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“Kaiji: the Ultimate Gambler” was originally released in Japan in 2009 as “Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji”, and now arrives on region 2 DVD via 4Digital Media. Based on Fukumoto Nobuyuki’s popular manga, the film was helmed by “Gokusen” director Sato Toya, and stars “Battle Royale” favourite Fujiwara Tatsuya in the lead, with support from his old “Death Note” nemesis Matsuyama Kenichi, along with the likes of Amami Yuki (“Gelatin”, “Silver Love”), Kagawa Teruyuki (“Tokyo Sonata”), Yamamoto Taro (“The Glorious Team Batista 2”), and Mitsuishi Ken (“Noriko’s Dinner Table”). The release comes with a handful of extras including a brief making of documentary, and even some Janken and Emperor cards.
Fujiwara Tatsuya stars as the titular Kaiji, a rather wretched thirty year old man who has never achieved anything with his life. Everything changes when a loan shark called Endo (Amami Yuki) turns up, informing that he has inherited a massive debt from a friend. Being unable to even think of repaying the money, Kaiji instead reluctantly agrees to board a mysterious boat and take part in a mass gambling competition, unaware that the stakes are far higher than he realises.
Despite its title and early scenes, “Kaiji: the Ultimate Gambler” doesn’t feature much gambling in the strictest sense, and the film quickly develops into a series of extreme survival challenges in which the protagonist is pitted against other desperate people while a strange society of decadent elites take bets on their lives. The plot itself is pretty outlandish, involving people being forced into slavery and the building of a giant underground bunker, though this works well, and gives the film a suitably fun and manga feel. Although the trials are interesting enough, it’s the card playing sequences at the start and end of the film which are the most effective and gripping, with director Sato Toya managing to notch up a fair amount of tension, even if he does drag out the overturning of vital cards to an almost ludicrous extent. The film is quite tense and exciting, with some great set pieces, and though it’s pretty obvious that Kaiji himself is unlikely to get knocked out before the end, the supporting cast are dispatched in an enjoyably ruthless manner.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film’s greatest asset is its social conscience, and it benefits considerably from having a bitter edge, dealing with themes of responsibility and the exploitation of the poor and unfortunate. Although the film isn’t exactly deep, this philosophical bent makes it more interesting than it might have been, and nicely underscores its final act and climatic card duels. Thankfully, Toya never lets things get too po-faced, and the film is quite funny in places, with Fujiwara Tatsuya making for a likeable everyman protagonist despite his many flaws. There are a few unintentional laughs thanks to some near camp overacting, especially from Kagawa Teruyuki as the main villain and during voice over scenes as characters try to second guess each others schemes. This is certainly no bad thing, and it helps the film to overcome some of its rather variable pacing, being a bit overlong at a weighty two hours and fifteen minutes.
Toya’s slick direction similarly gives “Kaiji: the Ultimate Gambler” a real boost, as do some top notch production values and a bombastic soundtrack. The film has plenty of visual flourishes in the Hollywood style, and certainly has the look and feel of a big budget blockbuster. Coupled with its thoughtful edge, this makes it more entertaining than some of the more hollow Japanese popcorn films of recent years, and it should certainly enjoyed by a wider audience than just fans of the manga or gambling films in general.
Tôya Satô (director) / Nobuyuki Fukumoto (manga), Mika Omori (screenplay)
CAST: Ken’ichi Matsuyama … Makoto Sahara
Tatsuya Fujiwara … Kaiji Ito
Teruyuki Kagawa … Yukio Tonegawa
Tarô Yamamoto … Joji Funai
Yûki Amami … Rinko Endo
Kei Satô … Kazutaka Okada
Ken Mitsuishi … Koji Ishida
Suzuki Matsuo … Taro Otsuki