Joker Game – Review
All seniors at a high school stay together at a camp, including student Chinatsu. On their first day, the homeroom teacher announces that all the students must play the card game “Old Maid”. In order to reverse the declining academic abilities of its younger generation, the Japanese government planned this camping program. In this card game, the students that lose will meet their deaths.
While the harsh critiquing of the Japanese education system through the medium of film is not something entirely uncommon to view in Japanese cinema, it remains an element that continually rears itself as an provocative cinematic topic nonetheless. Recent Japanese films dealing with the education system have geared much of their commentary towards questioning the often times strict adherence concerning student success within the classroom, with films such as Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) painting a far darker and callous metaphorical exploration into the school system itself and its relationship to governmental authority. Working as the directorial debut for Takafumi Watanabe, Joker Game is one the latest allegorical films to once again analyze Japan’s education system and its reflection upon that of its students.
For those who are familiar with similar films that deal with this sort of cinematic interpretation surrounding the Japanese education system, Joker Game may appear as a somewhat redundant attempt to paint the Japanese education system as immensely flawed and horrendously cruel. Of course, this outlook can and should be extended towards a variety of other countries throughout the world as well, with each country having their fair share of problems as well. But while Joker Game does suggest that the governmental authority within the Japanese education system is overtly influential in how that system is operated, the film spends much of its time focusing on how the students vie for control and power within the classroom itself rather than any external force.
Similar to Battle Royale in this regard, Joker Game thrives on the general suspense of viewing such a card game and its unpredictable nature while also conveying the dire outcome of those students who “lose” the game. The film succeeds highly on this element alone, bringing about a tension that continually increases with each subsequent card game as the students persuade and maneuver their way from being punished. While the aspect of the Japanese government conducting such a card game in order to promote an increase in student academic behavior may seem utterly ridiculous, its execution provides the film with some plausibility. Watanabe and screenwriter Yu Takeuchi present the role of government as an entity used to enforce and uphold the prospect of student success by any means possible, more so in order to keep the status quo rather than actually support the students. Working on instilling fear in order to control them, this aspect establishes Joker Game as an exceptionally riveting look into the role of government itself, even if that look is rather superficial.
But besides many of the intriguing elements of the film, Joker Game can not escape from its numerous, unintentionally comical moments that are littered throughout that inhibit its strengths. Whether this is from the laughably bad ‘seizures’ that the students undergo if they lose the card game, to the countless bludgeoning done by an unknown assailant on those students who attempt to escape, these moments all seem to hinder the film from reaching its true potential as at a least surface level treatise on unchecked governmental power. Another aspect of the film that severely impedes the tension established in it first half is that of a discovery made by two of the students roughly midway through the film that has us as viewers reevaluate the severity of the card game thus far–which is not necessarily a good thing. This revelation on the true outcome of the students participating in the card game lessens the impact of the film overall, in turn diminishing much of the uncertainty that took place prior to it being divulged.
In the end, Joker Game is still a film that has much going for it despite some of its technical and narrative setbacks. One could easily say that the film could have worked out much better if Watanabe and Takeuchi would have just emphasized the social commentary to a greater extent, encouraging a serious examination into the realm of education within Japanese society. While the film was initially going into that direction, it seemed to want to rely more on being entertaining–in a amusingly diverting fashion–rather than delivering valuable criticism on the education system itself. Nevertheless, Joker Game is a film that certainly offers a suspenseful tale with a hint of societal scrutiny–just don’t expect anything more.
Author: Miguel Douglas
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