2009 Crowd-Pleasing Japanese Comic Book Movies: Kaiji

Japan also makes big-deal crowd-pleaser movies out of comic books these days, you know. In fact, as anime fans sit back and worry about Hollywood adaptations like Akira, Robotech, and Evangelion that may never materialize, Japan’s been cranking them out on low budgets for years. The reason you don’t ever hear about these movies is that just like the bulk of Hollywood’s comic-book movies, they tend to suck: the reputations of the Devilman and Casshern adaptations precede them. Of course, the story of Kaiji— a young loser pushed into a never-ending series of deadly gambles, which he fights his way out of like a cornered animal— is a little easier to film than a superhero comic. That doesn’t mean they got it right. In transitioning Fukumoto’s distinctively ugly, cartoonishly gritty, and utterly gripping manga to a live-action multiplex-pleaser, the producers of the Kaiji movie have scrubbed it clean, smoothed off all the edges, and left behind precious little of what made the comic good in the first place.

Let’s look at Kaiji himself. They got Tatsuya Fujiwara, the same guy who was cast as Light in the Death Note movies. Problem: Fujiwara is pretty. Light is pretty, but Kaiji is not. Kaiji’s an average slob with a mullet. I’m going to need a visual aid.

This is comic Kaiji, straight off the cover:

And this is movie Kaiji:

It doesn’t really matter how much they grunge the dude up, because all I’m seeing throughout the film is a male model who’s been dressed up in ratty clothes and had his hair messed up by a professional. The actor’s good at playing desperate, but he’s not good enough to trick me into seeing anything but a movie star. He’s not Kaiji. Even the blood dripping from his forehead at the end of the movie is unconvincing. The guy’s just too clean.

This whole movie’s too clean. Look at Hyoudou, the boss of Teiai Corporation and the main villain of the series: they’ve turned a character who was hideous even by Fukumoto standards— an evil little goblin covered in spots who likes to make his minions drink wine he’s bathed his feet in— into your kindly grandpa. At one point in the film, this guy stands up and says:

“What a trifling, boring match! You could’ve let him win first to bait him into a huge loss, make him bet his finger or his heart in a game of life or death!”

And he’s right, and things never get any more exciting. Particularly in the final battle, many of the over-the-top and violent elements of the gamble— the high stakes that give such tension to Fukumoto’s comics, and such weight to the finale of the first series— have been removed. No body parts are bet, no elaborate mutilator machines are brought out. The stakes are high, but they’re not crazy. As Fukumoto fans will tell you, one of the guy’s main draws is the way he intimately explores insanity.

The movie runs through the major points of the first Kaiji series (and writes in a few bits from the second) about as fast as it possibly can. I can understand cutting down the manga— in the second series Kaiji spends eight books thwarting a diabolical pachinko machine— but the games are run through so quickly that they lose any suspense. Every gamble is pared down to the most essential points, no twisting, no turning. The entire rock-paper-scissors arc is taken care of in thirty minutes, rapid-fire. Rarely do we see the psychological element that grabs the reader in the original comics: the player’s thought processes, the way their logic ties them up and the way Fukumoto visualizes a human being’s descent into madness. The sound guys made a great “zawazawa” sound effect that you only hear two or three times in the movie, because there’s simply no such tension here. Nobody stops long enough for there to be any.

In a reasonable attempt to make the all-male main cast of Kaiji more accessible to a wider audience, Endou, the loan shark who first coerces Kaiji into the exciting world of debt slavery and life-threatening gambles, is a woman in this film. This re-interpretation of the character is mostly the Endou we remember from the comics and the anime, except the movie also saddles her with its conscience. Unlike the manga, Endou just happens to be on the scene of the gambles for half of the film (Waitressing? Are you people serious?), and they’re constantly cutting back to her concerned or guilty expression every time Kaiji’s shown to be in trouble. She berates him, abuses him, screws him over to the very end, but when Kaiji’s about to fall off that electrified rail to his death, she cares. Endou’s been rewritten as a tsundere. By the end, Kaiji and Endou are making googly eyes at each other over dinner. I’m not sure whether or not all this is genuinely out of character: I’ll have to go talk to some yaoi fangirls about it.

Listening to bouncy J-pop (two straight songs!) play over the denouement slammed home exactly what had gone wrong with this movie. The plot points are all there (as though checking off a to-do list), half the dialogue is lifted directly from the manga, but the filmmakers score a zero on Fukumoto atmosphere. If I had to give a word to the new atmosphere, it’d be “studio”. And the studio’s certainly achieved their goal. They’ve made something that more people will enjoy than the original Kaiji. It’s also something that all those people will forget five minutes after they see it. Watch the anime instead.

(As a consolation prize, I will offer you a live-action adaptation that actually does right by its source material: Be a Man! Samurai School, an adaptation of Shonen Jump classic Charge! Otokojuku.)

8 Comments

  1. What a shame. Kaiji could have made a really cool live action flick, but when ever they cast someone like Tatsuya Fujiwara, the alarm bells start ringing (in the films that I’ve seen him in, the only one I thought he was even half-way decent in was Battle Royale.) In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to watch this, so, thanks for the review!

    ‘Boys on the Run’ should be good, or, at the very least, the trailer doesn’t feel so awfully ‘studio’ (I wish the same could be said for the Gantz movie!)

  2. Do you ever bring us any good news, Colony Drop? Well, at least you’ve saved me some time.

    Yet you’ve reminded me that we are supposed to receive a second season of Kaiji, so there’s always hope.

  3. “the reputations of the Devilman and Casshern adaptations precede them.”

    Casshern was fine. If it was directed by Gondry, Aronofsky, the Wachowskis, or that hack who just gave us Kick-Ass, you’d be sucking if off and calling it the best ever. But because it doesn’t go for the obligatory stoner film school loopy psychedelic color scene, it’s written off as crap.

    “The guy’s just too clean.”

    So he’s basically got the same problem as Brolin in Jonah Hex?

  4. Casshern was absolutely appalling! Doesn’t matter who the director was, it was just dreadfully written in terms of plot and characters, the direction was overbearing, full of heavyhanded, portentous visuals, grasping for deeper meaning amid the shallow sands of the plot, and the acting was dire, with even Aso Kumiko failing to bring any spark of life to it. It was like watching a two hour Linkin Park video. A shockingly bad film.

  5. Seconded on the Casshern film being horrendous. Every line of dialogue seemed to be have been dragged out from the murky depths of Sci-Fi Cliché Hell, the overpowering visual symbolism is hamfisted enough to make the work of Todd McFarlane look like a masterpiece of tasteful minimalism, the story was predictable enough to effectively eliminate any possibility of genuine drama and, worst enough, it gave off all the impression of a work the director considered to be terribly important.

    When (spoiler warning for a movie that nobody cares about) Luna died, I actually said out loud “well she’s coming back”. And then, just because the film cannot let anything dramatic possibly happen, she’s resurrected in the most ridiculous of manners before the end of that same scene. If Michel Gondry did something that awful, people would call him on it – and, in fact, for all of your examples, these guys have been called out on bullshit not nearly as bad as what happened every few minutes in that terrible movie.

  6. Seriously, I loved this movie. True, it lacked some major twists and suspense but then again, that’s bcuz of it’s time limitation.

    Not only that, I too found it odd that the taio group was building something underground…I wish they explained that.

    Kaiji’s character in the movie was quite alright but yea, I wished they made him think more often and let us hear his internal monologue.

    As for Tatsuya Fujiwara acting, it was superb. I think he’s a great actor!!

  7. Actually, there are adaptations of anime and manga which are done right.

    The movies for Nodame Cantabile and Liar Game were very good. The live action TV series of Nodame Cantabile is actually better than the manga.

    Yatterman was silly, but quite entertaining too.

    BECK and Kimi ni Todoke are apparently quite good movies too, esp. Kimi ni Todoke.

    Nowadays, a great deal of Japanese live action TV dramas are based off manga too. While many suck, there are good ones like the aforementioned Nodame Cantabile and Liar Game. Hana Yori Dango and Hanakimi, while not great, weren’t bad either.

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