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Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler Live Action

I’m not the biggest fan of Japanese live action TV and movies, but these days it seems like an increasing number of things based on anime and manga are popping up, with a lot more English-language exposure than that sort of thing used to get. Since Akemi watches J-dramas now and then anyway, I figured why not toss in her thoughts and the contrasting perspective of an American anime fan. I should also warn that, not being the biggest fan of Japanese live action fare (neither is Akemi, actually), I’m likely to make snide comments here and there about the state of Japanese film and TV.

On that note: Kaiji (aka Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler). It’s based on a seinen manga series by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, which was adapted into an anime series, and now there’s a live action movie starring some of the cast of the Death Note live action adaptation. I’m not familiar with any of the above, so I went into the film with nothing in the way of expectations.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Loser and general wastrel Kaiji gets trapped into a weird, scary gambling cruise when a big, scary mob organization comes calling for money they’re owed. Turns out that if you lose at the game, you get shipped off as slave labor, from whence the unlucky—but modestly clever—Kaiji ends up gambling with his life to escape. The movie consists of three lengthy gambling drama sections (two very simple card games, one a rather more physical sort of gamble, all of which are cast as microcosms of society), plus some intervening set-up and drama.

On the obvious plus side, the production values are relatively high—it doesn’t quite have the polish of a big-budget Hollywood film, but it’s otherwise a perfectly solid movie in terms of places you can see money and talent. The sets are fine, the camerawork is acceptable, the directing and editing are smooth, and the actors don’t seem to have been hired based entirely on how pretty they are (that last one is, sadly, a big compliment—it’s depressing how much J-drama casting seems to be based on a HotOrNot rating).

Actually, I like the casting—Yuuki Amami (a former Takarazuka member) turns in a memorable performance as a low-level mobster who’s not entirely evil, veteran Teruyuki Kagawa is quite good as the villain (a smug, thoroughly evil upper-level mobster), and Tatsuya Fujiwara (Light from Death Note) is pretty, but also pretty good as Kaiji—he’s reasonably believable as a blubbering loser who nonetheless has a little bit of hero hiding inside and a couple of tricks up his sleeve. The supporting cast is all rather solid, and they certainly did a good job filling a room with a variety of pathetic losers gambling with one another for their lives.

The final big scene—a tense, high-stakes showdown over a simple game of cards—is also decent. Listening to the internal back-and-forth in the villain’s head is an interesting way of approaching such a scene—rather than from the perspective of the hero—and the sort of “I know that you know that I know that you know…” psyche-out almost reminded me of Code Geass’ Lelouch doing his thing (well, if Lelouch was half-asleep and having a bad day when it came to clever schemes, but the same general idea).

Unfortunately, that scene was pretty much it when it comes to anything worth watching. Mostly, I kept wondering whether the movie was intended from the beginning to be hilariously bad, or if they actually thought they were doing drama. Akemi was even less thrilled—the things she singled out as awful were slightly different, but her first comment during the end credits was “I want that two hours back.”

I could complain about the series of loosely-connected holes that make up the so-called plot, but the whole concept is so broad maybe I should just let that slide.  Seriously, the villainous organization’s plans make even less sense than Dr. Evil’s. “We will go to elaborate lengths to enslave losers to dig us a subterranean city in which we will create our own civilization!” I can see no down side. That said…

Major problem #1: Is this schlock supposed to be serious? The opening scene is broad and kind of silly, which made me expect a comedy. The epilogue is definitely light, and again, seems like the punctuation you’d expect at the end of a comedy. Everything in between seems to be far too dark and psychological-allegory-ish to have been intended as anything but drama.

Which left me trying to decide if they realized that the movie was shamelessly cheesy and tried to lessen expectations and give the audience permission to laugh at the drama by sticking silly endcaps on it, or if it had been intended as straight and the opening and closing were just wildly out of synch with the rest. I don’t know which would be worse.

Major problem #2: The entire middle gamble is an endless mess of blubbering “drama” that would have been funny if it weren’t so boring.

Major problem #3: The same scene manages to blow a cinematography opportunity so obvious a high-school film student wouldn’t have missed it. This is one of the points Akemi disagreed on—I’ll get to why in a moment.

Now, normally I’d avoid trying to give away too many spoilers at this point, but all the plot twists are so obvious it’s not fair to call them twists, so I’m not even going to apologize.

This big scene consists of a bunch of the debt-trapped slaves trying to walk across girders between two high-rise towers, with freedom and money waiting on the other side.

(Aside: They’re electrified girders, so they don’t try to crawl instead of balance, which is fine… except electricity does not work that way, dammit! If it did there’d be a lot of crispy bird carcasses sitting under every power line, but then it’s not like the last century of Hollywood movies have done any better.)

Now, I’m almost certain the audience is actually expected to be in the mental role of the rich sadists paying to watch the deadly spectacle rather than the guys on the girder—we’re expected to enjoy everyone but the hero and two other characters we recognize falling to their deaths. Which they do quite quickly, making room for the three actual characters to stand around on a balance beam over the abyss talking for about fifteen minutes. (Actually, two of them stand around talking—the third one waits quietly off-camera for no logical reason whatsoever until the plot needs him.)

That was just annoying. The blown opportunity is how this is filmed: We see the characters either in close-up or from the waist up, which has the effect of watching two guys standing there waving their arms around like idiots pantomiming balancing on something. Had they pointed the camera just a few degrees downward, or even just let us see their feet, the beam, and a little open space below, it would have given a powerful, subconscious sense of tension to the entire scene—even if you didn’t realize it, a primitive part of your brain would be poking you, feeling nervous the whole time.

How you can walk past an opportunity like that is a mystery to me. Akemi’s opinion, however, is that it was on purpose. She thinks the whole scene was so clearly silly anyway, and the outcome so obvious, that the filmmakers didn’t want to try and add any actual drama to it—they wanted you to just pay attention to the actors emoting and the lines. Even if she’s right, I’m not sure that’s any better.

That brings me to an interesting cultural thing Akemi commented on. In this same scene, there’s a sympathetic ne’er-do-well that Kaiji has been together with up to that point who’s too paralyzed with fear to go on, and is busy being dramatic about having Kaji go forth and live and be someone for him or something like that. Eventually he falls (of course), and does so silently so as not to spook Kaiji. Kaiji then marvels at his bravery.

Now, my reaction and Akemi’s was exactly the same—falling quietly isn’t bravery, getting up and walking across the damn beam is bravery. (It’d have been different if he’d gotten stuck or injured or something, and wasn’t physically able to go on, but they made it abundantly clear he was just too scared.)

Akemi, however, noted that she thinks many Japanese people who’d never experienced another culture would, indeed, think that was brave. (My analogy is a sort of a modern take on seppuku or something vaguely like it.) She thinks that her reaction—Get up and move, you pansy!—was in part because she’s lived in the US, and has come to see perseverance as more of a virtue than bravely giving up in the face of fate. Phrased differently, that living in shame and trying to make up for your sins is braver than dying to atone for them. (This isn’t to say that all Japanese people think noble suicide is great, just that there’s a cultural bias in that direction.)

Moving on, the final major issue with the movie is the complete lack of any worthwhile message—the takeaway is either “Good people will get screwed by bad people, no matter what they do or how hard they try,” “You can’t win,” or maybe “Life sucks, then you die.” Not saying that those aren’t necessarily true, just that they’re not much of a message. Not even getting into the fact that only the mid-level villain gets any sort of comeuppance—the big evil psycho and all the decadent socialites into snuff films continue having a grand time enslaving and killing people, and the remainder of the slaves remain slaves.

(I also like that the villains broadcast the whole final showdown to the other slaves for dramatic effect, which is completely contrary to even what passes for logic in this movie. I suppose it’s intended to make you feel better for them, you know, having no hope whatsoever of escaping.)

Speaking of which, I’m sure Kaiji is too apathetic to do this, but if I were him at the end I would devote my life to hunting down the person who ripped me off and killing them in their sleep. Or maybe exposing the evil organization or something worthwhile. But maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, the bottom line is that this movie sucks. I’m not saying there aren’t people who will enjoy it—if you really like movies about the downtrodden gambling with their lives or the “simple gambling games as a microcosm of society” theme a lot you’ll probably love it, or you might just enjoy the over-the-top cheesiness of the execution. Personally, though, I’d call it a complete waste of time.

Did make me want to rent Maverick again, though—now there’s a movie about gambling and double-crossing that knows exactly what it’s doing.