That is, this season's lineup of anime is kinda balls. Gundam 00 is Gundam Wing 2-- the twist being that the staff is more competent this time, and what was formerly gay is now even gayer-- and there's nothing else running that's really big: nothing, say, Gurren-scale. So why not watch something smaller? Let's all watch Kaiji.
Kaiji is based on a manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, a guy with an extremely unorthodox and quite purposely ugly art style which you might recognize from another recent animated Fukumoto adaptation, Mahjong Legend Akagi. As such, the first thing people notice about his works are the huge, sharp-edged noses. Try to get past it, viewer. In a medium concerned primarily with impractical humanoid robots as military weapons, ninjas in day-glo jumpsuits who run screaming into battle, and weepy milquetoasts inexplicably surrounded by hot, adoring girls, I don't think it's a huge stretch to believe that a dude can have a really big nose.
This dude with the big nose is Itou Kaiji, a pretty worthless punk who spends his time and money gambling, boozing, and lashing out at the rich via petty vandalism. His theme song (and the show's) is the Blue Hearts' fuck-you-guys statement of intent "The Future is In Our Hands". He's lazy, angry and he's got absolutely nothing going for him. His situation only going gets worse when the yakuza decide to knock on his door. See, some time ago, Kaiji cosigned on a loan with an old co-worker and forgot about it. Then the co-worker disappeared, and the interest blew up a $3000 loan to something more in the thirty thousands. In simpler words, Kaiji is fucked.
Luckily for us in the audience, the yakuza have cooked up a very interesting escape route: passage on the Espoir, or as I like to call it: GAMBLEBOAT. The hopeless schmucks on the Espoir are pitted against each other in a series of gambles whose nature I won't spoil by revealing them. Winners have their debts dropped, and the losers are apparently shipped off to Johnny Yakuza's Forced Manual Labor Island to pay the bills the hard way.
The real meat of this show is Kaiji's struggle to stay alive aboard the Espoir. As I established, Kaiji's a total loser, a complete turn from the cold-blooded devil Akagi. But when it comes down to life or death, Kaiji's a pretty clever bastard. It's just in his nature not to pull together unless he's about to die. And so it is that we get to watch him fall ever deeper, pick himself up from the brink, only to fall again. Like Akagi, Kaiji spends its time building tension, exploring the minutiae of the gamble, and ultimately paying off spectacularly. The process is absolutely gripping. It's hard to believe until you're watching it yourself, but once you start, you are hooked.
If you find you're into this kind of thing, you might also want to check out the long-completed Akagi TV series or the zawazawa translation group that's working on Fukumoto's works. They're named after the "zawa zawa" sound effect that Fukumoto tends to use during moments of nervous tension, and which is frequently both heard in whispers and seen onscreen during the show. Right now they only have a few chapters of Fukumoto's Buraiden Gai done, but we should encourage them, don't you think?