Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/29/20 00:49:47

"Worth a gamble even if you haven't seen the rest."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You do not actually need to have seen the 13 episodes of the "Kakegurui" television series to follow this film, which stars the same cast and appears to pick up where they leave off - there's a character whose primary purpose seems to be to get a new viewer up to speed - but it's probably useful to know that this is not a completely stand-alone film in order to temper one's expectations. There is some fairly inspired material here, but the audience can't get the entire picture.

As journalism club member Kyu Nitobe (Akira Onodera) informs us latecomers over the first fifteen minutes, Hyakkoah Academy is an elite school for children of the super-rich, but instead of focusing on academics or athletics, it is dedicated to gambling, under the premise that knowing when and how to bet and win big is the most important skill in business. Yumeka Jabami (Minami Hamabe) is a recent transfer student but one who has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the school's most skilled and compulsive gamblers, quite possibly a rival to Student Council President Kiari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) herself. There are other threats to the Council's power - a group of students who have renounced gambling has formed The Village in an abandoned school building, with Jueri Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara) its most public officer and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), said to have once bested Momobami herself, the mysterious leader; less high-minded vandals led by Tomo Inuhachi (Mariko Ito) destroying gaming tables - so she decides to hold a special election, in which students must gamble to vote and candidates play in pairs. Super-rich brat Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) tries to recruit Yumeko to her team, but she decides to work with high-strung boyfriend Ryota Suzui (Mahiro Takasugi), while her friend Meari Saotome (Aoi Morikawa) teams with a Villager who still likes gambling a lot, Jun Kiwatari (Yuma Yamoto), with Jueri and Tomo forming another team - while Murasame chooses to sit the election out.

That is a lot of characters, and it's pretty clear that there could have been even more, with the student council having some pretty colorful folks on the bench, a bunch of people Yumeko has defeated name-checked, and Nitobe kind of hanging around on the sidelines once his fifteen minutes or so of intense exposition at the start is done. On the other side, fans of the show can probably look through that description and spot the "guest star" pretty quickly. It makes that first stretch frantic and maybe dizzying for the newbies while likely being something the fans will fast-forward through, one of the busiest "previously on…" packages ever assembled. It's fairly effective for establishing the players, but leaves the whole set-up as something one definitely shouldn't examine too closely - is there any sort of faculty at this school, or classes, or is it all kind of self-directed, like Nitobe doing a sort of school paper thing? Why do the kids in The Village care about being expelled if they've got no interest in participating in the activity that is the school's reason for being? Just what sort of power do the "Life Plan" documents being thrown around have outside the academy's gates? There are some genuinely clever ideas at work here - the idea that captains of industry are being trained to treat the economy like a game rather than learn practical skills is both sociopathic and bitingly on-point satire, and there's a sort of lesson to how the game which takes up most of the film's second half requires a balance of skill and personal charisma - but, wow, does the premise as presented here have some big gaps to be filled in!

And yet, there is something about the whole thing that works, even as director Tsumotu Hanabusa and co-writer Minato Takano rush to get things set up and then spend over half of the film's running time playing purpose-built card games. They seem to have narrowed the focus down to the most entertaining members of the cast - although it feels like they could have done more with Elaiza Ikeda's Kiari Momobami; she's set up as the alpha villain and has a soft-spoken demeanor that comes across as both cute and icy - but spends most of the film as the spider in the center of the web, the mastermind kept in reserve because too many direct confrontations with the hero would render her ordinary. Of course, it might also be because the prologue hints that her special ability is cheating, and that makes beating her a matter of mechanics while the gambling brings up entertaining contrasts in the characters' styles and personalities: Maeri figures out the rules and what strategy gives her an advantage, matching how Aoi Morikawa plays her as friendly but kind of aloof; Murasame is a natural card-counter but as such doesn't relate to people well, making Hio Miyazawa's performance often kind of dull even though the guy is motivated by tragedy (he's the exact opposite of Mahiro Takasugi's hammy but lively Suzui); and Yumeko is the epitome of the gambler who focuses on the player rather than the cards, a trait which makes her lively, fun-loving, and more than a bit manipulative. Minami Hamabe does impressive work in making Yumeko a pretty interesting heroine, capturing the sort of chaotic energy that makes her exciting even as something kind of uncaring is often underneath. The larger narrative probably has her transferring to the school with a long game to settle some sort of score, but in the meantime, she's a delightful trickster type.

It's good that the cast is this much fun and game for whatever gets thrown at them, because despite the high-stakes, extended-length game at the center, this movie doesn't exactly feel like something that was too big for TV and needed a theatrical feature to do it justice. There's less of a gap between the production quality of film and television these days, but most of the time when something makes the jump to the big screen, there will be some elaborate new location, fancy camera work, or a spectacular centerpiece, but this sure feels like it was shot on standing sets (including a lot of time in a very generic basement corridor), and the big battle sequence is entirely sold by characters' enthusiasm rather than impressive choreography. It's not bad at all, but it feels like the film could have used a bit more flair; the end seems like it should have been a bigger deal for what the characters say happened as fallout.

Maybe they're saving that for season 3, should that get made. "Kakegurui" is an entertaining manga adaptation as a movie - you can watch it on its own and have a good time - but it's clearly meant to be part of that larger series more than something that stands alone.

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