Review by Sean Boelman
Based on the manga which has also inspired a popular anime and live-action television show (the latter of which shares its cast with this stand-alone feature film), Kakegurui is an energetic movie with a strong enough hook for even those who aren’t familiar with the source material. Its excellent world-building making up for its shortcomings in character development, this is a fun thriller that seems destined to become an international cult hit.
The film is set in a luxurious private school in which the strict social hierarchy is set by wealth and gambling skills, as a series of games are established to allow one student to rise up through the ranks. It’s an interesting blend of thriller elements (with the intensity of the competition) and a high school melodrama, which is not an entirely unique combination, but it still holds its charm.
Even though there are only two big gambling sequences in the movie (which are shot more like action sequences than one would typically expect), the film moves along really quickly. The creativity that went into making these games is obvious, and it lends itself to some really entertaining results.
Director Tsutomu Hanabusa brings a very dynamic style to the movie, and it works quite well. The use of on-screen graphics gives it a playful feel but also makes it a lot easier to follow. And the production design and costuming is just amazing, creating an immersive setting in which the film can craft its world.
If the movie is lacking in one area, it is its character development. Although it is officially not a follow-up to the previous adaptations, it seems as if the filmmakers expect most of the audience to already be fans coming in, so they don’t spend too much time building the characters. As such, there may be some confusion as to who the protagonist really is.
There are two characters that could arguably be the lead, and both of them are very interesting, but viewers will be left wanting to see more of the supporting players. There are some fun and unique characters that make up the student body of the school, some of which become competitors for the leads, but they each only get a few scenes in which they truly shine.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the film, though, is its social commentary. The movie says a lot about the upper class in Japan (and the entire world) and how they tend to not just look down on them, but use them for their own amusement. It pulls a few punches here and there, but it will be interesting to see where it takes these ideas in future entries.
Kakegurui is a surprisingly exciting film with some wonderfully unexpected action sequences. Fans who have gotten the chance to watch the anime or live-action series on Netflix in the U.S. will definitely be excited to check this one out, but series novices may be drawn into this world too.
Kakegurui screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which ran August 20-September 2.