Well I finally got around to watching what is hailed in some circles as a classic: Japanese manga adaption Liar Game. Having heard much about it and its cast, I was no ends of hyped up and ready to go. I got to cracking, and 5 hours later in whirlwind fashion I’d watched nearly half the drama! Then I took a break and watched some more. I haven’t marathoned something like that in nearly a month (Full House 2 really doesn’t count), so finding a drama so highly marathonable was a treat to behold, but once I stopped – I stopped. And wondered. And pondered. Why it was seemingly addicting, but not perfect. Intriguing, though somewhat lacking. But ultimately, why I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.
Ignorantly naïve and honest-to-a-fault Kanzaki Nao (played by Toda Erika) is duped into playing a mysteriously organized ‘Liar Game’ after receiving 100 million yen (or $1,000,000), which she must either keep safe from her opponent and his 100 million yen, or steal his to win the game. She is of course dangerously out of her league, until it’s brought to her attention that a former con-man and genius swindler Akiyama Shinichi (played by the gorgeous Matsuda Shota) might be persuaded to help her out. Enticed with pity, Akiyama teams up with our ridiculously gullible heroine as they are forced to play, and keep playing a series of rounds, each with higher stakes and more cunning, villainous opponents.
The Cool Part
The games themselves are a logician’s masterwork. No twist is foreseeable, and no puzzle unsolvable to the brilliantly minded Akiyama-san. If you like sitting for half an hour – or two - in complete suspense wondering how on earth they will ever manage to win each round through sheer guile, biting your fingernails in anticipation of victory – well that might explain why it’s so highly marathonable. Matsuda Shota plays his part to perfection as the ultimate silent type: an analyst of humans, ever noting the depths of lies and secrets, and calculating every possible move before it happens. You’ll find yourself sitting in absolutely stillness waiting for his manipulations to become clear and work their magic.
The Boring PartYou get the feeling after a while that Akiyama-san will always be there to save the day. And then, the suspense becomes merely repetitive. Having watched half the drama, the pattern for each match firmly memorized, and my brain starting to unravel to keep up with each game’s rules and intricacies, I found myself spacing out. Fortunately, the drama anticipates just such an outcome. Get lost trying to understand the all the players’ plots and maneuverings? No sweat! Before the game ends, there’ll be at least a 20 minute step by step account of how everything happened, and why.
The Real Crux of the Matter
Games and plotting aside, there’s something very unique about Liar Game’s premise. The story isn’t merely about forcing poor innocent, indebted people to play a game, practically to the death, financial death. Liar Game instead strives to uncover the heart of human nature itself. As the game’s masterful creator intones: “Humans are willing to betray each other in order to survive. Therefore, what’s wrong with deceiving others from the start or living faithfully for your own desires? That’s being human.”
The world he paints in one of black and white, where the black-hearted will always win, and the weak and pitiful will always lose. It’s the cunning versus the trusting, and the pack against the loner, not necessarily evil versus good. To reach the top, humans should or will be capable of stepping on anyone and anything; survival of the smartest, when the risk is losing everything. You lie or you lose.
In Kanzaki Nao, we not only have the most gullible and trusting character ever written; she is an allegory of trust and honesty, absolutely incapable of lying. To the exasperation of the Liar Game Tournament office (or perhaps to their increasing interest), Nao refuses to adhere to their rules. She tries again and again to prove that with teamwork, everyone can win and advance to the next round, maybe not with a profit, but at least debt free. The catch is, if Nao wins, it will disprove everything our Liar Game creator believes in. But for how long Nao can keep the players working together is the only true unknown. It’s a question not even solved by the end of drama. Another season and several movie specials follow Season 1.
I actually managed to improve my appreciation for the drama in the course of writing this article. It’s hard to fault Liar Game for any real plot holes, especially when it’s obvious that the entire story has purpose beyond plain entertainment, fun, games or romance. Are all the concepts expertly done? Not always. Is it a little cheesy and overly moralistic at times? Absolutely. Will this be my favorite drama of all times, or will I ever rewatch it? No, and most likely not. But the characters are generally good, and well acted for their roles. Matsuda Shota is fantastic to watch, especially when he gets his game face on. I’d like to say that Erika Toda didn’t overly impress me with her acting, but when her character is an allegory, and mostly unrealistic – that’s something I just can’t make a case out of disliking. Did it detract a little bit from my enjoyment overall? Sure, but then it was a fun ride and eventually I will continue the story, and finish the game another day.