Given the timid, committee-driven nature of modern Japanese film production, it’s rare for anything to make it into the cinemas with even the slightest whiff of controversy still clinging to it. “A Gambler’s Odyssey 2020” is a pungent exception.

Kazuya Shiraishi’s movie has been cultivating notoriety since its world premiere at a film festival in Macau last year was abruptly canceled, apparently due to organizers’ objections over its risque and “cynical” content. Distributors Toei cried censorship, only to walk back the claim with a retraction so ambiguous it merely heightened the confusion.

Then Japanese lawmakers started raising concerns about Shiraishi’s depiction of a near-future Japan in which the Tokyo Olympics has been canceled due to war, leading the film’s star, Takumi Saitoh, to hint that it might not be released at all.

A Gambler's Odyssey 2020 (Majan Horoki 2020)
Run Time 118 mins.
Opens Now showing

But the coup de grace came just weeks before the movie was due to open, when Shiraishi regular Pierre Taki — who appears in a minor role — was arrested on drug charges.

To its credit, Toei didn’t follow the example of the rest of the entertainment industry and try to erase Taki altogether. His scenes were left intact, but the film opens with the equivalent of a health advisory, warning viewers about the disreputable performer taking part. Perhaps we can expect the upcoming “Avengers: Endgame” to extend the same treatment to Robert Downey Jr.

The hoo-hah surrounding “A Gambler’s Odyssey 2020” turns out to be the best thing this messy, maddeningly unfocused film has going for it. Shiraishi has taken some significant risks here, but in all the wrong places.

Adapting a novel by Takehiro Irokawa, he transports the story’s hero from post-war Tokyo to the year 2020, then squanders most of the opportunities this creates. Likewise, his decision to shoot the entire movie on iPhone is audacious, but merely ensures that it’s frequently ugly to look at without ever feeling like more than a gimmick.

When a high-stakes mahjong session amid the rubble of 1945 Tokyo is struck by lightning, rakish gambling ace Tetsu (Saitoh) awakens to find himself 75 years in the future, as the capital is recovering from another — albeit rather less ruinous — war. Searching for one of his old haunts, he meets Doteko (the single-named Momo of pop duo Charan-Po-Rantan), an aspiring idol who works at a mahjong-themed maid cafe and shares an apartment with her sleazy, flatulent manager (Naoto Takenaka).

The pair quickly become key players in Tetsu’s picaresque adventures, which propel him toward a climactic showdown at the mothballed Olympic stadium with an android (the single-named Becky) who’s the spitting image of the proprietor from his old mahjong club. Along the way he gets to experience the modern pleasures of virtual-reality sex and online gaming, while helping Doteko get over her aversion to having intimate relations with anything that isn’t a zebra (don’t ask).

Although it has some mild digs at the Japanese establishment, there’s little in “A Gambler’s Odyssey 2020” that seems likely to keep politicians awake at night. The opening scenes — depicting intrusive state surveillance, police brutality and escalating militarism — promise a more pointed satire than the rest of the movie delivers, and the comedy seldom rises above the level of a running fart gag involving Takenaka’s character. Like the film’s supposedly scandalous reputation, it doesn’t amount to much in the end.

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