Kanzaki Nao is the epitome of innocence and naiveté, perhaps to a fault. Therefore when Kanzaki finds to her surprise that by opening a letter she’s entered a mysterious challenge called the “Liar Game” she’s stunned. Perhaps most shocking is the ¥100,000,000 yen that accompanied the letter. According to the mysterious letter, the games’ objective is to have at least ¥100,000,000 in hand by a collection date one month out. If the player steals more from their opponent then any amount above the ¥100,000,000 is for that player to keep. If one of the players has less than the initial ¥100,000,000 then they are in debt to the LGT (Liar Game Tournament) and must pay however they can.
To Kanzaki’s relief her competition turns out to be a beloved teacher from her school days. The two meet and the teacher convinces Kanzaki that he’ll store the total money given by the LGT in a bank for protection until collection. After receiving a video from the LGT informing her that she’s currently losing the game, Kanzaki heads to the teachers’ house and overhears him bragging about stealing the money. Kanzaki is distressed and tries to get assistance from a police officer, who mentions that a superb con man named Akiyama Shinichi is being released from jail and that he might offer his assistance. After much prodding, Akiyama finally agrees to assist with Kanzaki’s desperate recovery efforts. To Kanzaki’s dismay she discovers this is merely the beginning of a series of elaborate games put on by the LGT, all with the purpose of finding out who truly is the best liar.
I first discovered subbed scans of the Liar Game manga online, and after only a few chapters I found myself enthralled by the story and likewise entranced by the intriguing games thrown at Kanzaki and Akiyama. After trying to find more information about Liar Game, I pleasantly discovered the existence of the corresponding J-Drama. To my delight the Liar Game drama was as much fun as the manga, so I switched my devotion wholeheartedly to watching the J-Drama (and hoping for a US release of the manga). Looking back on the first season, and now having a better feel for the show and for J-dramas in general, I feel I can give a review worth the series.
While Liar Game appears to have the heightened suspense of a Saw film, the drama focuses not on action but character interaction and development. My favorite character is easily Akiyama, not only because his back story is so mysterious, but also because his character simply epitomizes cool. Part of this stems from Matsuda Shota himself, who plays Akiyama, but mostly it’s the calm, collected presence of mind the character Akiyama has even in the toughest of scrapes. His coolness certainly doesn’t help Kanzaki by comparison, because while her honesty is ultimately endearing, especially early on she appears to be quite weak and susceptible to tricks that end up hurting the duo. Thankfully due to Kanzaki’s steadfast honesty, and a few moves she picks up from Akiyama, she really does help center the show and ultimately won my approval. Having the lovely Erika Toda, known for playing Misa in the live-action Death Note films, as Kanzaki doesn’t hurt either.
In tandem with the two main characters, Liar Game presents a host of wonderfully eclectic secondary characters who add so much to the show. One of the characters, who my friends and the Gaijin Kanpai: Dorama crew gravitated towards, is best described as a mysterious woman in sunglasses. I, on the other hand, became entranced by the lead LGT woman, played by Kichise Michiko, who is not only quite lovely but also did an amazing job in Bloody Monday. Not much is known about this LGT woman, although even she has some character development near the end of the season. My absolute favorite secondary character is Fukunaga. He is particularly zany and provides some of the best emotional reactions ever. In fact perhaps my favorite moments are when Fukunaga gets enraged and the director decides to do a triple-take with Fukunaga screaming from multiple angles, which happens quite a lot actually.
Turning now to the production of the show I want to first of all emphasize that J-dramas are notoriously low-budget, at least by American standards. Therefore for directors to impress audiences they usually rely on a CGI sequence that is repeated at least once every episode. Liar Game’s director decided to take the ‘old school’ approach and instead focused on wonderful cinematography, eccentric scenery, and in particular colorful lighting that truly set the scene and the mood. Each game takes place in a different venue which gives the director a lot of range for set creation. Therefore, in an attempt to mix mystery with elements of game show, the director uses the location to give us an initial feel for what is in store. What is perhaps most ingenious though are the color choices used to light both the characters and the rooms themselves. While Gaijin Kanpai’s Dorama podcasts cover this topic more in depth, I at least want to reference the wonderful use of color. To see such details in a drama just enriches the experience, and in the case of Liar Game adds to the surreal feel surrounding the LGT’s ingenious games.
In deference to the games that help stage Liar Game, I’d like to end this review by highlighting these games that are as much a core of Liar Game as the characters are. As mentioned in my initial summary of the show, Kanzaki begins Liar Game with a very simple game based on theft. Thankfully, for the viewers and not the characters, the challenge continues to rise, and so does the suspense. I do not want to spoil the viewers experience by going into detail about the games, or even how many there are, but I want to at least elaborate on similar features. First of all, none of these games are in anyway violent, in case you were worried about the Saw connection I made earlier. Instead, these games challenge both the mental and emotional capacities of the players. Indeed, the key to success in these games, which seemingly have no tricks, is all about mental skill. More than just that though one has to be able to connect with other players, and as the name of the game suggests, lie for survival. Otherwise, one of the players may find themselves not only defeated by their opponents, and gravely in debt to the unforgiving LGT.
To lie and be lied to, to trick and be tricked, to con and be conned is standard in the Liar Game, and only the brightest, and the most mischievous, can survive. The very presence of Kanzaki in the Liar Game is therefore astounding, and even with the help of Akiyama, one wonders how far the pair can continue. Under the surface of their struggles are even more mysteries, about Akiyama’s past, the LGT’s existence, and the motives of each and every player involved. Surprising twists, excellent characters, and clever cinematography allows Liar Game to leap off the page and into the screen to become a truly wonderful J-Drama. I highly recommend Liar Game, both for those curious to enter the world of J-Dramas, and those long versed in the fandom.
Score: 5 out of 5