The popular manga series gets a live-action adaptation. A sinister ship, dozens of desperate gamblers, three games of chance – and one ultimate gambler? Angela Burton crosses her fingers and climbs aboard.
Based on the Japanese manga with the same name by Nokuyuki Fukumoto, Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler has also been adapted as an anime television series. This live-action movie stars Tatsuya Fujiwara as Kaiji Ito (Deathnote’s Light Yagami who is reunited with the same film’s Ken'ichi Matsuyama).
Kaiji is poor and out of work. When Rinko Endo (Yuki Amami) a top executive at the shadowy Teiai Group pays him a visit, things grow decidedly worse. As it turns out, a co-signed loan for a friend was a bad idea, his friend has skipped town and the debt is now being collected from Kaiji by the company’s unscrupulous loan sharks. He is given two options: pay back the money or spend the night aboard the gambling ship, Espoir (the ship’s name, ‘hope’ in French, reflects the necessarily optimistic attitude of the gamblers). If he wins the onboard game, the debt will be forgiven. If not, well, he’ll see. Once aboard the ship, Kaiji is in for another surprise. There are dozens of people same position and everyone is equally desperate. They must battle their way out in a huge tournament of ‘rock, paper, scissors’.
This section of the film works well. As the stakes get higher, the players step up their game, pleading, bargaining with and outwitting their opponents – and it’s tense and suspenseful stuff.
But ‘paper, rock, scissors’ is only the first of three competitions Kaiji takes part in. The second is far weaker, being only tangentially related to gambling activities and appearing thematically out of place. This time forced to gamble with their lives a group must cross an electrified beam – failure to do so will lead to certain death. After the genuine suspense of the first part, the only way the filmmakers can see to up the ante here is via some serious overacting. Characters screech and moan while pretending to be afraid of a drop that obviously isn’t there and swing their arms around like windmills.
A third contest improves things somewhat but by this stage, we’re asking questions and finding no satisfactory answers. Why do these evil, wealthy people patronise this tournament? Why does Kaiji never learn from his mistakes? How much longer can this film go on for?
Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler never quite manages to transcend its David versus Goliath storyline and as a viewer, you never really doubt the ultimate outcome. Tatsuya Fujiwara plays Kaiji as a spoilt five-year-old, whose wailing and screeching does not endear. Yuki Amami manages to imbue her character with the necessary gravitas but it’s Teruyuki Kagawa’s Yukio Tonegawa who steals the show. As second-in-command to the mysterious Chairman of the Teiai Group, Tonegawa provokes the debtors and lures them into life-or-death games. It’s his cool façade, broken at last, that rescues the finale of this film.
Altogether, it’s a disappointing adaptation that took the saying, “you’ve got to be in it to win it” too literally. They should have learned the lesson familiar to gamblers everyhwere: “quit while you're ahead.”
Rating on a scale of 5 ship’s casinos: 1
Release date: July 26
Directed by: Tôya Satô
Screenplay by: Mika Omori
Based on the graphic novel by: Nobuyuki Fukumoto
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ken'ichi Matsuyama, Teruyuki Kagawa, Yuriko Yoshitaka, Tarô Yamamoto, Yûki Amami, Kei Satô, Ken Mitsuishi, Suzuki Matsuo
Running time: 130 minutes