Karaoke Terror (US - DVD R1)
Gabe gets the 'Karaoke' part of the title, but the 'Terror' bit doesn't make sense...
A gang of slacker boys (the Gakis) idle away their time hanging out with extreme apathy, their sole passion in life being elaborate karaoke recreations of their favourite Showa-era songs (oldies from the 40s to the 80s). Across town, a group of thirty-something divorced women calling themselves the Midoris do much the same thing. These bored gangs cross paths when one of the Gakis kills a Midori because of sexual rejection. The Midoris retaliate, and soon a gang war like none other is under way.
“Middle-aged women…a menace to society.”
I recently made a statement about tailor made Japanese cult cinema being a harsh mistress in my Party 7 review. Too often these films look better on paper (or the back of the video box) than they work on screen, and usually a badass opening and closing bookend is our only consolation. Since there are obviously going to be more entries in Synapse’s ‘Asian Cult Cinema’ line, I’m going to have to figure out what exactly makes so many of these movies graceful failures.
There’s a basic question I’m going to start asking myself before writing these reviews from now on—is it weird because it’s not like anything else, or is it acting weird to cover a lack of originality. Karaoke Terror is interesting case because the ‘on paper’ description, though generally accurate, doesn’t really resemble the feel of the final product. The film is very obviously satirical, but it also carries a sobering emotional weight. A group of middle-aged divorcees forming a gang and hatching a plan of violent vengeance against a group of teenage boys sounds invariably hilarious, just as teenage boys murdering middle-aged divorcees sounds invariably appalling, but each is handled with strange tonal dexterity. You’ll hate yourself for laughing just as much as you’ll hate yourself for not laughing.
Karaoke Terror deals with audience expectations and double standards in every scene. When the women kill a boy, it’s funny and increasingly absurd, when the boys kill a woman it’s cold and increasingly mortifying. There’s never really a question as to who we’re rooting for, but perhaps there should be. The novel from which the film is based was written by Ryû Murakami, who also wrote the basis for modern cult Japan’s most incendiary feminist horror show, Takashi Miike’s Audition.
Every time the comedic horror threatens to boil over-the-top, quiet scenes of genuine reflection bring the bizarre narrative back to reality, and from there often back into the realms of more sedated black comedy. Director Tetsuo Shinohara could’ve made an overtly flamboyant picture, and sloppily pushed the dark humour into wacky slapstick, but there is an inherit maturity to the film that sets it apart from the usual pie-in-the-face nature of most tailor made Japanese cult films. It’s kind of like counter-counter culture.
The karaoke soundtrack is really just dressing, added for flavour, and exactly the kind of thing tailor made Japanese cult films use to cover unoriginality. Apparently this was an element of Murakami’s original novel, but I’m guessing it was a minor one. Shinohara uses the music ironically, but the characters don’t love the music for ironic reasons. The music works similarly to the electronic, pseudo-Muzak Beethoven Kubrick used for A Clockwork Orange. Of course A Clockwork Orange is the template for most angsty, troubled teen, social commentary comedies, and Shinohara is sure to pay occasional homage in other ways, such as the way the costumes the boys wear at the beginning of the film.
Karaoke Terror is pretty new, and like Party 7 it doesn’t appear that the master cleaners at Synapse had to do much to make it look good on DVD. The print is, unfortunately, not quite as clean as one may expect. There is a reasonably heavy screen of grain throughout the entire runtime, which becomes thicker during scene shot outdoors, where lighting control is less predictable. Dark scenes loose detail, though the black levels are thick and well separated. The film is wonderfully colourful, and reds and greens shine especially bright. Ambers and blues are a little flatter, but highly contrasting colours have effective punch. I could do with more overall brightness and starker contrast, but really the grain is the transfer’s only sizable lapse.
Though there isn’t much wrong with this solo Japanese language track, but one might expect better then Dolby Surround for a newish release with a special focus on music. The dialogue is clear and usually centred, but other centred effects tend to bleed into the stereo channels. Louder centred sound, including dialogue does distort a bit at higher volume levels. Truthfully the majority of the film is pretty low-key, so aggressive overhauls would be a bit unnecessary, but it would be nice to have more space in which to experience the morally bankrupt world. The biggest thing missing from a lack of 5.1 enhancement is the LFE. The entire track could use with a bass bump.
The disc’s extras consist of a clip-heavy making-of featurette, and a collection of trailers and TV spots. The featurette includes interviews with the cast, director Shinohara, and novelist Murakami, and behind the scenes footage, but mostly consists of vague recollections of the filming process. It’s obviously meant as a selling piece rather then a deep dissection of the film and its themes. In all it runs about twenty-two minutes.
Karaoke Terror sags a bit in the middle, and is generally a little overlong, but it fulfils our Japanese cult needs without pandering to our expectations. This is an original film, comparable to deserving cult flicks like Battle Royale and Fight Club in its reach, if not its grasp, and it deserves a look. I look forward to more Asian Cult Cinema Collection releases from Synapse.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 29th April 2008
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese
Extras: Making of Featurette, Trailers, Liner Notes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Cast: Yoshio Harada, Kanako Higuchi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Masanobu Ando, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Musical
Length: 112 minutes