To answer these questions we will have to go to the source: the start of Japan's lost decadeTWITTER/@SCREENRANT

Capitalism is rigged. Social mobility is a lie. Elites have fixed the system. Are these claims outrageous? Are they outside polite discourse? With Squid Game, it appears the answer is obviously no. A grotesque series of lethal playground games, run for the amusement of the rich, pitting poor people together lured there by money, is entirely fitting as a metaphor for modern society. It makes sense – we ‘get’ what it is saying. But what if I told you this metaphor was old, going back to a 1996 manga about lethal gambling? Further, that it percolated around for decades before its breakthrough? Why did it take 25 years for the format to take off? To answer these questions we will have to go to the source: the start of Japan’s lost decade.

The bubble economy has just burst, debt collectors are rampant, the promise all would be brought up by a rising tide of growth is a distant memory. In this quagmire Gambling Apocalypse: Kaiji is released. It follows an unemployed deadbeat, Kaiji, who is sucked into a series of deadly games by the possibility of winning money to pay his gambling debts, purely for the amusement of rich investors. These include a modified rock paper scissors tournament, a game where you shuffle along a raised pole (and have to push others off to get ahead), and a bluffing card game. Not only that, but the games are rigged, as Kaiji soon discovers, so the elites never lose while the little guys scrabble over one another in the dirt. A whole series of 90s ‘death game’ manga follow suit, such as Liar’s Game (musical chairs, Russian roulette); One Outs (baseball); and Akagi (mah-jong). Though varying in style and games, they share a common core of features: first, there are games with definite, clear rules, either real or fictional, which are explained to the reader; second, the game always involves cooperation and defection, as well as strategy and bluffing, which is crucial, because it is the cooperation and betrayal which makes these games third a metaphor for wider society and workplace competition. Finally, fourth, they always suggest the ruthless and intelligent dominate and rise to the top, regardless of what is fair or right, and fifth, most bleakly, that the game doesn’t end when you leave. Society is the game. The protagonists must be outsiders, only then can they reject the game itself and try to subvert the crooked system. Although this is meant to be a review for Squid Game, a summary of Kaiji and the death game manga genre does in fact cover its plot, character, and themes comprehensively. So what’s the difference now?

Here is my hot take: Japan has been the perfect setting for the ‘death game’ genre for decades

These ideas are not new to Western screens. There was The Exam (interview process); Circle (majority voting); and Cube (mathematical puzzles), but they didn’t strike popular imagination. Okay, you say, how about The Hunger Games, and its related YA trilogies (Divergent, Uglies, Maze Runner, etc)? Not so fast: while mega-hits, these come from a different Japanese predecessor – the 2000 film Battle Royale, with themes focusing more on survival and battle, growing up, and the generational divide. They all miss that crucial link between complex, often banal, games and the elaborate system that is modern capitalism. More telling is 3%, a 2016 Brazilian series about young people competing in puzzles and games to gain a place on an island of elites. Though a cult classic, it found little popular traction and wasn’t renewed for a second season on Netflix. Here is my hot take: Japan has been the perfect setting for the ‘death game’ genre for decades. With massive corporations, hereditary wealth inequality, a small band of elites from Todai running the country, and an intense, lethal working culture, it must feel like the system is rigged. Likewise the modern South Korean economy, with its chaebol conglomerates, an arms race in pre-school tutoring, and personal debt crisis, is perfect fertile soil for the death game format.

The reason is simple: modern economies now feel rigged everywhere; and not only rigged but humiliating

Going back, we can trace the pathways of influence to the present mega-phenomenon. The first signs were in a 2013 gameshow fittingly called The Genius, in which contestants completed puzzles and outwitted one another. Many of the games were explicitly based on Kaiji, albeit with a stronger focus on puzzles. The Genius, like most game shows, was the death game format sans anti-capitalism – it was only after the strong recent trend of films depicting Korean wealth inequality, such as Parasite and The Host, that it could return to its original roots. 3% then adds the final piece of the puzzle. I believe its initial failure was due to western audiences believing social mobility was still possible in the mid-2000s. 3%’s brutal hierarchy was thus ‘only true for a place like Brazil.’ But flash forward to the present and 3% suddenly becomes a lot more compelling; in fact, it’s been rediscovered by Netflix and given four seasons. The reason is simple: modern economies now feel rigged everywhere; and not only rigged but humiliating. Work longer hours for less pay, less job security, a worse pension, a weaker social safety net, and higher property prices? And if you don’t, it’s your fault for spending too much on avocado? Squid Game isn’t revolutionary or ground-breaking: its message has been around for decades; the difference is that now we’re ready for it, delivered in a convenient package of consummate production.