Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2019)

Gambling, the ultimate act of faith or the height of anarchic genius? Based on the hit manga which has already been adapted as a popular TV anime, Kakegurui (映画 賭ケグルイ) is the sequel to two seasons of a live action TV drama set in a school where hierarchy is decided not by grades or by fists, but by your prowess at the gaming tables. Those who lose so badly they bankrupt themselves become a kind of subhuman underclass, tied up like dogs and routinely humiliated, while the Student Council becomes a stand in for an oppressive social order ruling over all and enforcing the law with an iron hand. 

Into this high stress environment walks Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), a transfer student to the elite Hyakkaou Private Academy determined to bend its rules to her own advantage. Meanwhile, Student Council President Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) is forced to deal with a new and unexpected threat – The Village, a small cult made up of students who have rejected the system, dropped out to live a hippy lifestyle in the grounds, and refuse to participate in “meaningless” games of chance. Their priest-like leader, Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), once beat Kirari at cards becoming something like a god of gambling, but lost his zeal for the game after losing the only thing he ever cared about. 

Where he opposes the system passively yet pointedly, Yumeko rebels in her own, fiercely individualistic way by superficially conforming, becoming a top gambler, but only because she is exercising a free choice to do so. She plays for kicks alone, and generally wins because she isn’t stressed enough about losing to let it bother her. This individualist streak makes her a hidden threat against Kirari, but one that might in itself be an interesting gamble for the infinitely bored Student Council President. 

While Yumeko’s individualism threatens to unbalance the system, The Village presents a collectivist threat, agitating wholesale revolution and an end to the oppressive rule of the Student Council which renders losers inhuman. Yet there’s an essential irony in The Village’s creepy monotony that stands in stark contrast to Yumeko’s seeming conformity but insistence on her own freedom. Your life’s your own, she later explains, it’s annoying if people try to manipulate it. In this instance she’s talking not about the “life plans” handed out by the Student Council, but the egotistical desire to “save” the lives of others without considering if they want them saved or if you’re merely infringing on their personal freedom in attempting to make choices for them based entirely on your own value system. 

Murasame perhaps bet something he shouldn’t have and technically won, but ended up losing anyway which is what has made him turn against gambling. Yumeko, meanwhile, believes that the only way to be truly free to entrust yourself to luck and destiny. That is, however, somewhat disingenuous, because what Yumeko excels at is mind games, essentially manipulating those around her in order to win. Yumeko plays players, not cards, and is rarely played herself. Unlike Murasame’s righthand woman Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara), she doesn’t care that much what people think. Arukibi, meanwhile, is desperate for approval and is playing her own game just to get someone’s attention which makes her a volatile, if easily manipulated, opponent.

Essentially, Murasame wants freedom outside of the system where Yumeko has found it within, but her philosophy is perhaps the more dangerous in that it proposes total freedom that has no regard for the systems of governance. Then again, maybe this is all a long con to get better cakes in the cafeteria, merely gaming the system rather than actively undermining it. Nevertheless, for Yumeko life is risk, rebelling against an oppressive social order through the anarchic individualism of living by “chance”. Living in a society as highly regimented as this is a high stakes game, but you can’t win if you don’t play, and you need to play smart. That’s the peculiar irony of life at Hyakkaou Private Academy where the Student Council literally owns your future but you can win it back by playing them at their own game. Bet your life, win your freedom Yumeko seems to say but she still makes sure to bring cake for everyone, not just the “winners” or the privileged few. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

It’s Me, It’s Me (俺俺, Satoshi Miki, 2013)

It's Me It's Me posterSome say it’s good to be your own best friend, but then again perhaps too much of your own company isn’t so good for you after all. The hero of Satoshi Miki’s adaptation of the Tomoyuki Hoshino novel, It’s Me, It’s Me (俺俺, Ore Ore), is about to put this hypothesis to the test as his identity literally splinters, overwriting the source code of strangers and replacing it with its own. How can you save your identity when you aren’t sure who you are? Perhaps getting to know yourself isn’t as straightforward a process as most would believe.

Hitoshi (Kazuya Kamenashi), an aimless 20-something, had dreams of becoming a photographer but they’ve fallen by the wayside while he supports himself with a dead end job on the camera counter in a local electronics superstore. Virtually invisible to all around him and so anonymous the woman in the fast food restaurant almost wouldn’t give him the fries he’d ordered, Hitoshi is irritated when two salaryman-types gossiping about how one of them plans to quit the company to pursue his dreams rudely invade his space. Perhaps for this reason, he finds himself taking off with the irritating stranger’s phone after he carelessly allows it to fall onto Hitoshi’s tray.

Emboldened, Hitoshi decides to use the phone to commit an “Ore Ore” scam – a well known telephone fraud in which a stranger rings an elderly person and shouts “it’s me, it’s me!” in a panic so they won’t twig it’s not really their grandson who is ringing them and claiming to be in some kind of terrible trouble which can only be relieved with cold hard cash. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Hitoshi gets the money wired to his account and then tries to dispose of the phone but it’s already too late. When he gets home, a strange woman (Keiko Takahashi) is in his apartment and she keeps calling him “Daiki”. What’s more, when he tries to go and see his mum (Midoriko Kimura), another guy is there who looks just like him and his mum won’t let him in.

Hitoshi eventually becomes friends with “Daiki” who introduces him to another “Me”, Nao – a cheerful student slacker. Each in their own way slightly disconnected, the trio build up an easy friendship – they do after all have quite a lot in common, and begin jokingly referring to their shared apartment as “Me Island”. Hitoshi, remarking that he’s never felt so carefree among others, begins to see the upsides of his strange new situation which obviously include the ability to be in two places at once, but too much of himself eventually begins to grate when Nao begins tracking down and bringing home all the other Mes he can find with the intention of launching a Me Empire.

A member of a lost generation, Hitoshi is a perfect example of modern urban malaise. Though he once had dreams, they’ve been steadily killed off by an oppressive society leaving him alone and adrift, unable to connect with others as the light slowly dies in his eyes. Perhaps, however, there is the odd flicker of resistance in his intense resentment towards those who have defiantly not given up – the chatty salaryman talking about his individualist dreams and later his work colleague who has been secretly taking accountancy classes in an effort to escape casual employment hell for a steady, if dull, regular job.

Hitoshi has always regarded relationships as “troublesome” but begins to feel differently through bonding with himself. As Daiki puts it, accepting others means that you’ll be accepted – something Hitoshi unconsciously longs for but is too insecure to believe is possible. His actualisation receives another stimulus when he meets the beautiful and mysterious Sayaka (Yuki Uchida) who again encourages him to accept the one who accepts you and is the only other person who seems to be able to see the “real” him as distinct from all the other Mes. Yet Hitoshi struggles – he can accept parts of but not all of himself, eventually leading to a disastrous turn of events in which the parts of himself he does not like begin being “deleted” as one Me decides to make war on all the others.

Only by ridding his psyche of imperfections can Hitoshi reformat his personality and once again resume full autonomy as the one and only Me. Yet can we be so sure final Hitoshi is the “true” Hitoshi? Who can say – only Hitoshi himself can know the answer to that (or not), the rest of us will just have to accept him as he is in the hope that he will also be able to accept us so that we can in turn accept ourselves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)