Saturday, November 12, 2011

Kaiji 2 / カイジ 2

Ready For the Big League?

Kaiji 2 brings Tatsuya Fujiwara back to the titular role of the gambler who had seen better days post the finale in the earlier Kaiji film, but as the saying goes, old habits die hard and two years later he's still found in the doldrums of society, stuck in a dead end underground job. The first film dealt with the different strata of society, and here the changes made will bring about a clash of societal systems once again, with Kaiji being entrusted with cash from his underground peers to make it big in society to earn enough to redeem all their freedom, and Seiya Ichizo (Yusuke Iseya) ascending to the echelons of Teiai, taking over Yukio Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa) who was beaten by Kaiji in the first film, hence setting up a potential rivalry between the representatives of class.

Like all follow up films, Kaiji 2 plunges head long into the action without that much of an introduction to who the returning characters are, but for those new to the series, fret not as it won't really matter that much with this stand alone story arc. Kaiji's daunting task is to make a fortune of 200 million in 20 days in order to buy the freedom of his peers who had hinged their hopes on him, and gambling games with his modest capital couldn't exactly make that much in so few days. Meeting up with his ex-rival Yukio who is still adamant in getting even with Kaiji, Kaiji gets an invitation to go into an illegal casino operated by Seiya, where the top draw is the ultimate Pachinko machine called The Swamp, with a top payout of 1 billion sitting pretty for those who can defeat it. But of course as with all casinos, the odds are hugely stacked against the gullible few, but to the obsevant few, there's something quite rigged about this machine.

Kotaro Sakazaki (Katsuhisa Namase) had extensively spent time casing the machine and the casino operations, and the narrative plays out almost like a heist operation, with Kaiji, Kotaro and their fellow teammate Yumi Ishida (Yuriko Yoshitaka), the daughter of a man Kaiji meets in the earlier film, coming together to challenge for the pot of gold. But true to the spirit of things, this film plays an excellent sleight of hand with betrayals, swinging loyalties with friends becoming foes and vice versa, twists and turns all the way to the finale, as everyone comes head to head at the casino's centre of attraction, unleashing strategies and counter-schemes to go one up against the opponent, resulting in gripping edge of your seat stuff as you unwittingly become one of the many spectators gathered around to cheer a player who seem to have the potential to beat the casino's odds. Like its predecessor, there are enough surprises at every corner that if you think you have it all figured out, in comes another challenging obstacle for Kaiji to overcome.

But entertainment values aside, which Kaiji 2 has by the bucket loads, this film also further explores the darker themes introduced in the first film, and in some ways are ever more applicable in today's context, with the rich overwhelmingly owning much of the wealth available, leaving the have nots with nothing but hope to break out of the poverty cycle, or the cycle that condemns one to eternal hard work. The rich and powerful gets personified through Seiya Ichizo, ever eager to be in your face toward those who are from the working class, constantly ridiculing and belittling Kaiji, representing the working class that most of us will probably fall into. It's a tussle between those in power and the underdogs, and as an effective reflective moment in its climax, has Seiya ponder about how lonely it is at the top especially if one has to push one's way up the societal and career ladder at the expense of others, versus those who are successful because of cooperation, collaboration and friendship.

While the first film had three different games, they are effectively simple ones at that too (rock, paper, scissors with a twist) for any casual viewer to understand the risks and odds involved, and keeps your mind constantly engaged when players execute their strategies. Kaiji2 unfortunately only had one major one albeit broken up into stages, with the rest being small little side games such as the E-card from part 1 and something of a resemblance to the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here Kaiji and his allies are pit against one major game, and true to Japanese form, it's the Pachinko machine. I had been in Japan before and was curious enough to step into the ubiquitous Pachinko parlour, only to be daunted by the instructions and various gameplay available under the same roof. However non-Pacihnko players like myself will still be able to appreciate Kaiji's strategies since Pachinko frankly is a game beyond a player's control other than to shoot the balls into the game environment like how a Pinball machine operates, with the rest left to gravity, precision engineering, and a lot of luck.

Tatsuya Fujiwara continues in his comfortable role as the happy-go-lucky and brilliant gambler blessed with the necessary technical skills and keen observation powers in order to beat the odds, and he looks a lot more comfortable in this role, with the added dramatic and emotional weight coming from the presence of Yuriko Yoshitaka's Yumi Ishida character which ties into the first film beautifully. Kenichi Matsuyama is absent of course, so I suppose it served as a welcome to put the focus entirely on Kaiji rather than for Matsuyama's presence to become a distraction (especially for marketers) in the film. Teruyuki Kagawa is one of the modern Japanese actors I admire, and his role here provided gravitas to the film especially with an expanded screentime, while Kotaro Sakazaki and Yusuke Iseya are welcome cast inclusions to this alternate reality world with the pronounced rich-poor income gap.

Kaiji 2 may not have the bandwidth of various games that challenge different aspects of the protagonist, nor have hit the dizzying heights of emotional flip flops set up by its predecessor, but still hedged the right bets at keeping to its common themes and expanding on them, which became what truly mattered. And that's what makes Kaiji 2 a recommended watch, and better yet when you string both 1 and 2 into a wider anthology.

Kaiji 2 opens in Singapore on 17 Nov 2011.

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