Welcome to Joker’s Wild (formerly known as Prisoner’s Dilemma), a one page shrine dedicated to the manga Liar Game by Shinobu Kaitani, created as part of Amassment’s One Page, One Month: ENCORE Marathon. This shrine aims to be an introduction to the relatively unknown series along with an overview of major themes.
Liar Game is a psychological thriller manga of nineteen volumes that was first serialized in the seinen manga magazine Weekly Young Jump between 2005 and 2015. While this shrine is mostly about the manga, it also provides a brief insight into the television drama adaptations.
Note that there are (minor) unmarked spoilers all across the site. Due to its introductory nature, none of the vague spoilers should heavily impact your enjoyment of the series should you decide to pick it up; aside from the conclusion of the very first game (which is mandatory for the plot to continue), nothing is said about the individual rounds. A large part of this shrine consists of praise for Nao, the protagonist — an element that may lead people to drop the series prematurely, when in fact it is the one element that ought to keep them reading due to her stellar growth. If this shrine piques your interest, you might want to save the adaptations part for after you have finished reading the first big round in volume two.
The content is based on the English translations provided by various scanlation groups.
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Nao is a college student who lives by herself, her only remaining family member her father, who is fighting terminal cancer in a nursing home. Going to great lengths — well beyond the societal standard — to live up to his wish for her to become an honest person, she has earned herself a reputation of being “foolishly honest”. One day a package arrives — its content: 100 million yen along with a note that she is to participate in the Liar Game Tournament, where two players each compete for their assigned opponent’s money within the time span of a month. The winner would be whoever has more money by the end of the month; however, the money initially received would be collected by representatives by the end of the game, leaving the surplus to the winner. The note further contains the threat that the LGT Office would not hesitate to get the money back through any possible means in the case that a player fails to pay back the amount they were given.
Although Nao is significantly worried, she sees no way out of the game. When she learns that her opponent is a former teacher of hers, she makes the mistake to confide in him and promptly falls for his lies, losing all of her money as a consequence. A lawyer’s suggestion (who would later turn out to be part of the LGT Office) leads her to seek out Shinichi Akiyama, a young man said to be a genius swindler and who has just been released from prison. With his help, she is able to secure victory, though she decides to use her prize money to null her teacher’s debt. To their horror, this was just the first out of many rounds to come…
(Note that the card suits and values are my own playful interpretation and not part of the series in any way.)
Nao Kanzaki « I believe that there’s not a single person whose heart is evil. »
Honest to a fault and always willing to believe and trust others even if she has been hurt, Nao is often taken advantage of. She starts out weak and takes part in the game against her will, having to rely heavily on Akiyama to get her out of hopeless situations. By carefully observing both him and her surroundings during early rounds, she gradually becomes stronger, and by the end of the third game in the series, she boldly declares that contrary to what has been said, the Liar Game is not about lies and deceit, but trust and cooperation: If everyone is able to set aside their selfishness and greed so as to work together, every player can be saved. Her firm belief in the good in others, her determination to find a way to save everyone, her capability to forgive and her ability to unite people eventually make her a force to be reckoned with as she voluntarily advances in the game so as to make her vision reality.
Shinichi Akiyama « Being apathetic towards others is far worse than doubting them. »
After graduating from Teito university with a major in psychology, he became known for taking down a massive multi-level marketing corporation single-handedly as their methods had driven his single mother to suicide. The reason he decides to get involved with Nao after three years of imprisonment is most likely due to her extreme honesty reminding him of his mother, whom he was unable to protect. With his outstanding intellect, observation skills and knowledge of the human mind as well as the ability to manipulate it, it does not take long for him to attract the interest of several game hosts and gain the respect of fellow players. He does, however, tend to keep to himself, and only gives Nao his absolute trust. He is determined to reveal the faces behind the Liar Game Tournament and destroy their organization, regarding it as the true enemy of the game.
Yuji Fukunaga « True, I made a promise… That doesn’t mean I have to keep it! »
Unlike countless others who are forced to enter the game out of fear, she is initially in it for the money. With her cunning and calculating personality, she is highly skilled at manipulating and seeing through the average player. She knows how to exploit weaknesses and use her charm to deceive, but can also be intimidating due to her temper and physical strength. She meets her match in Akiyama after attempting to backstab his group, and though she deceives Nao multiple times through sweet-talk and cheating, over time, she grows slightly more sympathetic about Nao and Akiyama’s goals, especially after having witnessed their performance across the rounds. Later on, she proves to be a valuable and dependable ally. As a person with a lot of pride, her choice to stay in the game is in order to get back at Yokoya.
Norihiko Yokoya « Those who dominate are the ones who will win. It’s a fact of human society. »
As he wields an immense amount of money and thus does not need to fear repercussions from losing, his sole reason to participate in the Liar Game seems to be the pleasure derived from seeing others struggle. He is on par with Akiyama as far as intellectual prowess is concerned, but has no compassion for fellow players and merely regards them as tools. In contrast to Nao, he believes the Liar Game to be about domination, which is reflected in the way he plays the game: Obedience is bought with money and ensured through his reign of terror, crises are averted with bribes; he would always be the dictator in any group of his. His obsession with domination is further observed in the continuous presence of his pet mice: the perfect display of subservience if you ask him. After being provoked by Nao, who challenges his stance that is so clearly different from hers, he makes it his goal to crush both her and Akiyama rather than drop out.
Liar Game Tournament Office « Lying requires real talent. »
Not much is known about them, much less the identity of the mastermind behind the Liar Game or whether one such person exists at all. One thing is certain: They are a powerful organization backed by numerous rich, anonymous individuals who are willing to provide the finances necessary to conduct the game for the purpose of crowning the true “Liar King”. Their employees are game hosts who are responsible for the respective game rounds, with tasks ranging from explaining the rules to surveillance. Each of them wears a different ornate mask, and though they are impartial, some of them have taken an interest in specific players. Aside from hosts, the organization also includes representatives specifically assigned to players so as to ensure that they enter the game as planned.
Trust and Doubt These concepts are the main focus of the manga, and they go hand in hand with money, lies and deceit, which are used as tools to manipulate people in the game. The financial conditions of the game and the rules of the individual rounds do not promote cooperation due to the very real threat of backstabbing: Lies and cunning are what net you advantages, and big sums are more than enough to warp any moral standards that a player may have. But what do you do if nobody keeps the promises they make and even lies are no longer reliable? And what if you have to work as a group, but cannot trust your own team members? How can you get people to act the way you want in an environment full of doubt? Themes and questions like these are explored in each round and represented in individual players as seen in their profiles above, with Nao and Yokoya being direct opposites of each other: in personality, goals and methods.
Interestingly, neither trust nor doubt is portrayed as something inherently good or bad: Nao’s “trust” upsets readers time and again in the beginning precisely because her naïveté is what lands her in trouble as others have no qualms about exploiting her benevolence, whereas constant doubt paralyzes you and prevents you from advancing in the game; eventually, risks must be taken, regardless how much you doubt others. This is a lesson that Nao has to learn, and it is Akiyama who opens her eyes:
People should be doubted. Many people misunderstand this concept. Doubting people is simply a part of trying to get to know them. “Trust.” That act is without a doubt a very noble one… But you know, what many people do that they call “trust” is actually giving up on trying to understand others. And that has nothing to do with “trust”, but is rather apathy. There are countless people out there who fail to realize that apathy is a far more devastating act than doubting others. […] Doubt them, question them, suspect them, and take a good, long look into their hearts. Humans are the kind of beings that can’t put their pain into words, after all.
Unconditional belief in others here means ceasing to question and ultimately, to think about them. This lecture makes Nao realize how apathetic she has been towards others merely by always believing in their words, even outside of the game, and why she has no friends despite meaning well. At the same time, it is a crucial moment in her development, as she does take his advice to heart, and it is what allows her to get a firmer grasp on Yokoya and Fukunaga’s motives in subsequent rounds.
The Human Mind The Liar Game succeeds at revealing just how greedy, selfish and fragile humans are and forces them to show their true face under pressure. Akiyama’s knowledge of psychology serves him well in the game because it is of such importance to be able to predict how others are going to react, and to make them do what you want while planning ahead. The manga takes the time to explain several fallacies and techniques present in the rounds, and all of the games are an interplay of psychological and intellectual factors in the end.
Crosses, Angels and Masks These are recurring symbols in the series, usually featured on volume and chapter covers and any material handed out by the LGT Office. Crosses are most dominantly worn by Nao and Akiyama in early illustrations; they carry the meaning of life, fertility, faith, immortality and unity, all of which represent Nao’s ideals and indicate her potential. Angels with a seemingly mocking, perhaps even menacing grin are printed on Liar Game invitations; as they are commonly known as symbols of hope, goodness, purity, protection and comfort, this ties in with the sub-theme of lost innocence as people succumb to their greed (most evident in the movie and its paradise setting). Following Nao’s interpretation, however, according to which the game is all about conquering that very desire, leads to a different reading: Rather than mockery, what these angels might be delivering is a challenge — the challenge to remain a good and honest person in the face of all the lies. Lastly, masks are worn to disguise, to protect or to entertain. The entire Liar Game Tournament is in the hands of anonymous hosts and sponsors, which is why they are such a big threat to the players, who merely know of their financial wealth and can only make assumptions of their power; legal help cannot be sought out and there is no name that could possibly be exposed to the public. And the players, too, wear a metaphorical mask as they participate in the game: True intentions are concealed so as to disguise self-serving offers as genuine interest in cooperating, while poker faces must be maintained so as not to give yourself away.
The Art The drawings in Liar Game are not spectacular, the characters look rather stiff in the beginning, and anatomy and angles look quite awkward. It does not take too many volumes for the art to improve significantly though, and in spite of the flaws just mentioned, Shinobu Kaitani never fails to deliver the facial expressions that the situation asks for, be it in a crucial moment or in passing. One may think that some of them are exaggerated, bordering on caricature, but if you consider the nature of the Liar Game, those expressions are the perfect mirror of the ordeals the players are going through. On the other hand, there are just as many panels with subtle and faint expressions that leave an impact even if — or precisely because — you can’t put the sentiments behind them into words.
The Bonds The story in this manga progresses in game rounds with short intervals in between. As such, it is easy to assume that character development and relationships are neglected, especially considering the amount of average players who are more or less interchangeable. While it is somewhat true with regard to background characters (though they are distinct in appearance), the opposite is the case as far as key players are concerned: Interaction and growth are very subtle and occur throughout the rounds; the characters’ thoughts aren’t always spelled out, yet their facial expressions and body language hint at what might be going through their head. Closeness and trust are not (just) expressed in words — they are proved in decisions.
The relationship between Nao and Akiyama in particular might just be the highlight of the manga due to the way they complement and support each other: On the one hand, Nao is afraid of being a burden as she relies on Akiyama, but goes through stunning development without realizing just how much she gives to other players, Akiyama included. On the other hand, Akiyama outclasses everyone around him with his analyses and superior strategies, yet his plans might not be as successful as they are — or, in the worst case, not unfold at all — without Nao’s ability to pull others along. And whereas she is outrageously honest, he never lets down his guard and does not shy away from withholding information or using lies to get people to move as intended. Though he does wish to protect her pure goals and keep her away from harm at all costs, it is evident that he does not think highly of himself, and it is interesting to see his inner conflict with his conscience at the sight of Nao’s purity and selflessness.
Nao Kanzaki Regardless how impressive Akiyama is as his strategies win games, the reader is never allowed to forget that Nao is the main character of the series. Where Akiyama is the brain, Nao is the heart — the driving force behind the team. Nao’s idealistic views come across as a hindrance at first, and her foolish trust makes her the most unsuitable participant for the game in the beginning, but Shinobu Kaitani manages to show convincingly just how far her compassion can get her and how it takes specifically a person like her to bring about change. She shares many traits with characters like Usagi Tsukino from Sailor Moon or Tohru Honda from Fruits Basket: their unshakeable belief in the good in people, the strength of heart, grim determination and unconditional love — they are the kind of characters who provoke strong reactions because they are extremes: Some regard them as a nuisance, while others hold them incredibly dear, but what it comes down to is that all these characters need the time and the chance to grow. What makes these characters so impressive is not that they “flaunt” their goodness, but that they are able to hold on to it in utterly hopeless situations. Nao is undeniably frustrating and irritating in the beginning due to her helplessness and dependence on others while she makes circumstances worse. Rather than allowing her to win by remaining just like that, Shinobu Kaitani makes her fail and realize her errors, and it is through these trials that she learns.
There are individuals out there who marvel at Akiyama’s genius, yet will not stop complaining about Nao, failing to realize that one cannot function without the other. I believe the reason for that to be rooted in our undervaluation and lacking appreciation of emotional intelligence, the ability to perceive, understand, use and manage your emotions as well as those of others. If you consider the setting and the atmosphere in Liar Game and add geniuses such as Akiyama and Yokoya, the character you end up likening Nao to is Misa Amane from Death Note: another female character often wrongly thought of as a nuisance in the battle between two outstandingly intelligent male characters. While Nao and Misa are vastly different from each other and the portrayal of female characters in Death Note leaves much to be desired, the one thing they do have in common is that they both operate on emotions (that is not to say that they lack intellectual intelligence): Their personalities may be easy to understand, but the actions they take are unpredictable because they are not based on mere logic. Disregarding their impact just because they do not impress with intelligent strategies means underestimation and ignorance to what makes us human and how much it takes to be able to say something as admirable as “I’d rather be betrayed than suspect people”, a line that sums up Nao’s mentality within the game and towards life itself.
Contemporary Relevance Liar Game can be more than just a manga, just as Nao is much more than just a character — she is a concept, a challenge. It is an ambitious series that is a good caricature of what we deal with whenever we interact with others. Nao represents hope and change, and inspires those around her, readers included, to have the strength to be kind, to trust and to forgive.
Liar Game was first adapted as a Japanese television drama series followed by two live action films: Liar Game: The Final Stage (2010), which serves as the conclusion of the series, and Liar Game: Reborn (2012), a sequel. The two drama seasons originally ran in 2007 and from 2009 to 2010 respectively; together, they span 20 episodes. The lead actors are Erika Toda in the role of Nao Kanzaki and Shota Matsuda as Shinichi Akiyama, whereas Mikako Tabe takes the female lead role as an original character in the sequel. A Korean television drama adaptation of 12 episodes followed in 2014, though it takes more liberties with the source material; the Liar Game, for example, is written as a reality show. It stars Kim So-eun, Lee Sang-yoon and Shin Sung-rok.
Note that in the following, I will only comment on the Japanese drama and the first movie; I have not watched the sequel movie or the Korean drama.
I haven’t watched many Asian dramas yet and thus cannot tell how these adaptations compare, but I’ll be frank: If you don’t know Liar Game, start with the manga, unless manga simply isn’t your medium. If you have already read the manga, watch the drama series only out of curiosity and drop it immediately if it doesn’t satisfy, otherwise watch it only if you genuinely enjoy Asian dramas or like the actors that took part in this — do not expect too much. It may be a decent series and adaptation, and it did actually receive the second-highest viewer satisfaction rating in an Oricon survey for the season, but not only does it pale in the face of the manga (though that’s nothing particularly surprising when it comes to book-to-film adaptations), it also tramples on several important developments that, while subtle, are crucial to the series and its strong themes.
What bothers me the most and made the drama series thoroughly unenjoyable for me is the portrayal of Yuji Fukunaga. While translated as transvestite or cross-dresser in some scanlations, Fukunaga is a transgender character. This is at the latest evident by the seventh volume, where an entire chapter cover page is reserved to clarify Fukunaga’s sex and gender in-character. She has breast implants and takes female hormone injects, but most importantly, Fukunaga identifies as a woman. In the drama series and the movie, however, Fukunaga is played by a man in flamboyant fashion: This Fukunaga is male through and through. The subjects of gender identity and gender expression are non-existent in the adaptations despite being a big part of Fukunaga’s identity. (Not to mention the conscious choice to portray Fukunaga’s counterpart in the drama in a specific way so as to replace her; if you look around on the internet, you’ll see no shortage of comments describing him as “effeminate” or “gay”, which opens another can of worms.) Oddly enough, I haven’t been able to find any statements regarding this decision, but one thing’s for sure: Stripping the character of these things is disrespectful towards the manga and transgender people. It sends out the wrong signals, especially in times and societies already ignorant and hostile, and means invalidation of something quite significant, something which is an integral part of one’s identity.
Cross-dressing is not that uncommon of a practice in manga, and there are a few characters every now and then whose gender identity and/or expression differs from their biological sex. Transgender characters seem even rarer, but all these aspects are more often than not treated as running jokes by other characters in the respective series. In Liar Game, the manga, Fukunaga’s gender identity is taken seriously: Nao, at the very least, treats Fukunaga as a fellow woman whom she is able to relate to emotionally, making Liar Game a seinen manga with a well-written bond between two female main characters. While you can try to dismiss this by claiming that this is a natural response given Nao’s “simple” personality, it doesn’t change that it’s the respectful and proper thing to do.
Next, Fukunaga’s personality: Apart from the gender issue, the Fukunaga in the adaptation starts out pretty much the same as the original. He is loud, brash, cunning and manipulative. Unlike the original, however, he receives zero lasting development. Just as in the manga, he does lend Nao a hand every now and then, but whereas we are witnesses of Fukunaga’s subtle development and gradual change in disposition towards Nao in the manga (despite retaining some of her opportunistic traits), Fukunaga’s help in the drama series is pretty much attributed to mere mood swings without any sign of genuine sympathy or gratefulness. Until the very end, he wouldn’t stop backstabbing Nao while pretending to be her friend. There are so many overdramatized scenes of this that it feels repetitive very quickly, if not cheap. Another thing that stood out to me was the fact that Fukunaga in the manga is a person with immense pride who wouldn’t bow down to someone she deems unworthy or whose methods she doesn’t approve of, whereas her counterpart makes a fool of himself time and again without showing any of the pride inherent to Fukunaga’s character.
What’s more, the relationship between Fukunaga and Nao is something very precious in the manga. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Fukunaga’s development is the embodiment of Nao’s goodness and her ideals. In Fukunaga, we see what Nao has accomplished by participating in the Liar Game as well as her growth as a person. Though Fukunaga would still think of Nao’s actions as naïve and risky, touched by her kind heart, she learns to respect Nao and grows to sympathize with Nao’s outlook on the world and the game. Making all the characters and especially Fukunaga (yes, other characters suffer from this, too, despite having reasons to be grateful) betray Nao time and again in the drama series undermines the core messages of the story: that being kind is worthwhile, that people can change and that each person has the capacity to evoke change.
There are some more changes such as Yokoya being not remotely as dangerous and detached in the drama series, partly due to his role being shared by a drama-exclusive character, which makes him less interesting and intimidating as an antagonist as a result. There are also some recurring characters exclusive to the drama. Lastly, it’s worth noting that the stages of the various games in the drama are extremely gloomy and even shoddy at times, whereas in the manga, they come across as well-lit and luxurious, further underlining the frightening financial power of the LGT Office. The adaptation follows the original story closely at first, then deviates slightly, and offers closure in a different way than the manga, though characters remain rather static overall. Whether you’ve read the manga or not though, do give the first live action film, Liar Game: The Final Stage, a try; it features a completely original and, in my opinion, entertaining game, and although it is not exempt from all the negative points mentioned above, it’s worth watching just to see Nao and Akiyama interact.
This shrine was created in August 2012 and is my very first.
In September 2016, the shrine received a (mostly aesthetic) overhaul as part of Amassment’s Shrine Revamp 2016 along with a new name, going from “Prisoner’s Dilemma” to “Joker’s Wild”; the previous name struck me as overly cheesy due to repeated encounters with it in my economics curricula…
The Joker is occasionally used as a wild card — hence the term Joker’s Wild — in card games, where it has the unique ability to represent any other card, making it both versatile and unpredictable; having it in your hand highly increases the chance of victory, and can also make up for lacking skill to an extent. It has the biggest potential, but cannot work alone. This card, to me, represents Nao as a character as well as the concept of trust, all the more so because it is also associated with the Tarot card The Fool: It starts out without anything special, but isn’t affected by the fact that it is standing on a precipice, and matures by undergoing a journey, capable of becoming anything upon reaching its destination.
For the record, here’s what I had originally written about the site name:
Prisoner’s Dilemma is a concept in game theory where two individuals choose not to cooperate due to defecting being the dominant strategy, i.e. the individual rewards are higher regardless whether the other person cooperates or defects — however, the selfish choice to maximize one’s reward in this case leads to both an individual and overall decrease in reward in comparison to the situation in which the two had cooperated. (See Wikipedia for further information.)
Though not all rounds in Liar Game are examples of this, I think it’s a fitting term to summarize the series, the Liar Game, its messages and the difference between Nao and Yokoya’s take on the game. In cases of prisoner’s dilemma, the initial situation is unfavourable; you are given the choice to either betray or assist each other, but are asked separately and do not get to discuss the choice among each other. In order to break the prisoner’s dilemma and overcome selfishness for the greater good, it requires either trust or a significant threat, but in both cases, the key is communication. Ultimately, the problem the characters in this manga face is: How do you make other people trust (or fear) you? How do you convey trust — and your determination to follow through?
This second layout utilizes the playing card elements in the header image as well as the series itself in an attempt to convey the aspects of risk, gamble, money and greed; I wanted something that’d look both somewhat luxurious and intimidating. Patterns used are from WebTreatsETC, playing card suits and values were copied over from Tim’s Printables. Brux serves as header, Vintage Punk and Lato as content fonts. The Smooth Scrolling script was written by Chris Coyier. Special thanks to dubiousdisc and Laura for input and encouragement, and to Megan for dragging me out of layout despair by brainstorming with me. (Making a decent-looking layout with Liar Game’s art is quite a feat…)
Joker’s Wild won Amassment’s Shrine Spotlight in May 2015!
If you would like to link this shrine, feel free to use one of the following buttons and direct it to http://liargame.oubliette.nu/! Please do not direct link buttons.
If you own a site with a mystery and/or psychological series as its focus and would like to affiliate, please message me! Below are some Liar Game related links that may be of interest to you, including some other things I’ve written about the series outside of this shrine.