Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Production designer Eri Sakushima and costume designer Atsuko Shiraishi have done a magnificent job of bringing the manga's striking imagery to life." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

If we set aside the fantasy that one can always reliably outsmart other people, there are three ways to win (or at least avoid losing) at gambling. The first is to get lucky - possible, but unlikely. The second is not to play - sensible in so far as it goes, but not always practicable (especially if gambling is functioning as an analogy for war). The third is to cheat. Sometimes the best way to outsmart others is to choose the latter.

Japan has produced some of the greatest strategic thinkers in history and with that in mind, the idea of an elite high school with an intense focus on developing gambling skills doesn't see quite so far fetched. if you're unfamiliar with the manga and the Netflix series, that's the concept behind Kakegurui. Several threads from the previous versions have been woven together and condensed to create this fast-paced, stylish live action teen flick, a natural pick for Fantasia 2020 and, in its way, one of the most educational films for that age group currently available.

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We enter the high school at a curious time in its history. The ruling student Council (which, in the visible absence of any adults, is the highest authority in the land) is facing a challenge, with the gracefully resentful Eri (Haruka Fukuhara) - who has never forgives its steely-eyed president (Elaiza Ikeda) for beating her in a high stakes game - heading up a group of white-clad students who refused to respect its institutionalised system of bullying. The real leader of this group is Amane (Hio Miyazawa) - the only student ever to have beaten the president - who stands a foot taller than everyone else, wanders around brooding in a long dark coat and has a tragic secret in his past.

Together, Eri and Amane have taken over an abandoned school building and turned it into a sort of hippy commune called the Village. The president knows that she can't afford to let this stand, so rather than proceed straight to war, she sets up a gambling tournament with a coveted seat on her council as the prize, obliging every student to play.

Into the middle of this conflict comes Yumeko (Minami Hamabe), willing to hear everyone out but, like many protagonists in Japanese films about military feuds, disinclined to pick a side. Whilst the other students run around in a frenzy, she likes to sit still, watch and listen. When the students are told to pick partners for the tournament, she chooses witless hanger-on Ryota ((Mahiro Takasugi), a move that confounds even him. Yumeko is playing for much bigger stakes than her peers.

This big screen version won't satisfy all fans of the original. Despite some flirtatious body language between the students, it lacks the ecchi of the manga, perhaps because it would be difficult for an international audience given the age of the characters. It also lacks the broad comedy and exaggerated silliness of much of Homura Kawamoto's work. This is unlikely to be an issue for newcomers, however, and other aspects of the original are beautifully translated into the live action medium. In keeping with the source material, the performances have a slightly hammy quality, but that's not really a problem for this type of comedy and it suits the overall aesthetic. What's more, they're perfectly balanced against one another.

Production designer Eri Sakushima and costume designer Atsuko Shiraishi have done a magnificent job of bringing the manga's striking imagery to life, and the distinctive look of the film makes it instantly engaging, giving viewers plenty to enjoy whilst they wait for the plot to get going. The actors have been well chosen and made-up to suit the animé aesthetic and are likely to have teenage viewers swooning, but there are no weak performances as a result. In a context where we need to see the characters' intelligence (even though the games themselves are kept simple enough for unskilled viewers to follow), the film's stars don't let us down.

Sharp witted, lively and elegant, Kakegurui easily stands on its own two feet. You don't need to have read the manga to enjoy it and you might be surprised by just how much fun it is.

Reviewed on: 05 Sep 2020
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At an elite school where everything is based around gambling, a dispute between factions creates an opportunity for an ambitious student to try and outsmart all the others.

Director: Tsutomu Hanabusa

Writer: Tsutomu Hanabusa, based on the manga by Homura Kawamoto

Starring: Minami Hamabe, Mahiro Takasugi, Aoi Morikawa

Year: 2019

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: Japan

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