The manga Kakegurui, written by Homura Kawamoto and illustrated by Tōru Naomura, has followed the same trajectory as many successful manga. First, it was made into an anime in 2017 by MAPPA, and in 2018 a live-action drama adaptation was made. The second season of the live-action drama, which was for many fans a letdown, served as a prelude to the first cinematic outing of the series. Can the film right the wrongs of the second live action season?
While Hyakkaou Private Academy, a prestigious school founded over 100 years for the privileged – in other words, for those with money and power, may seem a typical private school at first glance, it has a unique tradition that structures the school’s entire social dynamics: gambling. Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe) has, since her transfer to the academy, caused something of an upheaval at the academy. By challenging and defeating various student council members, she has not only revealed the unsound ways the council members use to remain in power but also shown that the council, led by Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda), is vulnerable.
As a result of the crumbling authority, two revolutionary groups have begun to assert their existence, a pacifistic semi-religious group called ‘village’, led by Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), who refuses to obey the council and follow the gambling-based society, and a small anarchist group, led by Inuhachi (Marika Itō), that guerilla-wise vandalizes the gambling parlors of the school. Both groups, in their own way, want to change the school for the better. But the student council, to regain its power and quell the dissidents, swiftly organizes a student representative election, an election that, of course, includes gambling.
The tradition of gambling, a tradition supposedly focused on engendering the qualities necessary for the future leaders of the country, is structured by a specific monetary-based hierarchy (Narra-note 1). Those who gamble and keep on winning or can pay off their debts to the all-controlling student council have no problem, but those who gamble until that they cannot pay back their debts are deemed non-complaint and are reduced to the status of house-pets – boys are called ‘pochi’ (doggies), girls are called ‘Mike’ (kitties). Luckily, there is a one-time possibility to escape the status of house-pet and return to one’s former humane status. All one needs to do is win an official gambling match, but that is easier said than done.
What the two groups, each in their own way, aim at is nothing other than destroying the oppressing and corrupt student council – a council obsessed with maintaining, by all means, the structure that allows them to enrich themselves – and rewrite the social dynamics of the school. They aim, in other words, to annihilate the very societal structure based on the amount of money one gambled together.
The evocation of this political dimension, a dimension only implicitly touched upon in the two drama seasons preceding the film, elevates the pleasure of the entire narrative. Does Kakegurui not reveal, in its own dramatic way, the problematic truth of politics? Hanabusa’s narrative does not only touches upon class struggle and the pacifying effect of organizing bread and circuses, but also explores how the thirst for power or recognition can pervert, be it via betrayal or via bribes, the whole democratic system and how the ‘mob’, if they believe in the power of their vote, can truly impact the democratic process.
On a sidenote, Yumeko Jabami’s love for gambling, as her reactions clearly show, has sexual undertones. It would not even be wrong to state that the enjoyment she finds in the act of gambling, especially when the stakes are sky-high, is orgasmic in nature. It is, as a matter of fact, these bursts of orgasmic joy that fuel Jabami’s addiction to gambling. Or, to put it conversely, the promise of heavenly (sexual) delight underpins Jabami’s addictive love for gambling. This also explains why she is vehemently against those who try to sabotage the game in such a way that the promise of delight is left unfulfilled and why she has no interest whatsoever in-school politics and hierarchical structures.
The cinematographical composition of Kakegurui stands out due to its fluid and pleasing dynamism. While fixed moments are of course present, e.g. to introduce characters or to emphasize certain emotional (over)reactions, the greater part of the composition consists out of a mix of dynamic shots. Cinematographic movement is not only used to give the narrative a pleasing visual flow but is also masterfully applied the strengthen the tension that marks the already dramatically structured gambling stand-offs.
The dramatic structure of the gambling stand-offs is created via a combination of various elements. The first two ingredients are related to the acting performances as such. The first concerns the effective use of dramatic pauses between the theatrically delivered statements, while the second ingredient concerns the succulent dramatic reactions (i.e. the subtle dramatic reactions as well as the over-acted dramatic reactions) during the stand-off. The third ingredient – an ingredient not always utilized – concerns the use of special cinematographic techniques like slow-motion and the fourth concerns the way sound-effects and musical accompaniment (i.e. tensive musical pieces) are applied. Both cinematographical elements are, often, used to make a dramatic reveal or the dramatic conclusion even more dramatic. It is, in fact, the masterful combination of all these elements that makes each gambling sequence a truly gripping, tensive, and visual pleasing experience.
The performances in Kakegurui, are of course, marked by over-acting. While this may indeed off-putting, the over-acting is the central reason why this narrative is exciting and damn satisfying. The performances that stand-out the most are, not surprisingly, Minami Hamabe and Aoi Morikawa. The way Minami Hamabe breathes life in Jabami’s ‘mood swings’ – from endearing cuteness to measured playful manipulative behaviour or from life-threatening seriousness to orgasmic moments of pleasure – is a sight to behold. Aoi Morikawa’s performance stands out due to enticing and pleasing way she brings her character Meari Saotome to life – her cute teasing naughtiness by which she entice other students, her endearing emotional overreactions, and even the serious threat she sometimes communicates with her eyes, all are little visual highlights in the narrative.
Kakegurui is a pleasing, exhilarating gambling thriller that washes away the bitter taste the second drama series left in the mouth of many fans. With satisfying dramatic performances, plenty of tensive moments of gambling, and a pleasing exploration of the problematic truth of politics and the perverting influence of power and adoration, Tsutomu Hanabusa has created a narrative that will not only please long-time fans of the series, but also convert many newcomers into kakegurui’s enthusiasts.
Narra-note 1: The attributes or qualities arestrategy, the skill to read the opponent, having a killer instinct, and money. The only attribute not mentioned is cheating.