This was one of the films that I had to give up on during last year's trip to the Tokyo International Film Festival, not that I thought it was no good – the casting reunion of those from the Death Note films is reason enough to flock to this – but because I had got some faith that it'll make it to Singapore because it should have some appeal given the success of Death Note here, and manga to film adaptations have usually done fairly well. So it made it to our shores, and while I was expecting some serious gambling utilizing the rule book from casino card games, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler just lives up to its title, where the stakes are deadly, usually that of life or lifestyle.
However, the strength of the film is how it metaphorically paints the picture of society with that rich-poor divide, between the elite class and those who are perpetual losers, being dealt the shortest end of the stick in life. It's easy to be on one side of the fence and accuse the other of being stupid, lazy and not worthy of their lot, but put it this way, who doesn't want to be able to live a financially free life with nary a material care since it's all taken care of. One thing in life that's constant, besides change, is that life is never fair, and usually being somebody, or knowing somebody else, may open some doors for you, making it a tad easier to get to one's objectives. The playing field is rarely even, and only made worse if one group decides to exploit the other.
Tatsuya Fujiwara plays the titular role Kaiji, a down and out young adult who's living his life without much aim, being painted an illusion by Endo (Yuki Amami) who had conned him into boarding a ship, on the hopes that by playing a game onboard would change his debt-ridden life as it is. It's a life-changing experience alright, one that Kaiji soon finds himself stuck in, being held against his wishes but on a principle that he made, and then sucked into an underground social system which is aimed squarely at how we, the workers, get bordered into a routine of work-rest-eat-drink, and a financial system that's basically out to regain every penny of reward given for honest work, and that's in the form of induced consumerism.
And that's how I suppose the rich and powerful can keep a stranglehold on the common folk, keeping them in despair until they resign to their "fate" that there's no way out of the vicious circle, and to conform and continue in their routine so as to fuel the economy. With each revelation comes Kaiji's resolve to get out of the system, only to find more obstacles in his way, becoming mere pawns of entertainment to the idle rich folks, one of whom is the chairman of a powerful conglomerate known as "Teiai" (or Love Emperor, played by Kei Sato).
The key entertaining moments in the film are of course the death-defying situations the gamblers are put through, and it turns out more to be like problem-solving coupled with going up against stacked odds. Fans of Kenichi Matsuyama will also be pleased that their idol had gotten a supporting role here looking quite rugged with his unshaven look, and instead of being at loggerheads with Fujiwara's Kaiji, it's a welcome change to see the two actors in roles that require support from each other. Teruyuki Kagawa (of Tokyo Sonata) also shines as the main over-confident villain in the film, whose bright idea it was to capture idling youths and to put them to work as slaves for Teiai, only to find himself setting up an adversary in Kaiji, adding to his reputation of not being well-liked.
Since it's adapted from the manga, the three key gambling moments were drawn from the books, although they come with minor tweaks to allow for a cinematic interpretation. Amongst the three games of Restricted Rock Paper Scissors, Human Derby and E-Card, which is an interesting game of chance involving Citizen, Emperor and Slave cards, director Toya Sato (who also helmed Gokusen the Movie) should be given credit for crafting the games and heightening tensions in an order of a crescendo befitting of a grand hurrah, striking a balance between the need to entertain, and to tickle that mind of yours in a battle of wits. There's a certain formula employed as well, with everything explained toward the end in a series of flashbacks, so yeah, the answers will be given after you exercised that noodle a little.
In some ways, the games were played in a fashion similar to how Jigsaw designed his. With the latter, the games serve as a lesson to those who had lived the good life, to teach them to be contented with their lot and not take life for granted. With this, it's in a way to break the barrier of zero confidence amongst those who are deemed losers in life, giving them monetary incentives to participate in death-defying games, in order to make them realize that through hard work and surpassing what is deemed impossible, will the survivors know that reward only comes from performance. Sounds a little like our workfare scheme, minus the death elements.
Like any manga inspired or movie adapted from graphic novels, the film barely scratched the surface of its rich origin material. As such, do keep your eyes peeled for a sequel currently scheduled for a 2011 debut. Expect more death-defying games, battle of wits, and a caution to those who are too smart for their own good, and if those elements in a film are your cup of tea then you shouldn't miss this!