Karaoke Terror Review
I’ve spoken a little of author Ryu Murakami in a previous review; he’s an interesting figurehead in the world of modern Japanese literature. His uncompromising look at the Japan of today is one filled with pure cynicism. Murakami’s disillusionment of Japanese society goes all the way back to his heady days in the seventies, when his novels began to seep through the collective conscience of a new generation. For decades he’s been consistently open as his works seek to investigate cultural identity in some form or another. Every novel, every film adaptation of his work, explores social detachment, where complacency effects evolution on a personal scale. His stories often depict every form of self abuse as he adopts a backward stance attitude; Japan is often looked upon as a technically advancing nation, but one governed by the same old strict policies which threaten to halt change for the better. In Karaoke Terror - based upon his serialised 93-94 novel - two distinct generations are brought together by a common interest: Karaoke. More specifically songs from the Showa period. Here, traditional Enka is used to melancholic delight as director Tetsuo Shinohara skilfully puts a nice spin on Murakami’s ideas to launch yet another scathing attack on a troubled nation.
The story begins with “The Gakis”: Six young men who have befriended one another out of a love for Showa hits. Having seemingly nothing else in common, save for adoring the frequently naked woman across the street, they spend the occasional weekend singing the nights away and letting go of their pent up frustrations. One of the boys, Sugioka, is a drug-addict, which has raised his state of paranoia. One day he follows a middle-aged woman into an alleyway and attempts to chat her up, but when she spurs his aggressive advances he unleashes a torrent of anger, slicing her throat with a kitchen knife. His reaction to this is just as cold as the act itself, and he thinks nothing else of it until the next day when the news reports come in. Brandishing the still bloodied knife, he boasts to his friends that it was he who committed the violent act, yet they scoff at his remarks and don’t take an ounce of what he has to say seriously.
Meanwhile the friends of slain Yanagi, “The Midoris”, mourn over their friend. The group of now five women, each named Midori, were brought together for a magazine article on divorcees and have since over the years convened for tea and karaoke; additionally finding things to complain about but never acting on it. Jaded by the police’s efforts in trying to catch Yanagi’s killer, the group decides to take matters into its own hand. The women hatch a plan of revenge after carrying out their own investigation. Unfortunately for the Midori’s their execution doesn’t go unnoticed, and it’s not long before the boys cotton on to Sugioka’s killer. In turn they formulate a plot to get revenge on the Midoris, and so begins a vicious cycle of events of which there is no victor.
It’s not too difficult to see Karaoke Terror for what it is. Underlying every questionable act is a clear statement on where its author feels the country is going wrong. Make no mistake, it’s heavily satirical of course. In fact it’s completely off the chart, but it all makes perfect sense when juxtaposed against the film’s main concern: A complete communication breakdown between a disenchanted youth and a supposedly upper-class oppressor, through which finding one’s own place in life is more difficult than it appears to be. Here Murakami stresses that in order to effect change the Japanese people must first learn to break down the barriers placed between them. Of course his examples are taken to literal extremes, with the act of revenge being a quirky centre point to fit within the chosen narrative. The main topic could just as well be about anything, but it’s clear that in a world still living out of total paranoia the mantra of violence begets more violence is the only action deemed appropriate over what mere words cannot sustain.
But these two distinct classes are simply pawns in Murakami’s game of political chess, as he addresses the social stigma between those who live their lives in aimless unison. The Obasans are a higher faction, seemingly with power, but who have themselves lost respect throughout their dwindling years and find that their voices fall silent to deaf ears. The boys offer a different set of ideals, wanting to enjoy their existence, but not quite knowing how to express themselves in such a close-minded environment. But both are entwined by this common denominator; this love for Karaoke through which they can project their feelings of loss and desire and find some sort of comfort. As their paths indirectly cross the roles inevitably reverse and we witness a strange cycle of events which slowly but surely opens up communications within the respective parties. The Midoris find that they are now discussing more openly than they ever have before, whilst the boys slowly embrace their lives, and to some extent their sexuality, through their shared passion of a tired old music genre. But it’s a case of too little too late - a case in point that actions need come second to simple words; if differences can’t be set aside on reasonable terms then what hope does the future have?
Tetsuo Shinohara helms a great looking picture. His approach to the subject matter ranges from mild to furious, and the performances from everyone involved are absolutely spot on, with the film additionally featuring a couple of splendid cameo appearances from screen veteran Yoshio Harada and ace character-actor Arata Furuta respectively. During what is undoubtedly the film’s finest moment, Harada’s cynical shop-owner professes a complete distaste for middle-aged women and believes whole-heartedly in the boy’s “noble cause”, which effortlessly hammers home Murakami’s sentiments. However, the picture does suffer from a few dry spells. As the director bounces back and forth between the two parties, we get the distinct impression that he can’t quite decide just how much time is suitable to spend with each. He crams in as much as he realistically can, and sure enough the film rapidly descends into a series of crazy and over-elaborate encounters before it culminates in a finale that almost mimics the ideals of Kazuhiko Hasegawa’s seventies classic The Man Who Stole the Sun. It’s perhaps here that although very entertaining, the film becomes just a little too repetitive in actually making its point, which seems to be every ten minutes or so. It’s inevitable that the society depicted within will rapidly spiral out of control, just as Murakami continually envisions it will in reality, but given the nature of its pacing, in which there are additionally plenty of long-winded talkative moments, it ends up becoming quite an odd mixture of serious sentiments and zany comic book antics, through which eliciting sympathy for our characters becomes next to impossible. But perhaps this is beside the point, in that it’s no single individual we’re meant to seek pity in, but rather an entire nation on the cusp of social collapse. Perhaps, then, it takes ridiculous extremes for us to realise that.
Karaoke Terror earns an excellent transfer which anamorphically preserves its original 1.85:1 ratio. There’s so very little to complain about, with strong levels of detail, vibrant colours and well managed contrast keeping things happily afloat. The film has a very light coat of grain which is well preserved; there’s no unsightly edge enhancement and night time shots stand up considerably well. Another very strong effort from Synapse.
The Japanese Dolby Digital Surround track holds its own equally well. Dialogue is primarily well centred, crystal clear and with no distortion, while surround effects could perhaps do with a little better steering. However, there’s nothing particularly distracting, and after all this is a pretty standard DD mix with an awful lot of dialogue. The Karaoke songs might have benefited from some proper rear directionality, but given that even they are somewhat light affairs it’s not a staggering loss.
Optional English subtitles are included, providing a clean translation with no noticeable grammatical errors.
Though there’s not a great deal here, and mercifully so, we have a nice little assortment to sink our teeth into. The main attraction is a Making Of featurette (21.50) which offers enough detail to please. It opens with Ryu Murakami offering some very minor insight into his novel, citing it as an attack on the current system which hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. Director Shinohara discusses the challenges in making the film, but mainly this behind the scenes look focuses on a round-table type discussion between the principal male cast. They chat about the screenplay, performing the songs and musing over how they personally live their daily lives in comparison to the chaps they portray onscreen. There are also separate mini interviews with the female cast, who each talk about the demands of the shoot and the enjoyment of forming a solid comradely group.
Additionally there is a TV Spot, trailer and teaser. All features include English subs.
Despite its ailments in waxing lyrical a bit too much, Karaoke Terror is a stylish feature, and certainly not one without substance. The performances are quite brilliant, with the actors handling the film’s satirical humour exceptionally well, while director Shinohara serves up an exuberant amount of energy for its quirkier revenge themed moments.
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