JAPAN 2009 Directed by: Toya Sato Manga by: Noboyuki Fukumoto Written by: Mika Omori Cinematography: Katsumi Yanagijima Music: Yugo Kanno Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Kenichi Matsuyama, Teruyuki Kagawa, Taro Yamanoto, Yuki Amami, Ken Mitsuishi, Kei Sato, Suzuki Matsuo
Another manga-turns-video game-turns-movie movie, this time based on Noboyuki Fukumoto’s bestseller: KAIJI is the perfect film for gambling-obsessed Japan and turns out to have just the right mixture of zero-to-hero story, fan boy appeal and dark drama to fascinate a large crowd of moviegoers.
Loser Kaiji has to repay a dept and in lack of cash is offered the only way out: to board a cruise ship and take part in the ultimate gambling night that may see him cleared of all dept or spending the rest of his life as slave. Kaiji, whose life sucks anyhow decides to dare all and joins the cruise, not knowing what terrifying rollercoaster ride lies ahead.
Without giving away too much of the twists and turns of KAIJI I can say that the film is quite clever in leading the audience step by step into the next trap by primarily following Kaiji and only scarcely offering some hints about what’s actually going on here. The movie keeps the momentum from beginning to end and despite changes of mood and tone throughout is a gripping tale of winners and losers and the morale that makes even loser winners.
At times KAIJI is leaning too much towards some Nike-Darwinism: winning is everything, participating is nothing. You don’t win silver, you lose gold. But then KAIJI discovers the deeper meaning of winning and presents are more intellectual perspective on its subject. KAIJI nevertheless reflects the Japanese pursuit of success, a way of life that is characterized by hardship and drawbacks, but most of all by a glorious happy end where the winner takes it all. KAIJI, just as gambling, fits the Japanese mentality very well.
KAIJI THE MOVIE would have benefited from spending more time on the character and past of Kaiji though: it is not entirely clear why Kaiji does what he does, the manga was clearly sharper and made Kaiji’s path more plausible. If the movie has a key weakness then that’s the character development of the hero, most of all his indulgence of his own little tricks, more and more he turns into an arrogant jerk, luckily his opponents are worse so we rather stick with him – despite Fujiwara’s overacting.
What makes KAIJI worth watching all issues aside is the way we are dragged through the shit just like the hero without knowing what’s going to happen next, a pretty dark side that is a more commercial variation of BATTLE ROYALE and the sub-genre of rich-people-pay-to-see-you-dying, the fragment of an epic story that creates a parallel universe underground, and one of the greatest fuck yous in a long time (Teruyuki Kagawa is hilarious repeating Kitano’s role as MC and villain).
KAIJI is satisfying diverse expectations of a diverse audience without kissing ass, and it’s probably therapeutic for those gambling away all their money in a pachinko parlor. KAIJI may not be the best of all manga adaptations, nor the best film of its kind, but it’s creative and surprisingly sinister entertainment that well deserves two hours of our time.
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