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Original Title:
Kaiji: Jinsei gyakuten gemu

Japan 2009

Thriller, Drama

Toya Sato

Tatsuya Fujiwara
Yuki Amami
Teruyuki Kagawa
Ken Mitsuishi
Ken'ichi Matsuyama
Kei Sato
Taro Yamamoto
Suzuki Matsuo
Yuriko Yoshitaka
Ryushin Tei

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Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler

aka Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji

Story: Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a 30 years old loser, who just manages to pay his rent by working at a small shop. He wants to change his life for years already, but that proves to be nothing more than a mere thought. Then, one day, he gets a visit from loan shark Endo (Yuki Amami) who tells him that he has to pay the debt of a friend, for whom he signed a contract of guaranty, since that person has disappeared. Kaiji is desperate as he will never manage to get together the required amount of money. Endo makes a proposal, though. She invites him to go on the ship "Espoir" where a gigantic gambling contest takes place. If he wins his debt will be cleared. Kaiji agrees, but has to find out that he has completely underestimated the consequences of losing the game. The losers are brought into a labor camp for many years where they have to build an underground city for a lunatic boss of a syndicate. However, the right hand of the boss, Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa), has some other sadistic games he wants to involve his victims in and which they eventually have to pay with their lives. Kaiji finally wants to change his life for real, and most of all wants to regain his freedom. Therefore, he agrees to participate in the perfidious games.

Review: "Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler" is a manga-adaption and you can tell right from the start. The story and the acting are over the top, which means that in a normal movie this would be somewhat of an overkill but within the frame of the adaption of the subject it actually all fits together very splendidly. Which unfortunately doesn't mean that there aren't certain points to be criticised. First of all, there is the uneven pacing and some explanations that are too long for their own good. All in all, "Kaji" is excellent entertainment, though, the kind of you seldom see out of Japan these days. Moreover, even those who aren't really into gambling movies, and I count myself into that group, too, will sit on the edge of their seats during the thrilling games as there are lives at stake here. Some or actually all of the games, in fact there are only three implemented into the movie, are rather simple and yet the filmmakers could make astonishingly good use of their potential. Thus, this movie proves to be a real suprise as a manga-adaption.

Tatsuya Fujiwara, who has already taken the leading role in the well done live action adaption of the manga "Death Note", plays a likeable loser with his very own share of character flaws which we easily forgive him as he is a human like anyone else. Moreover, Yuki Amami takes the role of a supporting character who as in "The Queen's Classroom" may be a bit cold, but yet charismatic. However, the film doesn't use much time for character exposition, it's during the events unfolding that we learn more about Kaiji. To be exactly, this also brings us to the first real problem of the movie. The beginning on the ship already ups the tempo and especially the long finale can deliver when it comes to fast pacing. The middle part on the other hand feels like a foreign body. The pacing decreases extremely when we get to the part in the labor camp and the drama content also becomes heavier. And since we are already on it, it also has to be pointed out that the manga-typical explanations and monologues are sometimes a little bit too much. During a certain game, which in a wider or maybe narrow sense centers around balancing, there are discussions or explanations lasting several minutes which in the context of the given circumstances seems just ridiculous.

In the last game, which is actually nothing more than a simple card game that - how should it be any different - centers around some easy form of probability, the implemented explanations work out quite well, however. We get some insight into the tactics of the players and can think laterally along with the players. The tricks and sleight of hands that are used are effectively put into the spotlight even if the smart viewer can in fact realize the strategem of the players on his own which is why the illumination of what happened and why can get a bit tedious again. Director Toya Sato, who acquired some experience with some TV shows and "Gokusen - The Movie", still manages to get the maximum of thrills out of those scenes. Since this is also the area where the movie should show its true strength, it's easy to overlook some of the obvious flaws, e.g. the fact that the film could have used its lengthy 130 minutes running time in a more reasonable way, even though the movie luckily never really feels that lengthy.

A good budget at hand, nice sets and a sense for the right colors and lighting make "Kaiji" convince on a technical level. The soundtrack also does its share to make the events thrilling at all times. Concerning the demise of some side characters the movie can be surprisingly merciless, too. All in all, the undertone of the film is in fact quite serious despite the beginning and the end delivering some more humerous moments as well. Especially the fact the film is quite gritty and also deals about topics like the everlasting losers of society who never change their way of life but instead are just constantly talking about it, give this manga-adaption a little bit more depth than expected. Even the more when we realize that these people are losers because they are taken advantage of by vicious and coldblooded individuals that take fun in toying with the hopes of poor people. In this framework Kaiji starts to surpass himself, of course, which is also what makes it so easy for the audience to suffer and fight alongside him.

The movie based on Fukumoto Nobuyuki's manga "Kaiji" doesn't revolve around a card-player who is a true expert in this field, but instead centers around a small guy who by unfortunate coincides is pulled out of his dull life and thrown into life-threatening surroundings which makes him realize what it really means to live. That's what's making the film truely captivating. The well done finale and the anticipation of a soon to follow sequel make you hope that in the next installment the filmmakers can avoid some of the aforementioned flaws and can present the in general thrilling subject of playing for your own life in a more balanced fashion. As it was with "Death Note" there is almost the certainness that the anime series is qualitatively superior, even though I haven't watched it (yet), but as an introduction Toya Sato's movie can do a bit more than just touch the surface of its potential and does so quite well. We are looking forward for more!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)

Many thanks to 4DigitalMedia for providing the review material.

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