Lately, I've been spending the past week by going on a Nobuyuki Fukumoto Manga binge. I was amazed that I watched the entirety of Kaiji (on fast-forward, natch) in one sitting. I just wanted to see what would happen next, even though the gambles and logic became increasingly convoulted and longwinded. Reading this stuff is like downing a bathtub full of greasy popcorn. I know it's awful for my health, but I can't stop reading.
Fukumoto is somewhat unusual in the Manga community, since his artwork isn't quite as polished as most of his contemporaries, and he has an art style that's more commonly seen in gag Manga or family strips, which makes the suspenseful themes explored seem strangely compelling. His online popularity is rather remarkable, given that Fukumoto's characters don't quite match the attractive male archetype that's typical of most Manga. Sure, they'll sport Anime hair, but that's as far as the list of attractiveness goes.
There are very few women in his stories, and as such, there's hardly much chance for romance.
You'd think that having such a large cast of overwhelmingly male characters would be a deterrent, but apparently, Fukumoto has quite a large female fan base. Part of this may be because there's not much opportunity for putting them in scantly clad positions facing the male gaze, and the few women who DO show up don't last for very long. This also allows a certain amount of subtext between the manly male characters, who are so emotionally fragile that they'll shed tears at the drop of a hat.
There's also a high amount of narrative, which is quite unusual for Manga, which relies more on character dialogue and telling with pictures. Fukumoto is also famous for his usage of purple descriptive metaphors to describe the predicament his characters go through, such as; "This is what gambling is! I had forgotten it! This sensation... The anguish! The blood rushing to your heart! Fine... I may have lost, but it's fine...! This is much better than timidly standing before a raging river! I have to... JUMP IN! TOSS MYSELF IN! Into the currents... The currents of this river known as 'gambling'! The river... of gambling... has a current that can push you to a safe shore... As well as one that pushes you further away... both can be found at the whirlpools. Within the blink of an eye, one can be pushed away far downstream beyond all help... But with luck... one can also be pushed upstream towards safety! Among these whirlpools, the current to safety HAS TO EXIST! And I have to find that current! And ride it! Whether I win or lose... I have to throw myself... deeper into the river!"
This kind of inner turmoil goes on for pages and pages on end, with visual metaphors added for extra effect, and make the reader feel like screaming, "Stop complaining and rationalizing your actions and just deal already!!!" If there's one major fault, its that Fukumoto has a tendency to drag on his scenes for longer than necessary. His stories and arcs can be so decompressed that it's practically maddening, and makes me wonder how any casual reader could possibly stand reading his Mangas in serialized form. They would be on pins and needles for months and years on end, waiting for a satisfying conclusion. A chapter that takes multiple pages to over explain every facet of the rules could be easily explained in fewer pages than necessary. Comic fans who have an unfavorable image of Manga decry the medium on the basis that they have too much decompression on their pages, and their finest ammunition would be Fukumoto's works as proof. There can be up to two or three chapters of just explaining the rules to a game before the game even gets played. In addition, there's a ridiculous amount of exposition and explanation that would put Brian Michael Bendis to shame. They're the kind of infodumps that would overload Luffy or Gon's (Hunter X Hunter) head from too much information.
His stories tend to revolve around depraved rich people who enjoy seeing the suffering of poor people scrambling around for their lives. The poor victims in these schemes talk a lot about "finding the sensibility of gambling", when they're really just exploiting the loopholes in the rules. And a LOT of cheating happens in these pages, all in the name of trying to acquire large sums of money, but the way is strewn with dozens of carefully hidden traps that would require heavy observation or a mind-reader to figure out.
The themes tend to revolve around not being dependent on a Goddess of Victory who may pass over your pleas for help, but making your own luck, and relying on your own intuition and observation. (Though there are times where the characters proclaim over how lucky someone is) There are also instances of betrayal, and self-defeat where somebody will either place too much trust in someone, or overthink things in the heat of battle. And these instances will always be emphasized on for several pages just to drive in the intense pain of when they do occur. Very often, elaborate plans will be outlined in detail on how to beat the system, only for said carefully prepared plan to completely fall apart at the seams once it's put in action. The less you hear about the desired outcome of a plan, the more likely you'll be able to succeed.
Even if you ignored the criticism of his stories being of Stephen King length, another strike against Fukumoto is the high amount of repetition in his art. The most commonly uses poses are:
Joker/Liefeld smiles (multiple teeth does not make you look friendly)
Looking shocked or amazed (usually accompanied with a "Zawa" sound effect)
Blubbering uncontrollably (no Fukumoto Manga is complete without shedding manly tears. Usually in the form of a hanged head in a downward manner while gritting your teeth after being swindled)
Psychological devolution (this is even more satisfying when it happens to the bad guys)
Excessive sweating (this happens a LOT more in the Mangas compared to the Animes. Hardly a moment doesn't go by where somebody doesn't excude some kind of water from their face)
Sometimes the above will be combined together into a single page. For instance, you'll have somebody grimacing their teeth while sweating, only to collapse into a defeated hangdog expression. Other times, you'll have a psychedelic experience that's suddenly offset with a sudden shock or tears.
Another example was a high-stakes game where the contestants were to keep their balance while crossing story-high beams. It was ridiculous how they were able to keep perfectly proportioned even when they were turning around and talking to people behind them. Then again, that's natural, given the stiff artwork. Go ahead, try it yourself. Put your feet on an imaginary straight line and stand straight. Now, try looking behind you and see if you feel comfortable. You'll probably feel like one of the many poses on EscherGirls.
Another common trait for Fukumoto men is they'll look perfectly normal when viewed straight ahead...
...but when seen from a different angle, they all have weird chins that jut out oddly in profile.
It reminds me of a Rubriq-a-Brac comic by Gotlib where a handsome prince is smitten by a shepherdess girl, until he takes a closer look:
Most gambling games follow a typical formula - overconfidence at the beginning, followed by an early sudden defeat, followed by a spiral of suffering and despair, until a glimmer of hope is found by taking advantage of a previously unnoticed element of the game that is played up to the furthest advantage. In other cases, the gambler will start out at a disadvantage, that slowly (VERY slowly) becomes advantageous after several setbacks that must be endured to ensure a satisfactory result.
Of all of Fukumoto's protagonists, only Akagi manages to subvert this formula by Intentionally putting himself into hazadrous situations and even self-sabotaging himself to keep raising the stakes. Even when he's at a disadvantage, he'll still manage to eke out a win by stubbornly sticking to his convictions of his death-wish mentality, which runs counter to most gamblers' ambitions, which is to be satisfied with a large win after suffering multiple losses. Akagi is willing to go all the way to breaking the bank, and will keep running even when he's already wagered the dealer's pants. Even if Akagi is on life support and his life is hanging by a thread, he won't back down if there's the possibility of doubling his winnings.
Akagi is actually a spin-off of an earlier less insanity-induced Manga, Ten, another Mah-johng Manga. Akagi is notorious for producing what is probably the longest Mah-johng game in history, lasting over 12 volumes and beyond. It's even devised its OWN prequel spin-off (not by Fukumoto) in the form of Washizu: King of Mahjong Hell.
It's difficult to get a handle on Fukumoto's philosophies, because they don't always conform to a typical way of thinking. While most writer's policies can be determined for supporting either the left-wing or right-wing, he doesn't go for any easy solutions. (Okay, the solutions are easy, but the route required to take that shortcut is so fraught with peril that it makes giving up look easy in comparison) Very often characters will build up a very rational argument or plan, only to demolish or point out the flaws completely.
In Buraiden Gai, the prison warden tells the prisoners that after putting them in a sadistic glass floor cage for days on end so that the prisoners have no choice but to crawl around on the ground like dogs on their hands and knees. The warden tells them that in order to become human beings, they must first realize that they must want to become human again, by inducing psychological warfare by denying them basic human rights until the prisoners become so desperate that they'll do or say anything to get out of their predicament. In short, he'll build up seemingly rational arguments, then break down the logic in those very same pages by displaying the apparent faults in them. His stories teeters between the belief that Humans are Bastards and the ideological value that we can be better than we are.
It's hard to tell whether Fukumoto believes the very philosophies that he spouts. They're so outlandish and over-the-top that it's difficult to take any of it seriously. Not to mention that Manga creators are no different from other writers - they have the ability to let their audience suspend their disbelief long enough to tell their stories, even when the facts are fudged with all the time. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, "Writers are liars". Most likely, his themes of struggling poor people against sadistic rich people resonates highly with the public.
Even though the protagonist's motivations are paper-thin and they wear their emotions on their sleeves, I really like how the crude artist's portrayal of insane events controlled by sadistic players and insane logic that requires mind-reading to comprehend, even if the explanations are rather long-winded at times. Equally hilarious are the questionaires that're obviously implanted to make readers feel that their lessons at school wasn't a waste of time. After all, you never know when you'll be in a death match over a gambling debt, and have to calculate the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle to figure out the puzzle. This is not an exaggeration - this actually happened in Gambling Emperor Legend Zero, where in another game, a particular obstacle can be only figured out by multiplying the square root of a fraction in order to find the remainder numbers.
However, there are also several leaps of logic that don't quite match what would be considered normal in society. For example, in a quiz game that's hosted by a sadistic game commentor who reminds me of Pandora the Magician from Yu-Gi-Oh!, the following question is given:
Obviously, the correct answer would be: Multiply the base number by 2, and add 6, right? But that's not the kind of logic that's used here.
Essentially, he's tapped into a similar addictive style reminiscent of Naoki Urasawa's run on Happy!, a Tennis Manga that's pretty much the antithesis of his first major Manga, Yawawa! Despite its name, the female protagonist continually endures multiple suffering and setbacks in her route to earn enough money to pay off her brother's loans. As a reviewer once described it, "You just want to keep reading and reading until you get a feeling of closure for something good to finally happen to her." That theme of delayed gratification is persistent in Urasawa's other Mangas, where it's the struggle, not the resolution that's the main focus.
Of course, given how long Fukumoto's stories can go before any resolution or payoff, it's highly doubtful that any of his works will ever be officially licensed, since there's not much demand for Mahjong Manga in the first place.