Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (2021) review [Fantasia Festival 2021]

Introduction

This year, Tsutomu Hanabusa delivers not one but two live-action adaptations. Besides crafting the highly enjoyable youth-action-romance-time-jump Tokyo Revengers, Hanabusa also delivers a sequel to the first full-feature outing of Kakegurui (2019). Can this sequel please us as much as its predecessor?   

Review

Hyakkaoh Private Academy, a prestigious school for the rich elite, might seem like a typical private academy, but the social dynamics are fundamentally structured by gambling. Despite the promise of glory and riches, the student council, unwilling to lose any their power, tries to safeguard this long-established hierarchy intact by all means necessary. Yet, their social hierarchy has started to crumble ever since transfer student Yumeko Jabami (Minami Hamabe), our elegant compulsive gambler, has challenged and defeated various student council members.

To restore the equilibrium and re-tighten the hold of the council over the school, Yumemi Yumemite (Sayuri Matsumura) and Yuriko Nishinotouin (Natsumi Okamoto) ask Kirari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda), the council president to formally order the suspended legendary gambler Makuro Shikigami (Ryusei Fujii) to destroy Yumeko Jabami once and for all. She meekly grants their wish.   

Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (2021) by Tsutomu Hanabusa

Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette is, in short, a film that playfully critiques the workings of oppressive dictatorial systems and the corruption that, in general, underpins such systems – a corruption to ensure that the power stays firmly in the leader’s hand. Yet, Hanabusa’snarrative also highlights that a sudden surge of radicalization does, generally, not lead to the annihilation of the power structure, but merely invites the old structure to reestablish itself.

The school council’s dictatorial tendencies are evident in their use of the Casino Enforcement, a policing force with no other goal than to dispel dissidence and violently emphasize who holds power, as well as the establishment of a system of work-camps for those who do not have the money to repay their debt. This system is not only highly reminiscent of the system of slavery – 16 hours of hard work for a measly 1850 yen per day, but also evokes how certain dictatorial regimes treat those who are weak or dissident.

The existence of such slavery system, just like the house-pet system, reveals that the ultimate focus of the council is the very exploitation of the powerless for their own enjoyment. Yet, it is important to highlight that the house-pet system gives non-council members a chance to exploit the other and enjoy their self-assumed superiority. It is by giving the ‘commoners’ a taste of enjoyment that the council attempts to solidify and protect its position of power.

Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (2021) by Tsutomu Hanabusa

Yet – as is quickly made evident in the beginning of the narrative – there are various signs that the council’s hold over the school and the various gambling dens is crumbling. The first sign of their faltering power is the more violent deployment of the Casino Enforcement to ensure the collection of casino usage fees or, in other words, tax. The need for such kind of display of power reveals that a certain dissidence has blossomed in the academy.   

The second sign of the faltering power is the sudden surge in class battles, an exclusive right given to ‘housepets’ to challenge anyone from the student council (Narra-note 1). This surge highlights that the fear that the student council once instilled in student’s hearts has dissipated. As a result, ‘housepets’ have become quite enthusiastic to harass council members and force them to gamble. Said enthusiasm does not only radically question the solidity of the foundation that ensures their fearful power – cracks are showing and fear flourishing among council members – but also undermines the very legitimacy of the authority of the council and its president.   

Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (2021) by Tsutomu Hanabusa

By exploring the faltering power of the council, Hanabusa can beautifully explore how far an obsession with power can drive subjects and reveal how far certain subjects are willing to go to ensure that they can cling onto their precious power. Kirari Momobami reveals her obsession with power by meekly agreeing to send ‘gambling-assassin’ Shikigami, who spices up his gambling with mental torture and emotional manipulation, after Yumiko Jabami (Narra-note 2). Shikigami functions, in a certain sense, as the personification of the inhumane and evil ways dictatorial regimes often utilize to force docility and safeguard the equilibrium of power. Yet, Shikigami could very well be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and his promise to erase Yamiko Jabami in support of the ruling council a mere pretext to pursue his deeper desire to assume the president’s seat for himself (Narra-note 3).

What stands out in the composition of Kakegurui 2 is its pleasing dynamism as well as its dramatic use of cutting. Static moments, of course, are present, either to introduce characters or to emphasize certain emotional (over)reactions, but the greater part of the composition consists out of a mix of dynamic shots (Cine-note 1).By thoughtfully playing with the cut and, thus, radically changing the rhythm of the composition, Hanabusais not only able to add some visual dramatism but also sensibly heightens the tension that marks the dramatically structured gambling stand-offs.

Yet, the engendering of tension to ensure that every gambling stand-off is thrilling and exciting to watch and the operatic flavour of the narrative is not only function of dramatic editing moments and lively dynamism, but also of the thoughtful use of sounds and musical accompaniment. The musical dimension is effective in emphasizing the tension and supporting the emotional dramatics by either decorating static moments or by supporting the fluid dynamism. In other moments, musical pieces are used to emphasize the lightheartedness of certain theatrical verbal exchanges (Music-note 1).

Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette (2021) by Tsutomu Hanabusa

Nowhere is the theatrical nature of Kakegurui 2 as evident as in the acting-performances. Whether you become deeply engaged or highly irritated with Hanabusa’s narrative solely depends on the spectator’s ability to embrace the overly dramatic and comically expressive acting. Spectators who can appreciate such kind of acting will be pleased to know that the cast delivers the expressive theatrics with a delicious pace and satisfying comical flavour.   

Yet, Kakegurui 2 is far from perfect. There is a bit too much exposition and certain dramatical interjections are quite unnecessary. The victim of latter excess is Mahiro Takasugi, who plays ‘passerby’ Ryota Suzui. Many of his dramatic expressions feel forced and are, in some cases, even irritating. If Hanabusa would have cut out the fat in his narrative, Kakegurui 2 would have had an even better pace and been able to engage the spectator even more intensely.  

Kakegurui 2: Ultimate Russian Roulette, the sequel to Kakegurui (2019), proves to be as enjoyable and thrilling as its predecessor. While there are some false notes to be noted, the symphony of satisfying theatrical performances and tensive moments of gambling delivers the thrills that long-time fans have come to except from the series while offering a highly playful critique of the corruption that power invites, the destructive nature of radicalism, and the difficulty to overthrow a ruling regime.

Notes   

Narra-note 1: The revelation that Shikigami is behind the surge of ‘class battles’ does not the radically change our statement. Does he not exploit the very fact that the power of the council is crumbling?

Narra-note 2: Kirari’s meekness should surprise the spectator somewhat, but it would be wrong to read this subjective state as a disinterest in holding power or a willingness to lose her power.

Narra-note 3: If Shikigami would reveal such deeper desire, he would not only be a personification of the evil ways of regimes utilize to ensure their power, but also become a symbol of the fact that many regimes derail, radicalize, and ultimately compose their own destruction.  

Cine-note 1: In some cases, cinematographical decorations, like slow-motion, are utilized to support the dramatic flavour of the narrative.

Music-note 1: Hanabusa also surprises the spectator with a heartfelt musical sequence.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s