Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 24th 2010
Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler
DVD (live-action movie)
Kaiji Ito is a young man stuck in a serious financial rut. Things only get worse when he finds out that one of his friends has left behind a massive debt that is near-impossible to repay. However, a loan shark offers Kaiji a solution: he can go aboard a cruise ship and play a shady gambling game, and if he wins, the debt would be forgiven. Kaiji takes the offer and wins ... but a logistical screw-up causes him to fall further into debt. Still in the clutches of the loan sharks, Kaiji gets another shot at redemption when he volunteers to participate in a life-or-death challenge atop a skyscraper. If he succeeds, then he gets the chance to play one last card game—a chance to win back all the money he's lost, and more. If he fails, however, Kaiji's entire livelihood could be destroyed.
Much has been written about theories of wealth. There are rich dads and poor dads and millionaires next door and get-rich-quick schemes (that pretend not to be get-rich-quick schemes) and internet ads telling us that we can make hundreds of dollars a day by sitting on our butts. But what about theories of poverty? If we know what it takes to get rich, then why do so many poor people remain poor? Somewhere behind the questionable plotting, intense melodrama, and traditional Japanese-style overacting of the live-action Kaiji lies the answer to the theory of poverty. Some may say that this is a triumphant tale, a manly tale—but even when Kaiji overcomes the odds, he ends up about the same as when he first started. And the reason for that—the reason why poor people remain poor—is what this movie unwittingly reveals.
Of course, the story could simply be taken at face value: a psychological thriller involving games of chance. To that end, the first and third acts of the movie succeed eminently: Kaiji's rock-paper-scissors victory aboard the good ship Espoir comes with the classic elements of reasoning, bargaining, and outwitting one's opponent, while the finale—a high-stakes card game with its own unique rules and strategies—takes that to an even greater level, running the emotional gamut of suspense, despair, hope, and triumph. (Kaiji's final winning tactic also cleverly ties in to the first game aboard the ship, providing a sense of completeness.) One will need a strong suspension of disbelief to enjoy this story, though: the artificial, closed-room scenarios and contrived staging of scrappy working-class hero versus evil old rich guy are so inconceivable as to put this movie in the "Fantasy" category. Clearly, Kaiji's greatest strength is in psychological gamesmanship and the theory of gambling games, with believable situations or characters essentially being a lost cause.
The ludicrous second act is the weakest link in this movie, though, with its complete detachment from anything involving gambling or game logic. After the cruise ship scenario, a mystical plot twist transports Kaiji to an underground hellhole where he must perform manual labor for the rest of his life. (Aside from a casual mention at the start of the movie, nobody ever explains WHY the evil rich-people organization is building this massive underground complex. Can we say giant gaping plot hole?) After some ruminations on the plight of the working class, Kaiji enters a challenge where he must walk along a steel beam between two skyscrapers—which, by the way, has nothing to do with games of chance. It's also in this torturous second act that Kenichi Matsuyama (best known as L from Death Note) appears, allowing the movie to be marketed as "a reunion of stars from Death Note"—conveniently ignoring that Matsuyama gets maybe twenty minutes of screen time as a minor supporting character, in comparison to Tatsuya Fujiwara (a.k.a. Light Yagami) playing the title role. That's simply false advertising.
Speaking of Tatsuya Fujiwara, his portrayal of a desperate young man in dire financial straits has its hits and misses—the raw emotion and fired-up personality work perfectly in the context of intense gambling games, but anything requiring subtlety is clearly beyond him. The rest of the cast also engages in the kind of overacting that is endemic to Japanese live-action, especially in the skyscraper scene: this is green-screen technology at its most embarrassing, with grown men flailing like idiots on a balance beam that is clearly about three feet off the ground, despite the special effects team's efforts to convince us that they are much, much higher. A forced attempt at poignancy—one of Kaiji's fellow contestants sacrificing himself for the sake of his daughter—also falls flat, because screaming one's heartfelt feelings atop a skyscraper beam really isn't the right time or place.
Ultimately, to enjoy Kaiji, one must not assess it by the conventional standards of filmmaking. All it's really doing is recreating the events of the manga, with numerous changes and awkward plot manuevers to make it fit in a two-hour time frame, preserving only the spirit of gamesmanship and rigorous logic. Those who enjoy the Death Note and Liar Game school of psychological suspense will get the most mileage out of this, especially in those heart-pumping scenes where Kaiji meticulously explains how he outwitted some greedy old bastard. Think of it as a textbook on how to beat the odds in Vegas (even though most real casino games are far more challenging), or a manifesto on the struggle between the landed gentry and the working class—just don't think of it as a regular movie, lest your brain explode from the one-dimensional characterization and Swiss cheese plot structure.
And as for the theory of poverty? The answer to that comes not from within the story, but from the story's own existence: the fact that it's about a working-class hero triumphing over his corporate masters. Essentially, the movie (and by association, the manga and anime) screams out: RICH PEOPLE ARE EVIL. But what it really means is, Poor people convince themselves that rich people are evil, so it's better to stay poor. And that's why those who scrape by continue to scrape by, locking themselves into a poisonous cycle where their own subconscious beliefs stop them from getting rich. "Oh, I'd love to be rich," they say—yet here they are, working tirelessly to make the exact same paycheck they made last week, last month, last year. And then they blow it on fast food and lottery tickets and movies where rich people are portrayed as evil and the poor are portrayed as heroes. It is a fantasy we'd all like to believe in—but it remains exactly that. Just a fantasy.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D
Art : C
Music : C+
+ Achieves great suspense and thrills with intricate games of chance and logic.
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