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September 2010

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler

cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Yuki Amami, and Ken'ichi Matsuyama

director: Tôya Satô

130 minutes (12) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
4 Digital Asia DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 3/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler

Based upon Noboyuki Fukumoto's manga series Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji (aka: Tobaku Mokushiraku Kaiji), Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (aka: Kaiji: Jinsei gyakuten gêmu) is over-long, ill-conceived and hilariously melodramatic. It is not merely a poor film; it is an object lesson in how not to adapt something for the big screen.

Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a loser. He is, as the film constantly reminds us, trash. He never achieved anything at school, he never got a career, and he never found love. All that he has in life is a shitty job in a corner shop and a gambling habit. One day, Kaiji is approached by the beautiful but icily ruthless Endo (Yuki Amami). Endo informs Kaiji that because he gave a character reference for someone who took out a loan before skipping town, he is now responsible for paying back the loan. Plus two years of extortionate compound interest. Of course, Kaiji has no chance of ever paying back this colossal debt and so he jumps at the chance to risk it all on one last gamble. If he wins, his debts will be cleared. If he loses, he will become an indentured labourer.

Films such as John Dahl's Rounders (1998), Norman Jewison's The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (1956) form part of the small and largely under-appreciated gambling film subgenre. Gambling movies are variations on the heist film that present the act of gambling not as a matter of luck or mere technical skill but as a supreme test of intelligence and character. Scratch beneath the blockbuster superhero surface of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) - the most successful film of all time - and you find the bones of a gambling movie: characters testing themselves against the odds for the highest of stakes. Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is a gambling film.

At its best, Kaiji's set-pieces revolve around fictional games that test the characters' morality as well as their skill. Indeed, the film's opening set-piece (involving a game of rock, paper, scissors) is not only brilliantly clever but incredibly fun too as it involves a contest whose rules can be 'gamed' and 'out-smarted' but in order to do so, two characters must trust one another despite the temptation to cheat and gain an advantage. Unfortunately, none of Kaiji's other set-pieces come anywhere close to achieving the same levels of tension. The film's failure to come up with more than one interesting game is then compounded by the fact that the script attempts to dress up really quite banal games as supreme tests of morality and intelligence.

For example, halfway through Kaiji, the characters are forced to walk across a wire strung between two huge sky-scrapers. Had Sato presented this as a simple test of balance then the scene would have worked beautifully but because Kaiji is a film all about gambling, the script attempts to present high wire walking in those terms resulting in a scene weighted down by an intolerable avalanche of psychobabble in which the various characters try to talk each other into staying upright or falling off. The words 'gilding the lily' have never seemed so salient.

The same problem applies to the film's final set-piece that revolves around a game of cards. The game is effectively completely random as you choose to lay down a card and the other player lays down another and one card wins and the other loses. However, rather than present this game as a high-stakes test of luck, Sato tries to present it as a test of skill and predictive powers. Remember the scene in The Princess Bride (1987) where Vizzini comes up with all of these ridiculous reasons for guessing which glass contains the poisoned wine? Kaiji's final set-piece is basically the same thing but played entirely straight.

In amongst these various set-pieces lurks a rather distasteful attempt at social commentary. Indeed, when the film tells us that Kaiji and his friends are worthless, it is pretty clear that it means it. In the eyes of the film, to fail to have a good job and a stable relationship is to be a completely worthless individual and there can be no possible excuses for being a worthless individual. The film's ugly authoritarianism is then compounded by the fact that none of the characters ever question the situation they are in... They simply accept the world as presented to them by the powers that be.

For example, Kaiji is initially lured into the gambling underworld because he is presented with the bill for a friend's loan as he signed it as a character reference. Now, aside from the fact that I doubt that character witnesses are legally responsible for those people who fail to live up to their expectations, there is also a question about the legality of a loan that can explode in the course of three years from 300,000 yen to 2.2 million yen. Even a halfway decent lawyer should be able to get you out of that and even if he couldn't, ever heard of bankruptcy?

Again and again, Kaiji is tricked and beaten down by the system but instead of deciding to use force and break out of the system imposed upon him, he decides to play by the rules and get himself in deeper and deeper because the powers that be move the cheese so that he runs further into the maze. The problem here is that not only are Kaiji and his friends utterly stupid, their stupidity and subservience is actually presented as heroic!

Dull, massively over-long and entirely lacking in anything approaching psychological realism, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler will doubtless thrill fans of the manga and anime but it will leave everyone else stunned that such a terrible script should have been made into a 130-minute film.

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