Why does this exist?
Mr. Tonegawa: Middle Management Blues is actually a spinoff of popular gambling manga/anime Kaiji. While the latter is the story of a down-on-his-luck gambler risking it all for a fortune in high-stakes gambling matches, Tonegawa is about the eponymous second-arc antagonist, the high-ranking right-hand to Kazutaka Hyōdō, the president of the Teiai Corporation. Teiai is a finance company who pivots to life-or-death games of luck and skill when Kazutaka Hyōdō bores of his life as a wealthy magnate.
In the first episode, “Initiative,” we begin with a flash-forward, depicting Tonegawa’s defeat in the game E-Card at Kaiji Ito’s hand. He then flagellates himself by bowing before Kazutaka Hyōdō on a bed of red hot coals, possibly dying. We then flashback to months prior, before the life-and-death gambling has begun.
The rest of the episode takes on a slice-of-life tenor. We see Tonegawa act as a fixer when Teiai’s collections arm is unable to make a difficult client pay up. Tonegawa then meets with Hyōdō, who lounges, literally, on top of a few of his employees. Hyōdō tells Tonegawa that he needs to set up the “death games” the franchise is famous for to satisfy Hyōdō’s ennui.
The final third is a bit of business with Tonegawa’s hand-selected team. He chooses about nine of the nondescript, identically-dressed employees as a task force to help devise the death games, but is almost immediately derailed by not being able to remember their names. He finally, furiously throws all of them out with the order to change their names (and hobbies) to something more to his liking.
I have to be missing something. I freely admit that I’ve never seen Kaiji, but in my defense, I had no idea that this was even a spinoff of it. This show is not friendly to new viewers. The opening flash-forward is really confusing more than anything, and then the rest of the episode was so uninteresting, that if you didn’t already care about this universe of characters, I can’t imagine why you’d want to watch this a second longer than you had to.
Tonegawa makes absolutely no sense as a character. Through a very prevalent (and very annoying) voice-over, we learn that Tonegawa’s eventual goal is to rise above the rank of second-in-command and become the big cheese at the Teiai corporation, but the only time we are ever let into Tonegawa’s mind, he’s upset at having to start work on the death games, because he wants to go golfing. So does he care about his job or not? I got no sense of his motivation, so why should I care whether or not he gets to golf? I already know he will never become the head honcho at Teiai.
Mr. Tonegawa is everything wrong with both prequels and spinoffs. Tonegawa, at least so far, seems like a horrible choice to carry a series. He’s an uninteresting and unlikable character. Certainly, there had to be better choices in the Kaiji back catalog than him. There’s also no tension, because, as I said, we know that Kaiji is going to defeat him in the game at Starside Hotel. Even though I hadn’t seen Kaiji, I knew, because they began the entire series with this.
It seems like the show is going for some sort of tragedy angle. In the same way that Kaiji is about the costs of a rags-to-riches story, this is about the life of a man trapped in a gilded cage. That could be really interesting… if they gave me a single reason to care about Tonegawa. We don’t meet any named supporting characters he has connections to; we don’t get to access any of his deeper thoughts (other than he likes to golf, hates his boss, and writes down what he thinks are profound thoughts in his notebook), and we really don’t see much personality from him. He’s an idiosyncratic tough guy. That’s fine, but I just don’t know why I should be interested.
The entire time I was watching the show, I couldn’t help but think about Better Call Saul. While the two are in completely different mediums and genres, they do have a lot in common. Both are spinoffs about a minor antagonist from their original series; both begin in a place where the audience knows the ending, and both seek to turn the origin of a villain into something sympathetic. But I don’t have any sympathy for Tonegawa. He may not be excited about the prospect of using the lives of debtors as entertainment for his boss, but he’s still a bastard. One of the first things we see Tonegawa do is act needlessly cruel to one of his debtors, and he yells at his subordinates to change their names so he can remember them better. I just don’t see a character journey here.
Maybe I’m wrong, and this show will turn into something worth watching, but right now, the prospect of twenty-three more episodes seems pretty daunting. Tonegawa won’t be demoted until at least the end of this first season, but for my money, it couldn’t happen soon enough.