just a step away from porn anyway. It’s the equivalent of making a porno without the sex-there’s no point to it’s existence anymore.
The other type is found in a lot of different anime and could be anything from sexy character designs to occasional shower scenes. I consider these shows to be shows with fanservice as opposed to fanservice shows that prioritize sex appeal. I generally don’t mind fanservice as long as it doesn’t intrude on the substance of the show, although I almost never get anything out of it; sex appeal just isn’t the reason I watch anime. Now we come to Kakegurui.
Kakegurui definitely has fanservice, but it actually adds to the show in this case. The fanservice makes its presence known from the start: Yumeko and the various girls she gambles with all get visibly aroused at the thought of gambling, with some explicitly comparing it to sex. This kind of fanservice would normally just be a distraction from the meat of the show, but it fits in perfectly here. Kakegurui establishes a high-stakes, high-intensity atmosphere from the start that’s very reminiscent of the more glamorized depictions of Las Vegas. There’s bright lights, big crowds, and chances to both win and lose big. In a setting like this, sex appeal doesn’t only fit in, it’s practically necessary to create the right vibe. Everything about Kakegurui is big, exaggerated high stakes, and showing the characters get a sexual thrill from gambling only drives in how big of a deal it is. The entire premise is pretty silly-a school where students are treated like livestock if they lose money is extreme even for anime-but the way it hammers in how important the thrill of betting is to the characters makes it so much easier to get caught up in the anime’s wild energy.
The fanservice isn’t just a part of the setting either; it also serves as a unique way to develop the cast. It’s established early on that money is the least important part of gambling for many of the characters. Yumeko gets a borderline-sexual thrill out of the chance, Midari is blatantly aroused by the thought of risking pain, and Mary just gets off on the power. There have been plenty of gambling stories where the purpose was to win something, but Kakegurui distinguishes itself by having the gambling be an end in and of itself for the characters. Having them get sexually aroused at the thought of it makes them all memorable and endlessly entertaining to watch. This fits with the show’s title as well, since Kakegurui is a portmanteau of kakeruu (to gamble) and kuruu (to go insane), so it only makes sense that the characters gamble for such an insane reason (credit for the translation goes to Kyra from kyradesuyo.wordpress.com).
This isn’t used as a crutch, either. It would be easy for the show to rely on the characters’ overly sexual reactions to gambling to fill in for proper development, but it’s able to do both. By episode 7, we learn that Yumeko likes to gamble precisely because it’s based in chance. She even gets mad at Midari for intentionally trying to lose because it deprives Yumeko of the thrill she gets from the chance. It’s not even the stakes that matter to her; Yumeko get’s just as excited over a simple coin toss as a game with millions of Yen on the line. Having her react in such a sexual way to every gamble actually makes her a more believable character, since that way she has a solid, understandable motive for risking so much on every gamble. Blatant fanservice usually (though not always) demeans the characters involved, but the way Kakegurui uses it, the fanservice becomes an essential part of the show without overshadowing the rest. It’s a remarkable achievement and makes Kakegurui one of the most purely entertaining anime of the season.