Drama Review: Liar Game, Season 1 (2007)

erika & shotaLiar Game (2007)

  • Genre: psychological thriller
  • Episodes: 11
  • Runtime: aprox. 36 – 45 minutes per episode
  • Watch: Crunchyroll & SoompiTV

 “Kanzaki-san, there’s no way to make everyone in the world happy! People have no problem lying for massive amounts of money.”

So the motif goes. Adapted from Shinobu Kaitani’s manga, Liar Game follows impossibly naïve Nao Kanzaki (Erika Toda) as she becomes wrapped up in a high-stakes underground competition—a game where players lie in part of stratagems to cheat each other out great sums of money. Should they lose, an unpayable debt awaits that the Liar Game Tournament (LGT) Office promises to collect “by any means necessary.” Betrayal and deceit are not only encouraged by LGT employees, but expected among participants. As in real life, people cheat and double-cross for self-gain, so when 100 million yen goes up for grabs—versus drowning in a 100 million yen debt—expect people to behave at their most cunning. …Or not.

Nao challenges this belief and remains unchanged in her pure-heartedness, choosing to see the best in everyone. In a high-risk game where people jump at opportunities to crush their opponents, no one could ask for a more unfit contestant than Nao. True to her character, she is duped out her 100 million within the show’s first ten minutes. When psych-grad-turned-swindler ex-con Shinichi Akiyama (Shota Matsuda) comes to her aid, their involvement with Liar Game begins.

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Although Erika Toda is one of my small-smaller biases, her acting displays little range—a flaw of Nao’s character design. She is gullible to a fault, and her refusal to place the slightest doubts in people land her in pitiable situations. Kindness, although a desirable trait, becomes her downfall in a world affluent in treachery. Others see her trusting nature and use it to their advantage, kicking her down in the process (over and over, again and again). (I wish I was kidding.) These learning experiences should be the seed from which childish innocence grows into prudence. And yet! She remains obstinate, and after the first, second, and even third time being fooled in Liar Game (I’m really not kidding), any hope of character development crumbles. Not to my surprise, Nao’s rigidly incorruptible purity serves as hope:

“She is innocent. She trusts everyone and doubts no one. Many may think her stupid, but they all realize eventually. They believe she is stupid because they have grown too used to doubting and hurting others.”

Regardless of wrongdoings within Liar Game, Nao proves that goodness endures. Contestants lie and cheat her repeatedly, but most ultimately feel indebted by her kindness. Even so: a line exists between innocence and stupidity, and Nao’s folly has no limit. I prayed for Nao to adapt without losing virtue, but she’s helplessly dependent on Akiyama through every episode. Her intentions are pure, but if not for Akiyama’s strategies and influence, she could never make it to the point where her ideals reach people—let alone win. To consider that Liar Game initially takes off as Nao’s story, this aspect attests detriment to the show. But rather than filling in as a main character, Nao acts as a catalyst and sees no development of her own. Boo! Instead, it’s Shinichi Akiyama who steals the spotlight.

"How sad. You don't even know you've walked into a trap."

“How sad. You don’t even know you’ve walked into a trap.”

 

Thanks to Akiyama’s analytic and observational skills, Liar Game scoots viewers to the edges of their seats in almost nail-biting suspense. It’s not that the audience should question if our characters make it to the top, but how. It was the racing heart, the anxious finger-tapping, and that bated breath—just waiting for Akiyama’s manipulations to surface—that makes this show marathon-worthy. All the more enjoyable is my new crush the actor himself. Shota Matsuda pegs his role as calculating and silent with absolute calm, but he’s not emotionally distanced. He starts off cold though not uncaring, and his emotive growth progresses in deft subtlety. In comparison to Erika, whose depth is limited to an agonizing extreme, Akiyama’s character provides wider range for Shota to command—and he nails it. He is a predominant reason to watch, yet Akiyama’s best asset—in little ways—works against the show. Where’s the fun when Akiyama’s wizardry continuously spares our boat of characters from sinking? Whoosh. Deflation!

Yes, the hook fizzles halfway, but the show has Shinobu Kaitani’s masterminded rounds to up the ante. Thrill is drawn from the game itself, each round evolving into something more complex as stakes rise with risk and tension. The elaboration of each round make me feel awfully simple and a lot like Nao: clueless, distressed, and dependent on another’s smarts. If I ever become caught up in an event as terrifying as Liar Game, my artifice wouldn’t get me far. Between logic, craft, some common sense and guesswork, Shinobu’s chance and probability alone put me through a mindspin.

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Entertainment-wise, Liar Game does well as a psychological thriller. It’s sure to make hearts race with the dynamic combo of Shota Matsuda’s performance and the game’s conduct. It’s the way these two features complement each other that induces suspense in the first place. …But oddly, it has a surprising shortage of unease for such nerve-wracking conditions. As I said: it’s not if our characters make it, but how. By what methods the cast chooses to survive each round—and each other—provide addicting quality. Dread and concern, however, for anyone’s unknowable future doesn’t exist. The characters’ mental and emotional states flip-flop under high-stress situations, but the threat isn’t valid. Or rather, Liar Game lacks any sense of risk that jeopardizes characters. If done right, a vulnerable environment could benefit the show in several ways, but I admit that the lack of present danger doesn’t fatally wound it either.

It goes without saying that Liar Game’s concepts need finer execution, but no one can deem it an unwatchable show. It is strange, though. Notions of human nature and greed are overstressed to a point where the show becomes excessively moralistic. People deceive for self-gain all the time, and whether it’s in Liar Game or real life: is there a difference? The show dances around this question and the answer is yes! Liar Game takes ordinary people and places them in a game of survival where, if they lose, they may as well be dead. The stress is extreme, and it wouldn’t dawn on many to split winnings when LGT pits one player against the other. But it is what it is, and despite its shortcomings, I’m swept into the franchise—cheese factor included. Just don’t expect me to dive in for seconds.

3 hearts

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