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Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009)
Director: T�ya Sat�

review by Alexandra Bunning

Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a loser. He reliably informs us at the very beginning of this movie that he'd never made anything of his life, has no money, works in a corner shop and has no love life. His total characterisation at the beginning of the film is that he is a man with a penchant for two things: gambling, and overly dramatic declarations about how rubbish and unfair his life is. After taking out his rather whiny rage on a shiny BMW, he is approached by the owner - a beautiful loan shark by the name of Endo (Yuki Amami) - who informs him that his friend has defaulted on a loan, and as he signed as the guarantor he is now deeply in debt to her. His one chance of getting the kind of money necessary to pay back the loan is by gambling for it - if he loses, the penalty is slavery.

Based on the award-winning manga series Gambling Apocolypse Kaiji (aka: Tobaku Mokushiraku Kaiji) by Noboyuki Fukumoto, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler is a strange, meandering (and quite frankly comedic!) film documenting Kaiji's totally unsuccessful attempt to turn his life around through a series of unusual gambles. I wanted to like this movie. I have seen some of the anime adaptation previously and quite enjoyed it, but I immediately felt that it would be very difficult to adapt a 13 volume manga series into a two-hour film, and so when the narrative seemed very disjointed, I wasn't surprised. What did surprise me was that despite feeling that a film was too short a medium for the story, I just wondered when the film would finally end.

The acting is fairly innocuous throughout, although the penchant for comic over-dramatics and weeping could have been significantly reduced in my opinion, but generally the acting itself was inoffensive. The set design was fine, and the special effects were okay. What really drags down this film is the storyline. Clearly what works in manga does not necessarily work in a movie. The storyline is so unbelievable that is begins to get quite frustrating. The loan contracts that seem to have ended Kaiji in such terrible debt are so clearly illegal that you can't help but wonder why he doesn't simply get legal advice. You cannot feel sympathy for a character that seems to have ended up in such a bad situation due to their stupidity and laziness. The forms the gambling takes in this film are so... well, weird, and the odds are stacked so heavily against the poor 'losers' that you can't help but wonder why they bother.

The culmination of Kaiji's gambling trials is a remarkably simple game with 10:1 odds on Kaiji losing. But if he wins, he will have all the money he could ever want. At this point I felt so exasperated that Kaiji hadn't learnt his lesson and was still gambling his life away, at a point when he could have finally walked away and started a new life, part of me wanted him to lose. I couldn't work out what this film was trying to say. What is the message here? That unless you earn above a certain amount and have a successful relationship, you're not a viable member of society and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to end up in indentured service?

As a part of the gambling genre, I had expected the film to portray gambling as the ultimate test of skill and intelligence, but instead it portrays these characters as fools who made nothing of their lives and consequently deserve to be placed in a position of slavery or forced into life or death situations for the amusement of the rich and successful. This movie isn't totally without redeeming features. Despite the strange forms the gambling took, the characters' internal monologues as they try to outwit each other were fun, and I could see that some attempt had been made to show the tension and desperation, which did marginally increase suspense. But to be honest, I came away from Kaiji just wondering why I'd bothered.

So my advice is, if you think you're interested in the premise of this movie - read the original manga! This movie is just a two-hour showcase of how bad adaptations can be.

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler



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