This is a movie with so many metaphors, ideas and layers of meaning that I think you could watch it over and over and still find something new to discover. It is also something of a Tatsuya Fujiwara old boys reunion since it reunites him with co-stars from two of his most popular movies – Taro Yamamoto (Kawada in Battle Royale) and Ken’ichi Matsuyama (L in Death Note).
Mr. Fujiwara plays Kaiji, a shiftless no hoper with a crap job and no prospects of anything at all. He’s close to thirty and dreams of changing his life, but he doesn’t seem to be able to get up the motivation to change his clothes. He’s a perfect example of the victim mentality – everything and everyone is against him and stuff he does without thinking comes back to bite him, like a huge debt reneged by an ‘old friend’ for whom he stood guarantor.
The debt collector is a smooth as glass operator called Endo (gorgeous Yuki Amami who certainly doesn’t look anywhere near 39) who is also working for the nastiest screen villain ever to grace the celluloid – Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa). They stitch up Kaiji good, getting him on board a cruise ship, ostensibly to pay off his debts by gambling, but really so they can put him to work on a vast underground complex.
Reunion #1 – Shuya and Kawada – I mean, Kaiji and Funai
Don’t miss the bad guys going on about fall out shelters in the opening, it kind of explains what’s going on underground. The work is backbreaking, and long termers end up with hacking coughs, like miners, but it is paid, sort of – and as soon as the money gets into their hot little hands, the foreman encourages the workers to piss it all away on beer and fried chicken. Aha – it is usually about here that the Aha! moment kicks in. One of the layers in this movie is allegory, and if you’ve ever scratched your head at your mates pissing away their hard earned salary at the end of the week in places where all they do for you is relieve you of the burden of money – you’ll know where director Toya Sato is coming from.
Reunion #2 – Light Yagami and L – I mean Kaiji and Sahara
Ken’ichi Matsuyama pops in here as Makoto Sahara, a long termer in the grip of the deadly cough, who is chosen for ‘Brave Man Road”, the only way out of the underground work camp. Why is it called that? You’d rather not know. Kaiji volunteers to go with him, and they and several others are hauled waaaaay up above the surface to a balance beam suspended between two skyscrapers. All they have to do is cross it. On foot. In the rain. And typical of people when they get one chance to pull themselves out of the crap, they argue and fuss and waste time instead of just getting on with it. More metaphor and allegory, if you are looking for it. This scene irritates a lot of people, but once you understand what Sato is getting at, again, it all makes sense.
Think you can beat me? The awesome Teruyuki Kagawa
All of the performances are excellent, and very much in the Japanese style of acting which means a lot of emotion, especially Tatsuya Fujiwara and Ken’ichi Matsuyama. The latter is only on screen for a short time, but it is probably in the nature of a ‘guest’ appearance, as he gets a thank you in the credits.
But the one person who steals every scene he is in is Teruyuki Kagawa as Tonegawa. This man has the most amazingly expressive face that he hardly needs dialogue (although he delivers it brilliantly with a voice like a stabbing knife). His expressions range from slightly amused sarcasm to downright evil bastardry. It’s a spine chilling, bone cracking performance that keeps you on the edge of your seat. What a master this man is. He and Tatsuya Fujiwara get into an awesome acting duel during the last card game of the movie that is worth the price of admission alone.
I can’t wait to see Kaiji II and the next instalment of the life of the ultimate gambler – or ultimate survivor, as he is also known. He may be a loser in life, but pushed to the edge, Kaiji has wits to live on, and his misadventures here have shown him that no life is worthless, and that a man’s life is the sum of his actions and choices, not his failures.