Friday, 20 September 2013


Gambling is a matter of life and death in Toya Sato's 2009 thriller Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler. Death Note fans rejoice. Tatsuya Fujiwara stars as Kaiji, the titular character who gambles for his life upon a ship that promises salvation. A ship that promises hope but serves up cold beer, hot chicken and life as a slave. Well you can't have everything. We're talking about the lucky ones, of course, because for many hapless participants the endgame is death. 

Based on Fukumoto Nobuyuki's manga, Kaiji reunites Fujiwara with Kenichi Matsuyama, otherwise known as "L" from the Death Note series. The impressive cast also includes Yuki Amami, Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata), Taro Yamamoto and Ken Mitsuishi (Noriko's Dinner Table).

Unable to find a steady job since graduating, Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) falls further and further into debt through a life of drinking and gambling. A captivating yet cunning debt collector called Endo (Yuki Amami) shows up at Kaiji’s door and gives him a choice - a ten-year repayment plan or one night on the mysterious gambling ship Espoire and the chance to clear his debt. Kaiji is reluctant at first but eventually accepts the proposal, not realising that he has being tricked into an extreme gambling tournament against people more desperate than he. Winner takes all. The loser is left with nothing.

I knew very little about Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler before watching it, other than the fact that it reunites two of Death Note’s biggest stars. That was enough to spike my interest though, and I’m glad I went along for the ride. Fujiwara overacts alarmingly at times, but his performance is in keeping with the films high concept and even higher stakes. That said, he does cry an awful lot, and there are times when you'll wish he could just grow a pair. Kaiji is a very different character to Death Note’s Light, but fans of the star will relish the fact that he’s barely off screen. Matsuyama has a worthwhile supporting role, but I almost didn’t recognise him without his lollipops.

The standout performance comes from big bad Teruyuki Kagawa, who walks away with every scene he appears in. It’s a devilish performance, again in keeping with the high concept premise of the picture. I don’t want to give too much away but the film explores some interesting themes along the way, and the less you know the more you will take from it. It’s a fascinating concept that will keep you hooked, taking on the nature of class struggle and greed along the way.

There are three major gambling set pieces to consider, and they hold the key to Kaiji's success, but Toya Sato drags them out to such an extent that you’ll find your finger hovering dangerous over the FF button. As with the Death Note series, there's a baffling compulsion to explain everything away at every given opportunity. The Death Note films were dense in convoluted plotting so explanations proved helpful, but the cunning of Kaiji is ridiculously straightforward, so the need to explain every last detail is an unnecessary diversion that hampers the films progression.

In a nutshell, the characters talk way too much. The human derby scene is probably the best example of this. Not to give too much away but had the contestants kept their mouths shut, half of them would still be alive today. The film drowns in melodramatic intent and most of the actors are guilty of uncontrollable bouts of overacting at one point or another. I found it increasingly difficult to believe in any of them as real people, and would have cared for them a whole lot more had they not come on like cartoon characters in a comic book world.

That said, Sato is able to crank up the tension, and even though the film outstays its welcome, there's enough here to keep you entertained throughout. I’m hoping a proposed sequel addresses the issues above and makes the most of its unique concept. Cards on the table time, then, Death Note devotees will love being reunited with their favourite stars, but anyone expecting a well-rounded spectacle is coming away disappointed.

There’s a lot to enjoy, but considering the hand the film holds, Kaiji should have proved a whole lot darker and a lot more fun. The occasional gleeful twist impresses but surely Nobuyuki's manga deserves more than this? AW

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