This review contains spoilers for the movie Kaiji ~Jinsei Gyakuten Game~
Fujiwara Tatsuya (Light in Death Note) stars in this Kafkaesque gambling nightmare in which a loser called Kaiji finds himself in trouble with a loan company. This is no ordinary loan company, however; this one is embroiled in a secret conspiracy to force young men to wager their lives in order to repay their debts. Some Japanese fans have complained that Fujiwara doesn’t look sufficiently like Kaiji, but it’s a complaint best ignored.
I didn’t have an accurate impression going into this film. Simply put, the trailer is a lie. I had every reason to believe that Kaiji was going on a luxury cruise where he would gamble to either repay his debt or die. It certainly starts off that way and I thought the scene where the man in a suit explains the first game and it turns out to be a variation of janken (rock, scissors, paper) was pretty funny. The resulting chaos as some men charge about the boat and some try to fix the game is reminiscent of my time spent teaching in elementary schools as an ALT. The only difference is that losers are dragged outside, presumed by those watching to be killed. I’ll have to consider adding that one to my repertoire.
Kaiji does some fancy things with card-marking in the first game, but gets dragged off to do hard labour because his companion forgot about a card he had in his pocket. With that, the cruise liner arc is finished. Kaiji spends the next few scenes working underground for the loan company, receiving little pay which he and his fellow labourers immediately spend on beer and yakitori.
Wow. Is this an indictment of modern day life? Kaiji’s decision to buy beer and then tons of food to go with it is definitely portrayed negatively. But then he sighs with all the happiness of a man from a beer commercial and you start to wonder again. Another interesting connection are the ones the film draws between gambling, being a slave to money and the legal loan shark-style companies that are popular in Japan.
The movie can’t help but be at least mildly pro-gambling though, as the manga was written by Fukumoto Nobuyuki, who loves devising new games. It’s not the big eyes that distinguish manga from mainstream American comics, it’s the way mangaka (combined writer/illustrators of manga) use their specialty knowledge, whether it be tennis, wine or gambling. However, the film doesn’t know if it celebrates the acquisition of money and making money through gambling, or if it disapproves of this sort of thing.
One scene that deserves special attention is “Brave Men’s Road”, where Kaiji and a number of disposable characters have to walk on a narrow beam between two skyscrapers. Just writing that doesn’t describe the level of tension in this scene. It’s truly amazing and terrifying. You are drawn into the men’s decision-making process and by the time they start to cross the bridge, you’ve already asked yourself if you’d do the same.
The final showdown is similar to the idea behind the first game and is a bit like deciding to play rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock instead of rock, scissors, paper. Seems more workable than the card game Rabbit Nabokov from 20th Century Boys though.
In the end, this movie has some great individual scenes worth seeing, but the plot arc is fairly weak.