Kakegurui (2019) Tsutomu Hanabusa

Hyakkao Academy is a prestigious establishment for the elite with a peculiar code of conduct. School life is governed by gambling, something that all students are expected to participate in. Those unable to pay their fees to the academy become the ‘pets’ of the wealthier students. The student council rules over this draconian hierarchy, enforcing the rules and ensuring that those of the lower classes don’t step out of line. There are no teachers or lessons, instead everything is a matter of money and chance, with the lucky destined for greatness and the unlucky pushed to the bottom of the pile. One student, Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), seems to possess a preternatural gift for gambling, able to turn almost any situation to her advantage and blessed with good luck. She soon becomes a beacon of hope for other downtrodden students, who see in her an example of how they might all succeed given one fortuitous turn of events.

The school is not entirely beholden to the council and a group of breakaway students known as “The Village” have established a refuge, shunning gambling and living in an equitable way with others. This group of almost religiously ascetic students are led by Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa). The student council is unimpressed by this alternative society and the head of the student council Kirari Momobari (Elaiza Ikeda) decides on a course of action that will force them to gamble, by offering a blank wish-fulfilment paper to the winner of the upcoming election tournament. Students enter in pairs, the fate of the school to be decided by games of chance.

“Kakegurui” is based on a manga by Homura Kawamoto and a subsequent television drama series. The film throws us right into the action, with a heavy exposition dump early on explaining how the school works and a who’s who of the main players. The premise is wacky, requiring a significant suspension of disbelief, but acts as a perfect metaphor for capitalist societies where money decides everything. The students at the school are so privileged that the only thing that can truly separate them is their ruthlessness and willingness to risk everything on chance. The village, by contrast, offers a utopian vision of a world where everyone is equal, and where money holds no power over people. This high-concept approach offers an exciting opportunity for a discussion of these themes while keeping the tone light and frivolous.

The cast do a great job with the comic feel, often over the top, melodramatic posturing and cartoonish expressions highlighting the absurdity of what is happening. Marika Ito in particular is highly enjoyable as Tomu Inuhachi, whose outsider status and comic tomboy performance is hugely endearing. There is a large cast and each member manages to create something special with their character, making them instantly recognizable and their personalities shine through. In keeping with the live-action manga style, they are almost all played as eccentric caricatures. The design is also clearly inspired by the manga, with sets and costumes all hyper-realistic or caricatured. With the red-black uniforms reminiscent of casino croupiers, and the white robes of the villagers lending them a religious aspect.

The film does lose its way somewhat in the second half. It gets bogged down in the technicalities of two of the games that are to decide the council elections. These games take up a large portion of the run-time, and although unavoidable they can become a slog. This is not the biggest problem with the latter portion of the film though. The idea of the village versus the school is a perfect antagonistic clash of world views and it is immediately apparent which system is preferable. The set up early on leads you to believe that this is a film with a message about rapacious upper classes and downtrodden unfortunates. It seems clear that the villagers will show a better path, one that circumvents the need for participation in this system. However, the leaders of this group are also forced to participate. While the ending is upbeat you are left with the strange feeling that nothing was really gained by the characters as they are back in the same situation as before, perhaps worse since they have succumbed to the same avarice and lust for money that typifies their rivals in the school. The filmmakers intention was clearly to make a knockabout comedy rather than a socio-economic satire, but it means that the film does not really hold together at a thematic level, unless you consider it to be a double-bluff (possible in a film about gambling) and that actually the message is intended to be “the house always wins”.

Kakegurui Compulsive Gambler is a fun, live-action manga adaptation. The performances are enjoyable and the plot is engaging, taking some unusual turns. Worth watching if you are looking for a distracting comedy with plenty of fun moments and over-the-top acting, but disappointing in that it could have gone for a more powerful message in the latter half.

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2017)

As a high-school teacher (Shun Oguri) is sorting the books in the library by Dewey numbers with a group of students, he is reminded of his former classmate, Sakura Yamauchi (Minami Hamabe), with whom he had a close relationship at school. The film then turns to this story with the younger boy, a retiring, lonely figure, meeting the popular, chirpy Sakura. While at hospital he finds her diary and learns that she has pancreatic cancer, with perhaps only a year to live. With her secret exposed, Sakura becomes friends with him as he is the only person with whom she can share her inner turmoil. The two of them spend time together on what might be described as a series of dates, although their relationship does not move beyond a fond friendship. Unlike other films of its kind, in which a terminal illness provides a tragic basis for a romantic relationship, this is not a saccharine story of young sweethearts. Sakura’s reasons for confiding in him are as much selfish as driven by romantic interest, with the main reason being an unwillingness to distress her best friend Kyoko.

The film utilises flashbacks to tell its story and without a doubt the scenes with the younger actors are the strongest parts. The framing device of the older characters does resolve itself into an emotional climax at the end of the film, but for the most part is a distraction from the genuinely enjoyable interaction between the young boy and Sakura. Minami Hamabe is incredible as Sakura: bright, charismatic, but harbouring deep fears and sorrow which occasionally surface. Takumi Kitamura provides a good foil, being the polar opposite in many ways, he is initially awkward, his stoic acceptance of life and Sakura’s fate complimenting her outgoing, fun-loving persona. Later in the film he also has scenes of deep sadness that are more impactful following his quiet, subtle performance earlier. Another enjoyable performance is that of Yuma Yamoto, the gum chewing classmate, who appears regularly as comic relief, with one major recurring joke. Sho Tsukikawa’s direction is beautiful with some interesting transitions between the past and present. For the most part the direction and music are what might be expected from a high-school romance. The story is adapted from a novel by Yoru Sumino, with a screenplay by Yoshida Tomoko. The dialogue is well-written and the moving back and forth through time gives the film a good sense of rhythm as you wait to see where both stories are leading.

A heartbreaking story with a poignant message about treating each day as if it were your last. This is a common theme and there are a few films of this type, but by keeping things unsentimental for the most part makes the final dramatic scenes here more impactful. Sakura is not under any illusions about her fate and both the young character’s acceptance of this tragic fact is a great example of enjoying life despite adversity.