The Slave beats the Emperor, because he has nothing to lose
Japan has a lot of words for their layabout population of 20-30 year olds who aren’t up to anything useful. “Freeter” is an old term left over from the Bubble Era that was basically a shortened form of “Freeloader” meaning those who chose not to work even though there were plenty of jobs available. “NEET” is a more modern term, meaning “Not in Employment, Education or Training” meaning those who have no job or goals, and just kind of drift though life aimlessly. “Parasite Single” is the latest term, talking about those who are old enough to know better (30+) but are still unmarried, jobless and ambitionless.
In “Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler,” (Japanese title “Kaiji: Jinsei gyakuten gemu” or “Kaiji: The Turn-your-Life-Around Game”) all of these people get tagged with a single word: Loser.
The story begins with Kaiji (Fujiwara Tatsuya, Light Yagami from Death Note) being confronted by an attractive older woman named Endo (Amami Yuki, Inugami) who has come to collect a debt. Because Kaiji co-signed a loan years ago for a friend, he is now responsible for paying back the loan. Far beyond Kaiji’s means, Endo gives him two options. Work of the debt for the next ten years, or join some other losers on the gambling boat Espoir for a chance to win enough money to clear the debt entirely and become rich in the process.
The Espoir boat turns out to be a scam led by Okata Kazutaka (Veteran actor Sato Kei, Kwaidan) to create a debt-slave labor force to build an underground city and new society for which he will be king. Those who lose on the Espoir find their debts increased by the millions, and are soon chain-ganged underground digging in tunnels. Even down below, Okata attempts to increase their debts by offering them beer and tasty snacks to comfort them in their labor, but the purchase of which only lengthens their stay.
The only way out of the slave camps is to gamble your life in a further series of games, which lead to even deadlier consequences for those who take the challenge. But a man with nothing to lose and everything to win might just be willing to take that chance, and such a man is Kaiji.
Based on the long-running manga series “Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji” (Japanese title “Tobaku Mokushiroku Kaiji”) by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, “Kaiji: The Ultimate Gamble” tackles Japan’s pressing social issue of these parasite singles in a unique and interesting way, by pitting them against each other in various contests for the entertainment of the wealthy classes. Dangling the promise of easy wealth before them, these perpetual losers are manipulated and toyed with, and only one of them is able to see how they are being used like slaves and has the audacity to attempt to break free.
To be honest, “Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler” is not a very good movie. I wouldn’t call it a bad flick, but neither is it good. It falls pretty firmly into the realm of “so-so.”
The mix of social issues with action sequences, while interesting, comes off as clumsy and forced. While Director Sato Toya goes for the same allegorical feel that was so successful in Battle Royale, it just doesn’t work here. Sato is mainly a television director and probably used to having more time to build out his story. Unfortunately, attempting to squish the multi-volume story of “Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji” into a two-hour timeframe means that too much is lost or rendered into short sound bites. There is no real distillation of the core story.
There is almost no background or setting for “Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler.” Is this modern Japan or some alternate reality? We don’t know. Who is the ultra-rich Okata Kazutaka, and why does he want to build an underground kingdom? Never explained. Why does Kaiji choose the exact moment of standing on a thin, electrified iron beam suspended twenty-two stories above the ground, in the rain, to deliver a monologue on changing your life? I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t have stood up there. And speaking of which, don’t any police forces notice an enormous amount of missing men between the ages of 20-30, not to mention an occasional rain of bodies from two of the tallest buildings in town?
Plot holes you could drive a fleet of buses through.
The manga has a lot more back story for these characters, and too much has been changed in the film. Okata Kazutaka in the manga is a man who has become so rich that he is endlessly bored and gets thrills from pitting the refuse of society against each other in gambling matches. Kaiji is much more cunning in the manga, being a savvy gambler who takes risks and wins, but always finds himself in the position where he needs to throw the metaphorical dice again. Endo is male in the manga, but changed to female in the movie to create some sexual tension, which is one of the few changes that I thought worked well.
Other things that worked well were the gambling matches themselves. Sato took three of the gambling matches from the first series of the comic, the “Restricted Rock, Paper, Scissors,” “The Human Derby” (here called “The Brave Man Road”) and “The E-Card,” The games are clever, and get the viewer thinking about strategies to win. Even thought the “underground kingdom” made no sense, I think it was interesting how Okata tricked the workers into believing they were responsible for their own slavery, thus ensuring no revolt. There were clever bits here and there that keeps the film from being a total loss.
A big part of the advertising is that it “Reunites the cast from “Death Note”,” and it does for a little bit. Matsuyama Kennichi (L from “Death Note”) pops in and out fairly quickly as one of Kaiji’s work-mates underground and a co-contestant on the Brave Man Road. That was one of the highlights of the film, but it isn’t like Matsuyama and Fujiwara have that much screen time together. And even then, both actors’ performances are well below par. Fujiwara in particular seems to have trouble controlling his volume, and simply over-reacts to everything or simply screams at it.
“Death Note” and later productions like “20th Century Boy” really raised the bar for manga-to-film adaptations, and “Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler” just did not clear that bar.