A direct sequel to Tobaku Datenroku Kaiji, picking up immediately after Part 3.
After his tremendous victory in 2-Player Mahjong against the villainous President, Muraoka Takashi, Kaiji is being driven home by Kazuya, the son of Chairman Hyoudou. However, in the car, Kazuya asks Kaiji if he would be interested in one more gamble that night, and Kaiji accepts. What surprises lie in store for our dear Kaiji, and what will the gamble be?!
Despite a deliciously devious death-trap being the focus of this entire arc, I can't help but feel that this was the weakest arc in the Kaiji series so far. It is still a good, fairly suspenseful read, but this arc displays some rather uncharacteristic shortcomings which are disappointing to see in a series as excellent as Kaiji.
Kazuya, whom you will remember as a spectator in the Minefield Mahjong game, now invites Kaiji as a spectator for a new, three-player death-trap; the Salvation Game. More on the game later. This entire arc is built around a central theme, which is the nature of friendships. Kazuya believes
that even the closest human friendships are all superficial at best, and "best friends" will betray each other if the scenario is right for it. Kaiji, despite being the victim of many betrayals, refutes this viewpoint and plays the optimist. So there are really two 'games' being played out in this arc, the Salvation Game itself and a battle between Kazuya and Kaiji's respective philosophies on the nature of humans.
The premise of the Salvation Game is one of the best things about this arc, and thus I will give a vague description as to avoid spoilers. The Salvation Game is the first true "group" game since Human Derby, and we acutely feel the danger posed by the possibility of a betrayal or simple slip-up. The game is a deadly twist on the classic "Prisoners with Hats" puzzle; resulting in a game riddled with confusion and uncertainty, where good communication is absolutely vital. Fukumoto does a fantastic job of making us care about the three unfortunate individuals playing Kazuya's devious game, and he makes it easy for us to relate to their moments of sheer panic and desperation. Despite entering into the game willingly and with consent, the three players really do begin to feel like "prisoners" trapped in Kazuya's deadly snare.
The problem with this arc is that the initial thrill of the Salvation Game wears off quite quickly. Once the initial problem with communication is solved, no particularly "smart" strategy is devised by the three players, and the rest of the challenges of the game are mainly 'solved' through luck. These other "challenges" are artificially created by Kazuya's underhanded methods, and there is no real solution to them other than lucking out or overcoming emotions. I really feel like the game needed more fundamental difficulties beyond the lack of communication between players, and there needed to be more challenges that were raised naturally by the mechanics of the game, not through Kazuya's increasingly contrived meddling. The game itself becomes less and less interesting due to the lack of strategy and repetitive contrived methods of creating suspense and difficulties for the trio to deal with, and as a result the moral battle between Kazuya and Kaiji actually becomes more interesting than the game itself. This is obviously not right, because the star of the show SHOULD be the game itself, and the battle of philosophies should be an underpinning theme.
I may be coming across as if I hate this arc and the game, but I really don't. It is still a suspenseful and intriguing game, especially if marathoned. It simply does not feel as tightly planned as all the other games devised by Fukumoto, and many twists and turns do not feel like they arise naturally at all. These twists are still unpredictable in nature, but they still lose their effect over the duration of this arc. Fukumoto teases certain developments later on to keep readers reading, but these usually turn out disappointing. We can sense that Kaiji will potentially become more than just a mere spectator to this game, but when this does happen, it is extremely minimal and disappointing. Honestly, Kaiji as a character in this arc is reduced to a screaming, panicking crybaby. Well, Kaiji has always been like that, but we are usually given some moments of genius and badassery to serve as the satisfying antithesis of this. In this arc he contributes no such noteworthy moments. Perhaps his presence was diluted so we could drink in the deliciously evil nature of Kazuya, who is really the man of this arc. Kazuya is simultaneously honest and duplicitous, simultaneously generous and unforgiving, simultaneously fair and unfair. Though his meddling with the game was not always to my liking, Kazuya's paradoxical nature makes him a very interesting character to add to Fukumoto's roster of excellent villains. Despite being a spoiled scumbag, Kazuya is a highly entertaining character, even providing us with some very memorable reaction faces in this arc.
So, this is unarguably the worst Kaiji arc by far. Still, this does not mean it is bad; it is just bad by Fukumoto-standards. I recommend marathoning it to get the most out of Fukumoto's suspense building.
Luckily, it seems the One Poker Hen is rectifying many of these faults already.