Kaiji 2: Film Review

A geeky but still entertaining sequel to the crowd-pleasing "gambling" genre.

Japanese machine fetish reaches a hilarious height in "Kaiji 2," which stakes millions of yen and several lives in a battle to out-wit a Pachinko machine.

TOKYO -- Japanese machine fetish reaches a hilarious height in Kaiji 2, where the eponymous protagonist stakes millions of yen and several lives in a battle to outwit a Pachinko (pinball) machine as monstrous as Megatron. Toya Sato satisfies both the geeks and the popular audiences with a bloated mix of mind games, mechanical gimmicks and exaggerated human drama, all directed with the same kind of brash, excitable zing as his other TV-to-movie efforts (Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler, Gokusen). Nobuyuki Fukumoto, who authored the original manga Tobaku Mokushi Roku Kaiji and its three sequels, which spawned a long TV animation series, co-writes with Junya Yamazaki and Sachiko Oguchi. The trio make liberal extractions from the manga resulting in a more cinematic situations and escalating levels of tension. 

Domestically, it made a stash within the first two days. It's a safe bet that its winning streak will continue in the four Asia territories it sold to, given the success of the off-shoot genre of survival-game thrillers and continued popularity of goofy Hong Kong gambling action-comedies. 

The series pivots on a paradoxical conceit, or rather vicious circle: the protagonist Kaiji Ito (Fujiwara) gets into deep trouble for gambling, yet he must gamble his way out of his predicament. So despite beating Yukio Tonekawa (Teruyuki Kagawa), honcho of evil casino syndicate Teiai in a decisive card game in part 1, he has slipped back into his old spendthrift ways and is again condemned to slave away in Teiai's black market labor catacombs when part 2 begins. His break comes after defeating card shark Otsuki, earning him a 14-day vacation above ground, where he must turn over just under $13,000 into $2.5 million to free himself and his fellow laborers from bondage. 

A chain of 'coincidences' leads Kaiji to La Mare au diable, a high-rolling pachinko parlor run by the nefarious Seiya Ichijo (Yusuke Iseya). La Mare's pièce de résistance is the Swamp, a Godzilla among pachinko machines, with an unclaimed reward of some $167 million. Unclaimed, because the balls never fall into to the right holes. Kaiji finds unlikely allies in Kotaro Sakasaki (Katsuhisa Namase) and Hiromi Ishida (Yuriko Yoshitaka). The former is a laid off manager who wants to win back his life by hitting Swamp's jackpot; the latter is a rebellious employee at La Mare. Tonekawa and Funai (Suzuki Matsuo), another villain from part one, resurface to make mischief. 

The film's creators are too eager to bring on the spectacle of the Swamp to connect the two parts properly, hastily slipping in semi-explanatory flashbacks and rushing over character backstory. 

The plot is funneled into the human-Swamp match, each upping the ante in imagination and technical deployment. There's undeniable thrill and surprise to see Kaiji's team employ mathematics, logic, laws of gravity and even an onerous form of DIY to uncover how it's rigged and sabotage its operation. Lovingly rendered diagrams are used to illustrate its complex anatomy. The frenzied camerawork heightens the visual spectacle of balls pelting down like a hailstorm, so that in climactic scenes the machine dominates with the surreal, fearsome presence of contraptions in Metropolis

The film offers less suspense and satisfaction in character development and performances. With the emergence of sister-genres like survival games film Liar Game and Incite Mill Death Game (also starring Fujiwara), character reversals have become the rule rather than the exception. So no matter how many times the key persons in Kaiji switch their allegiances, it no longer surprises. The entire cast cranks up their acting but given their cardboard roles, have no hopes of being more than that. Compared to the subtly devious Tonegawa in part two, Ichijo is a lame arch-rival to Kaiji. Iseya's hyper-ventilated reactions and boorish mannerisms do nothing to invest his role with any humanity. Had a twist revelation of his past been woven into the plot earlier rather than thrown in at the very end, it would have provided more credible motivation to his ruthlessness. 

Technical credits are so-so, though blockbuster lenser Osamu Fujiishi (Bayside Shakedown)'s camera movements, as well as music and sound levels are all over the top even by Japanese commercial film standards.

Venue: TIFF-Com Market Screenings.
Sales: Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV)
Production company: AX-ON Inc, Kaiji 2 Film Partners (NTV, Horipro Inc., TOHO, YTV, VAP, D.N. Dreampartners, Kodansha, Hint Inc).
Cast: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Yusuke Iseya, Katsuhisa Namase, Yuriko Yoshitaka, Teruyuki Kagawa.
Director: Toya Sato
Screenwriters: Nobuyuki Fukumoto, Junya Yamazaki, Sachiko Oguchi.
Based on the manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto.Producer: Hirohito Watanabe.
Planning producers Naoto Fujimura, Masatoshi Yamaguchi
Chief producers: Hiroshi Miyazaki, Kamikura Katsu.
Executive producer: Seiji Okuda.
Director of photography: Osamu Fujiishi.
Production designer: Kazuhisa Kitajima.
Music: Yugo Kanno.
Editor: Mototaka Kusakabe.
No rating, 135 minutes.