More than 30 years ago, Gosho Aoyama wrote and illustrated a Japanese manga series entitled Magic Kaito. The story was about a teenager, Kaito Kuroba, who learns that his father was The Kaito Kid, a famous international criminal who was mysteriously murdered over a jewel theft. Vowing to avenge his father, the adolescent becomes a master illusionist and assumes the identity of the Kaito Kid.
The story was turned into the 24-episode anime series Magic Kaito 1412 that aired from October 4, 2014 to March 28, 2015. In “Hustler vs Magician,” the third episode of the series, Kaito learns that his close family friend Jii, who owns the Blue Parrot Billiards Club, once lost the diamond and emerald-encrusted Legendary Cue (stick) to a local mob boss when he was beaten by the boss’ pool shark, Tsuujirou Hasura in a rigged match. Now the same boss is threatening to close down the billiards club.
Though Kaito cannot shoot pool, he vows to win back the cue. Sneaking into the boss’ club, the American, he challenges Hasura to multiple matches of 9-ball for $10,000 per game. Losing them all, he wagers the Blue Parrot for the Legendary Cue. At that point, he assumes the billiards stance of his late father and performs a spectacular trick shot, with multiple jumps, which wins him the cue stick. It is only later revealed that the shot was an illusion. Hidden wires tautly stretched across the table allowed the cue to travel an otherwise impossible orbit that knocked in all his balls in one shot. The full episode is available to watch here.
Magic Kaito 1412 is the third anime series I’ve discovered with a billiards episode. Unfortunately, it’s the worst of the lot. Lacking the metaphysical, WTF-ness of Death Billiards or the hyper-sexualized imagination of the “Moulin Rouge” episode of Fairy Tale, the “Hustler vs Magician” episode banally trudges along from its questionable setup to its nonsensical ending. Moreover, the episode feels overly familiar, recycling billiards tropes on its path to an obvious conclusion.
Let’s start with the troubled friend who is poised to lose his bar to the local mob boss. This same idea was the premise of the 1972 film Wandering Ginza Butterfly, which also resolved itself with a match between the main character and a yakuza henchman. Similarly, in the Italian film Il tocco – la sfida the lead character makes the decision to compete in a 5-pin tournament to save his friend’s pool hall. (In that example, the lead unwisely beats the local gangster’s hired pool shark, thereby sealing his friend’s fate.)
Then, there is the character of Hasura, an honorable pool shark, who is torn between his love of the game and his role as an employee of a ruthless gangster. This situation is similar to that in the 1991 movie Legend of the Dragon, in which world snooker champion Jimmy “The Whirlwind” White plays the conflicted hustler.
Another trope is the child billiards prodigy underestimated by adults. Less common in movies, this idea formed the backbone of both “The Hustler” episode of The Brady Bunch, when Bobby Brady makes a killing in wagered bubble gum, and the “Minnesota Vicki” episode of Small Wonder, in which 10-year-old Vicki hustles her father’s boss out of the ownership of his company.
On a positive note, “Hustler vs Magician” introduce two ideas that I hadn’t yet encountered. The first is a prized cue stick with its own moniker. Sure, Uncle Phil wreaks havoc on his opponent when he unsheathes his cue stick Lucille in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode “Banks Shot.” But, otherwise, most billiards movie cue sticks remain nameless and are of relatively little value.
The second idea is the use of illusions to win a game. Of course, billiards movies are replete with trick shots, and some are so fantastic that they appear to be magical. So, perhaps it’s a fine line separating magic and world-class pool-playing. After all, is it any wonder that world billiards legend Efren Reyes goes by the nickname “The Magician”?