Film / Reviews

'Kakegurui': A high-stakes high school battle

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Japanese films set in high schools are now about as common as cherry trees in Tokyo. This makes box-office sense: Japanese teens read a lot of manga about kids their own age and the more popular become fodder for films.

In manga anything goes — from time travel to alternative universes — and that has carried over to the movies based on them.

This trend has not been all bad: Freed from the need to come up with something fresh to say about actual high school life — which is like coming up with something fresh to say about cherry blossoms — filmmakers have used fantasy academies to comment on everything from national politics (“Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High”) to city-versus-suburb status anxiety (“Fly Me to the Saitama”).

Kakegurui (Kakegurui)
Rating
Run Time 119 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The latest film in this line is Tsutomu Hanabusa’s “Kakegurui,” which is based on a hit manga by Homura Kawamoto (writer) and Toru Naomura (illustrator) about a high school where high-stakes gambling is the sole curriculum. The manga has also spawned a popular TV series.

No prior acquaintance with the comic or show is needed to understand the film’s stand-alone story, though. Also, production values are high: The film’s high school resembles a casino for high rollers in a 007 flick.

This, to anyone who knows the Spartan realities of Japanese high schools, is both funny and bizarre, somewhat like reimaging an army boot camp as a luxurious holiday resort. But at Hyakkaou Private Academy gaming is as serious as death, with winners ascending to the heights of wealth and prestige, losers descending to the status of dogs and cats and forced to wear collars. And the students’ skill at games of chance carries over to their post-graduation lives, with the winners given a permanent address on Easy Street.

A disruptor arrives in the form of Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a bubbly transfer student who is also an ace gambler. She makes it her goal to topple Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda), the cold-eyed student council president who rules godlike over the huddled masses. Also, a wider power struggle unfolds between Kirari and her minions and a rebel faction called the Village that opposes gambling and is led by Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), a quiet, mysterious guy who once — miracle of miracles — beat Kirari at cards. These rivals finally clash in a school-wide gambling contest, presided over by Kirari, that pits pairs of partners against each other in a quest for student council posts, and the accompanying instant wealth.

The film conveys masses of information, including the arcane rules of its games, simply, clearly and, for the most part, entertainingly. Some bits drag or become shouty, but in general the tone is more comically ironic than melodramatically overwrought.

Also, most of the best student gamblers are girls, played with all-out energy by the same newcomer actresses who originated the roles on TV. And though it’s not hard to guess who will end up in the championship game, the climax delivers a twist that surprises, but proceeds from all that came before.

“Kakegurui,” however, is about more than the winners and losers at its brain-twisting games. It’s also a sharp commentary about a society that, for all its surface niceness, can be brutally competitive, with few second chances for the losers. And the house — that is, the Kiraris of the world — controls the odds.