Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Karaoke Terror: The Complete Showa Era Songbook (2003) Movie Review

Early twentysomething, Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda) one day makes friends with a most peculiar group of friends. All male, and of similar ages who all seem to share a love of voyeurism, karaoke sessions set to decades old pop tunes, and most unusual, older women. Led by the clearly troubled, Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), these boys continue their quirky lifestyles. That is until until one day, the knife-wielding leader commits murder after being turned down for sex. Sugioka, now gloating about his deed to his seemingly amazed friends, unbeknownst to him, has incurred the plotted wrath of a close-knit group of divorced, karaoke-loving middle-aged ladies known as the Midoris. It is in this one young man's act, that not only is a bizarre blood feud of sorts spawned, but a grudge match between two generations seems ready to come to a devastating head.

Based on the 1994 novel by satirist, Ryu Murakami, Karaoke Terror is that all-too-common duck that takes a twisted approach to illuminating contemporary metaphor, but finds itself at odds with how to make it work. And in this case, the war between Sugioka's band of aloof sociopaths and the aimless, yet now determined Midoris make for a potent look at the 1990s sense of deep enmity between adults and kids, but takes it into the more rarified territory of the May-December romance (essentially romantic affairs between younger men, and elder women), making this an all the creepier affair. The film wastes no time in establishing Sugioka's clearly paranoid mind, but once the inciting murder is committed, director Tetsuo Shinohara and company can't seem to figure out a means toward making the ensuing conflict make any deeper impact than a few unique images and grotesque yuks. Being a definite product of the post Battle Royale cult-cinema high Japan was going through after the horror boom ended, the film at times feels torn between extremes, and always at odds with the source material's need for emotional immediacy.

In some ways, Karaoke Terror delivers some memorable characters, particularly in the main members of the Midoris. Most standout are Kayoko Kishimoto, and Kanako Higuchi who create something of a believable backbone for the remainder of these women on a mission. Kishimoto's take being that of the sexually liberated Hemmi, and Higuchi as the magazine editor who's assignment to meet these ladies led to the formation of this group years ago, grant some semblance of class to the film. Sometimes, one cannot help but wonder if a more subdued black comedy about the lives of these characters might have made for something far more engrossing than what we do have here. As the Midoris come across as the film's closest thing to a beating heart amidst all the blood and explosives on display, one wonders if Shinohara was even the right choice considering the cartoonish nature of the violence, which does reach absurd proportions by the finale.

The script adaptation by Sumio Ohmori seems almost ready to carry Murakami's warped yet telling themes to fruition, but the largest problem seems to lay square in the lap of Shinohara, who seems to be attempting to direct a completely different film- or at least isn't as ferocious as the themes call for. Even as we are privy to the lives of the karaoke-loving cretins who start the film, enjoying watching a woman across the way striptease with windows undrawn, and in full-lit abandon, we never really get a glimpse into who they are as the borderline mentally stunted drones they seem to be. Ando's Sugioka seems to be the only one worth writing home about, and he doesn't last past the first half of the film. To make matters more difficult, the pacing is almost unbearably staccato; often stopping after a surreal joke, or violent zinger to draw out the story which is already fraught with forced story beats. The means by which both factions implicate each other throughout the film is often by way of wildly improbable leaps of convenience. It hardly matters how, but rather that they do find each other, and draw weapons. The big problems here, are that tales like these require a more visceral amount of action and humor to buoy the ensuing escalation of violence. Without this, what we have here are a series of fun, quirky cul-de-sacs barely held together by anything. And the at times too clean, pretty cinematography by Hiroshi Takase contradicts all that is happening between these often less than attractive characters.

So when thinking about it, Karaoke Terror is something of a deeply acquired taste. It does offer some handsome production values, a decent number of kooky moments, punctuated by instances of hyperbolic violence that can attract those merely ready for a unique night watching movies. But in a post-Fight Club cinema environment, one wonders what this would have been like if animated and directed within more constrained circumstances. What could have been a tight, provocative, and savagely funny voyage through contemporary Japan's war of the generations, merely plays as a leisurely blueprint of weird. 

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