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Karaoke Terror: The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook

Synapse Films // Unrated // April 29, 2008
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted May 1, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Karaoke Terror: The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook:
If you think of current genre Japanese cinema but can't get much past Takashi Miike or the Ringu movies, you'll be pleasantly surprised (and shocked, of course) by Karaoke Terror, a film that melds any number of Japanese sociological concerns into a thoughtful, enjoyable and - of course - totally weird experience.

A group of aimless teenage boys coalesces in Tokyo. They're moderately employed and adrift in post-expansion modern Japan; decades ago the war was lost, and more recently unparalleled economic growth has stood still. All that's left is outdated cultural mores and karaoke - fueled by the kitschy, Western-flavored pop songs of the Showa era, an era marked by the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926 - 1989). As an aimless pastime and knee-jerk homage to that era, the boys engage in elaborate, private karaoke routines they set up in out-of-the-way locations from their mobile sound studio.

But one of their number takes the disaffected thing a bit too far, randomly killing a middle-aged woman (31 - 37 years of age according to subtitles!) who happens to have a karaoke singing group of friends too. In the deceased's case, her friends are all divorced career women who share the surname Midori. In their own way the Midoris are as disconnected as the Youths, ostracized by society and wedded only to mostly-unfulfilling careers; the ladies have disposable income and little idea what to do with it other than go out singing at night. Before you can say 'please tip your KJ,' the two opposing groups engage in an escalating war of revenge. As kill-methodology metastasizes from blade to gun to worse, Midoris, Youth and Viewers too are made to confront some pretty big issues.

Karaoke Terror describes an interesting pair of contrasting paths, as modern day ennui leads to a high spasm of emotion; a flashing blade, gorgeous arcs of blood, sun-dappled leaves and a twitching body in the mud - with sprinklers splashing and cicadas methodically chirping. It's a beautiful, poetic scene that questions how we might escape from the troubled lockstep of dehumanizing economic growth at its most base. This glorious, fleshy act leads slowly downward, though, as passion for revenge sinks into rote retaliation. Both Midoris and Youth begin to glaze over, no longer weeping for their fallen, but only seeking more devastating ways to kill - as the explosions spiral upward in intensity, feelings shrivel. Even the karaoke routines follow this see-saw motion- never a true focal-point, just a means of framing the message through music - the numbers get more outlandish as emotions become detached. Third Reich S & M drag-shows and humiliating sexual couplings in the bathroom show how far out of touch, and how in need of real emotions theses Japanese citizens have become.

But there are bazookas, severed limbs and javelins-to-the-neck, plus plenty of sly humor and elements of parody that keep Karaoke Terror from becoming a pedantic treatise on post-modern Japan and 21st Century warfare. Between savage acts we see the Youths as real young males, jovially bonding over meals, cigarettes and juvenile humor. Meanwhile, the Midoris commiserate, go out singing and get drunk, and generally do the kinds of things that hint at the humanity under their cloaks of 'respectability.' Aside from cultural differences that will distance the rest of the viewing world from particularly Japanese behavioral patterns, Terror is chock-full of realistic, engaging performances that bring believability to all but the most outrageous acts. If you don't exactly care whether these breathing automatons live or die, you'll never doubt their feelings. And if the songs don't quite turn you on, it's no big surprise, in the end the songs are either just enough to motivate, or not enough to discourage, the kind of thinking we've all feared since the dawn of the Atomic Age.


Karaoke Terror comes in a fine 16 x 9 Anamorphic transfer in its original ratio of 1.85:1. The image is quite clear and sharp, with no outstanding compression artifacts, very minimal film grain, and rich colors. At times it's a starkly beautiful film, with some haunting nighttime scenes that highlight deep, dense black skies, and kills that don't skimp on luscious red arterial spray. The quality of the transfer only disappoints when it shows too clearly some obvious CGI work, but by then you'll be beyond caring.

The Original Japanese Language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Sound Audio track is quite nice from a listening standpoint, well mixed with nice separation. Dialogue is clear and up front and the few musical numbers stand out nicely without being overwhelming (if not perfectly sung).

A decent bento box of extras accompanies the movie. First is an extensive Liner Notes booklet, with three pages by Anthropology Professor Christine Yano, detailing highlights and significance of Showa era songs and Karaoke to Japanese Culture. Included is a guide to the songs featured in the film. There are also three pages about original Terror novelist Ryu Murakami (Audition), written by Midnight Eye correspondent Nicholas Rucka. Both bits are engaging and highly informative. The Original Theatrical Trailer and TV Spot for Terror are fun and spoiler-y, perhaps indicating that the end of the movie is not as important as the journey there. Newly Translated Removable Subtitles are always easy to read and seem sensitive to the material. A 27-minute Making Of Featurette has interviews with the cast, director Tetsuo Shinohara and Murakami. The cast is amusing in how shy and reserved each member seems, self-effacing to a fault, and eager to behave properly. Murakami is also quite stoic, despite his virulent gripes against Japanese society.

Final Thoughts:
Karaoke Terror: The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook is a fascinating screed against the Japan of today. From the youth who don't seem to know how to reject what they disbelieve, to blind obeisance to career that has shriveled so many souls, to the cloying songs that whitewash and romanticize things against which original Terror novelist Murakami rages, nothing escapes a spear to the neck. Those jugular fountains will draw in the 'Crazy Japan' crowd, but even if viewers don't connect with every cultural point, it's the bigger issues that will creep into your thoughts and stay with you long after the smoke clears. For lovers of thoughtful yet extreme cinema, Karaoke Terror is Highly Recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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