Because it’s easier and friendlier (and thus less off-putting and more profitable) to depict the cartoonish buffoonery of casual or heavy drinkers, realistic portrayals of what the voluntary ingestion of even a drop of alcohol does to an actual alcoholic are seen with lesser frequency in most mediums. Even rarer are such scenes evoking that inherent torture and inevitable betrayal of resolve via extended metaphor. As a standout example of how this can be done, allow me to introduce you to Kaiji, a character brought low (literally) by his own addictions and likewise consumptive habits in Kaiji – Against All Rules.
Abstaining from drinking, while far from easy, incurs far less mental anguish than attempting to drink in moderation. For true alcoholics, drinking stops when (and only when) the pockets, like the container — bottle, can, flask, jug, etc. — of opportunity, are emptied, or the means with which to procure one more round are no longer available, or the drinker simply passes out. So a single can of beer, like a sip of water to someone dying of thirst, becomes a fresh cell for a predatory disease. After so much deprivation, the allowance of such slight indulgence — a trigger for the memory of taste tied to relief, that blessed numbness brought on by sweet, sweet alcohol — is a nigh irresistible force that coerces and then subverts rationale into a mired meandering in excess.
Kidnapped and placed in an underground hell (a forced labor camp) to work off his ¥10,000,000 debt, Kaiji faces fifteen relentless years of hard labor if he saves every single perica (a fictional currency worth a fraction of a yen). He makes do on the table scraps supplied daily between work and sleep, but the introduction of payday, after having no other choice but to spend an entire month sober and free from temptation, sparks Kaiji’s torment by way of the catering cart (pun intended).
Money not directly deducted from his paycheck, while a truly paltry sum, goes directly into Kaiji’s hands. But by abstaining from indulgence, Kaiji can save up this pittance over the course of a mere five months to procure a one-day outside pass — a worker incentive he intends to abuse in order to gamble his debts away and free himself from this hell. But the foreman, team leader Ootsuki, keeps wheeling that catering cart into the workers’ barracks after each hard day’s thirst-inducing labor.
With purchasing power in hand, the smell of food wafts all the sweeter and the pops of the cans call that much louder. Still, Kaiji abstains until Ootsuki offers a free beer. This taste is the gateway, a classic drug pusher tactic, but one that’s all the more effective on those who’ve already been addicted and managed to quit. Just as soon as that beer is consumed, the smells and sounds around Kaiji combine with a reawakened, vivified lust for a break from an all-too sobering reality. Kaiji’s brain starts rationalizing.
Calculations allow for 40,000 perica for “play money” without pushing back the savings date for the one-day outside pass, so what’s another beer, another package of yakitori, some chips and nuts, as a reward for what he’s survived thus far? It’s a snowball, and anyone who’s tried to drink in moderation after deciding to abstain from it will tell you failure is as inevitable as it is humiliating. This one-time indulgence, which turns convenience store fare into a gourmet banquet, ends up draining Kaiji’s first paycheck by inspiring subsequent binges and threatens to dig into his future pay, still one month away, by way of a proffered personal loan.
Even though this situation directly involves alcohol, the moment is meant more to dramatize the struggle of self-control uniquely brought on by the deprivation of crippling poverty and the suddenly affordable opportunity for escapism. It just so happens that said struggle directly parallels that of a recovering alcoholic reintroduced to alcohol and thus works as extended metaphor. Taking that first drink after being dry (sober) for any length of time might feel like betrayal, but not more so than ordering another. Doing so inevitably brings about an admission, an acknowledgement of the broken bonds of self-restraint. Because as sad as looking down into quicksand is, it’s nothing compared to the despair of being aware of that descent while already thinking how damned good the next can is going to taste.
Kaiji is streaming on Crunchyroll.
On the first Friday of every month (or occasionally on the hazy, hung-over Saturday directly following), Ani-Gamers blogger Ink tackles an anime, manga, or video game through the theme of alcohol in our column "Drunken Otaku." Look out for "Beer Googles" (reviews), "Great Drinkers" (character profiles), "Drinkin' Buddies" (interviews), and "Great Moments in Drinking" (more or less). To read previous entries, click here.