Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Tetsuo Shinohara, 2003)

karaoke terror poster.jpgEver since its invention karaoke has provided the means for many a weary soul to ease their burdens, but there may be a case for wondering if escapism is a valid goal in a society which seems to be content in stagnation. The awkwardly titled Karaoke Terror (昭和歌謡大全集, Showa Kayo Daizenshu), adapted from the book Popular Hits of the Showa Era by Audition’s Ryu Murakami, pits two very different groups of karaoke enthusiasts against each other – aimless adolescent males, and jaded middle-aged women. Despite the differences in their ages and experiences, both enjoy singing the wistful bubblegum pop of an earlier generation as if drunk on national nostalgia and longing for the lost innocence of Japan’s hopeful post-war endeavour to rebuild itself better than it had been before.

We open with the slackers and a voice over from the presumed “hero” of the film, Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda), who informs us that he can’t really remember how he met most of the guys he hangs out with but that he always knew the one of them, Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), was a bit cracked in the head. In a motif that will be repeated, Sugioka catches sight of a middle-aged woman just on the way back from a shopping trip and decides he must have her but his attempts to pick her up fail spectacularly at which point he whips out his knife and slashes her throat.

Meanwhile, across town, a middle-aged woman, Hemmi (Kayoko Kishimoto), offers to let a co-worker share her umbrella but the co-worker misinterprets this small gesture of courtesy as romantic interest and crudely asks her “how about a fuck?” to which Hemmi is quite rightly outraged. Rather than apologise, the co-worker shrugs and says his “direct” approach works six times out of eight and some women even appreciate it. Once she manages to get away from her odious aggressor, Hemmi ends up stumbling over the body of the woman murdered by Sugioka and realises she knows her. The murdered woman was one of six all named Midori who were brought together for a newspaper article about the lives of middle-aged divorced women and have stayed “friends”. Outraged about this assault not just on their friend and their sex but directly against “women of a certain age” who continue to be the butt of a societal joke, the Midoris decide they want revenge and hatch a plan off Sugioka, but once they have, the slackers hit back by offing a Midori and so it continues with ever-increasing levels of violence.

Which ever way you slice it, you can’t deny the Midoris have a point and Hemmi’s continuing outrage is fully justified. When the boys rock up at a mysterious general goods store out in the country looking for a gun, the proprietor (Yoshio Harada) is only too happy to give it to them when they explain they need it for revenge and that their targets are middle-aged women. The proprietor has a lot to say about ladies of a certain age. In fact he hates them and thinks that bossy, embittered, unproductive women “too old” to fulfil their only reason for existence will be the only ones to survive a nuclear apocalypse that even the cockroaches cannot overcome. The boys appear timid and inexperienced but ironically enough can’t take their eyes off the middle-aged woman from across the way and her sexy dance routines. They feel entitled to female deference and cannot accept a woman’s right to decline. The Midoris are sick of being “humiliated”. They’ve fallen from Japan’s conformist path for female success in getting divorced or attempting to pursue careers. They’ve lost their children and endured constant ridicule as “sad” or “desperate”, made to feel as if their presence in the workplace past a certain age was “inappropriate” and the prices they have paid for their meagre successes were not worth the reward. They strike back not just at these psychotic boys but at a society which has persistently enacted other kinds of violence upon them.

Meanwhile, the boys remain boys, refusing adulthood and responsibility by wasting their time on idle pursuits. Truth be told, karaoke performances involving dance routines and elaborate costumes is not a particularly “cool” hobby by the standards of the time but it appears that none of these men have much else in their lives to invest themselves in. With the economy stagnating and the salaryman dream all but dead, you can’t blame them for their apathy or for the rejection of the values of their parents’ generation, but you can blame them for their persistent refusal to grow up and tendency to allow their insecurities to bubble over into violence.

As it turns out, adolescent males and middle-aged women have more in common than might be thought in their peripheral existences, exiled from the mainstream success which belongs exclusively to middle-aged and older men who’ve been careful to (superficially at least) adhere to all the rules of a conformist society. Neither group of friends is especially friendly, only latterly realising that “real” connections are forged through direct communication. Their mutual apathy is pierced only by violence which, ironically, allows their souls to sing and finally shows them just what all those cheerful songs were really about. Darkly comic and often surreal, Karaoke Terror is a sideways look at two diametrically opposed groups finding unexpected common ground in the catharsis of vengeance only for their internecine warfare to graduate into world ending pettiness.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The greatest hits of the Showa era:

Koi no Kisetsu – Pinky & Killers

Hoshi no Nagare ni – Akiko Kikuchi

Chanchiki Okesa – Haruo Minami

Shiroi Cho no Samba – Kayoko Moriyama

Linda Linda – The Blue Hearts

Sweet Memories – Seiko Matsuda

Kaze Tachinu – Seiko Matsuda

Minato ga Mieru Oka – Aiko Hirano

Sabita Knife – Yujiro Ishihara

Hone Made Aishite – Jo Takuya

Kimi to Itsumademo – Yuzo Kayama

Mata Au Hi Made – Kiyohiko Ozaki

Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2001)

Japan has really taken the underdog triumphs genre of sports comedy to its heart but there can be few better examples than Shinobu Yaguchi’s 2001 teenage boys x synchronised swimming drama Waterboys (ウォーターボーイズ). Where the conventional sports movie may rely on the idea of individual triumph(s), Waterboys, like many similarly themed Japanese movies, has group unity at its core as our group of disparate and previously downtrodden high school boys must find their common rhythm in order to truly be themselves. Setting high school antics to one side and attempting to subvert the normal formula as much as possible, Yaguchi presents a celebration of acceptance and assimilation as difference is never elided but allowed to add to a growing harmony as the boys discover all new sides of themselves in their quest for water borne success.

Dreamy high school boy Suzuki (Satoshi Tsumabuki) is currently the only member of his high school’s swimming team, and unfortunately he’s not a particularly good swimmer. His interest is piqued when he spots a synchronised swim meet, but he forgets all about it until a new teacher arrives and pledges to revive the school’s fortunes in the pool. Seeing as their new teacher is a pretty young woman with an interest in swimming, the team suddenly becomes much more popular but when she reveals her synchronised swimmer past numbers dwindle once again. Unfortunately, the hot new teacher suddenly has to leave the school so the boys are left to fend for themselves in their new and possibly embarrassing career in a generally feminine sport.

Being teenage boys who only started this whole thing because of the pretty teacher, most of the other guys are are looking for a way out but they also don’t like to be called quitters and so they become determined to make a success of themselves. Suzuki, who secretly wanted to become a synchronised swimmer anyway, is the most committed but also, perhaps, the least confident in his choice of sport as he embarks on a tentative romance with a girl from another school – herself an enthusiast of the more masculine karate. Terrified that she will find out and laugh at him, Suzuki goes to great lengths to avoid telling her what it he really does in his club activities, possibly putting the growing romance at risk in the process.

This mild challenge to masculinity is the main joke of the film but Yaguchi neatly subverts as the guys become cool again thanks to mastering a difficult skill and creating an impressive spectacle through hard work and group mentality. The boys gain an unlikely mentor in the form of a dolphin trainer at Sea World who they hope will be able to train them in the same way he trains his marine creatures but quickly sets them off on some Karate Kid style practical training which involves a lot of menial tasks around the park before dumping them at the local arcade to play dance dance revolution until they learn the art of synchronicity through the power of idol pop. Waterboys is, essentially, a hymn to the harmonious society as the boys eventually find their common rhythm and the power that comes from many acting as one.

Unusually, this does not requite a loss of individuality or for any erasure of essential personality traits but rather a greater need for acceptance as difference merely adds to the strength of the whole. Though there are a fair few gay jokes in what is essentially a movie about high school boys in skimpy trunks, the joke is not homosexuality but reactions to it as Yaguchi adopts a “get over it” attitude and so when one of the boys does confess his love for another it’s treated with no particular reaction other than lack of surprise. Similarly the cross dressing mama-san from the local gay club (a surprising turn from Akira Emoto) becomes one of their greatest supporters and may provide comic relief but is never a figure of fun. In order to succeed the boys will need to be in tune with each other, but that in tune sounds better when it allows for harmony rather than insisting on dull monotony.

Visually inventive and often hilarious, Waterboys lacks the heart of Yaguchi’s similarly plotted Swing Girls but nevertheless succeeds in its tale of inexperienced young guys working hard and achieving the impossible, growing up and discovering new things about themselves as they do. Waterboys may be lighthearted, crowd pleasing fun, but its good natured message that great things are possible when determined people work hard at them together, and that group harmony does not necessarily require social conformity, only add to its warm and gentle tone.


Korean trailer (Korean captions/subtitles only)

What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 2016)

what-a-wonderful-familyProlific as he is, veteran director Yoji Yamada (or perhaps his frequent screenwriter in recent years Emiko Hiramatsu) clearly takes pleasure in selecting film titles but What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Kazoku wa Tsurai yo) takes things one step further by referencing Yamada’s own long running film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (better known as Tora-san). Stepping back into the realms of comedy, Yamada brings a little of that Tora-san warmth with him for a wry look at the contemporary Japanese family with all of its classic and universal aspects both good and bad even as it finds itself undergoing number of social changes.

Once upon a time it was normal for the entire family clan to live together, sons bring their wives to their father’s house, become fathers and then grandfathers themselves passing the property on their eldest when they go. After the war everything changed, the return to prosperity brought about a greater need for mobility as well as increasing desire for privacy and individual freedom which saw the domestic environment shrinking.

The Hiratas still live the old way with “difficult” family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) nominally in the lead but spending his retirement in the local bar flirting with the mama-san, Kayo (Jun Fubuki), who is gracious, but extremely skilled in her work which often involves deflecting the attentions of the clientele. His long suffering wife, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), eases her boredom with classes at the local community centre while the wife of eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), has taken taken over the running of the household whilst also taking care of her two sons. The house is also still home to sensitive youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and a point of refuge for daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), during her inevitable fights with mild mannered husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya).

When Shuzo can’t really be bothered with his wife’s birthday, he asks her what she’d like as a present – as long as it’s not too expensive, he’s not made of money after all. That’s no problem she says, what I want only costs 450 yen. Shuzo’s confusion gives way to shock as he realises the bit of paper he’s just been handed is a petition for divorce….

Tomiko’s reasoning is sound, the position she’s been occupying for the last forty years is, effectively, a job. Now that the children are grown and another woman has taken over the domestic responsibilities, Tomiko wants to retire and enjoy some well earned freedom at last. The decision sends the entire family into a spiralling existential crisis as they contemplate this unexpected development and what it could mean for their previously ordinary way of life.

It would be nice to think men like Shuzo are a dying breed, so gruff and aggressive that his own daughter-in-law almost hangs up on him thinking he’s an “ore ore” scammer. Having worked hard for his family throughout his life, he feels a tremendous sense of entitlement in playing the king of his own domain. Tomiko, by side all these years putting up with his rudeness, selfishness, and inconsiderate behaviour is thoroughly sick of being taken for granted and unfavourably compared to a bar hostess whose job it is to stroke her husband’s ego.

More challenges to the domestic set up occur when youngest son Shota, still living at home into his 30s, decides to move out and get married. The polar opposite of his brash father, Shota has often been the mediator between different family factions which might well have gone to war and destroyed the household long before now were it not for his calming influence. A marriage would usually be a cause for celebration but Shota has picked exactly the wrong time to introduce his lovely new fiancée, Noriko (Yu Aoi), to the family right in the middle of this extended moment of crisis.

Divorce is still a taboo subject in Japan carrying its own degree of stigma whatever the circumstances which makes Tomiko’s sudden bid for individualistic freedom all the more difficult to understand for her family. This is thrown into sharp relief when Tomiko begins enquiring about Noriko’s family background and discovers she is actually the child of divorced parents only to have a momentary flash of distaste or perhaps mild disapproval before getting over it and trying to make her son’s future wife feel welcome even in this quite tense domestic environment. Disconnected from her own family, being suddenly thrown into the deep end with the boisterous and perhaps too closely involved Hiratas might be a little overwhelming for Hirata-in-waiting Noriko but luckily she takes to it well enough and perhaps finds the liberated frustrations of the large family unit a warm rather than intimidating experience.

It is, indeed, hard being a family. Total honesty is neither possible nor advisable and harmony is largely born of mutual compromise but the essential thing is understanding – both of everyone else’s feelings and of everyone’s unique places within the familial system. Like any good Japanese family drama things have to change so that everything can stay the same, and there’s a poignant moment towards the end where we observe the large number of vacant family homes in the neighbourhood where the elderly owners have either died or moved into residential care facilities while their children and grandchildren founded homes of their own. At the end of the day all anyone wants is a degree recognition as an individual rather than as an embodiment of a concept and if certain people are able to swallow their pride, there might still be hope for the old ways yet.


HK Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Parco Fiction (パルコ フィクション, Takuji Suzuki & Shinobu Yaguchi, 2002)

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Since making 2002’s Parco Fiction, directors Shinobu Yaguchi and Takuji Suzuki have both gone on to bigger and better things but for this under seen portmanteau movie, they found themselves uniting to create something which seems to be a strange advert for the Parco department store in Tokyo’s trendy Shibuya district. The film is divided into five different short episodes loosely connected to the department store plus opening, closing and linking segments each filled with the kind of whimsical, absurd humour usually found in these kinds of films.

Opening with a planning meeting for the building of the department store in which its unusual name is decided after the chain smoking consultant finds it written on his scarred lungs after a medical emergency, the story moves on to a young lady who is undergoing an interview for a job at the store. Unfortunately, the young man being interviewed alongside her is an ideal candidate – a Tokyo university graduate who seems to have completely charmed the panel. However, the girl is given a job with the instruction not to open the envelope she’s been given but she can’t resist and finds herself setting off on a strange quest.

This only continues in part two as we come into contact with a soon to be middle school girl who has the misfortune of having a slightly dotty grandma by the name of “Harco”. Every time the Parco ad comes on, grandma gets very excited because she thinks someone’s calling her name even though the last person to call her “Harco” died, years ago. The little girl sets off to solve this problem by stopping grandma seeing the ads, but then something even stranger happens.

Tale three is set during a sale in which a young woman has her heart set on a particular dress and will stop at nothing to get it. This introduces us to the security guard at the Parco who takes us into story five as a shop worker has an unusual medical problem which prevents her from looking up. The security guard has a crush on the shopgirl, but he’s on the taller side so all he can do is stay close by and prepare to catch her every time she’s about to swoon after slightly raising her head. The film then closes with another mini sequence featuring the “standing room only” screening of Parco Fiction at a public cinema.

As is common with these kinds of films, some of the segments are more successful than others. The first perhaps goes on too long and the episode with the little girl and her grandma gets a little too surreal for its own good but the overall tone is zany, quirky humour. Sometimes very off the wall and filled with a good deal of slapstick too, Parco Fiction feels like a fairly low-key, frivolous effort but none the less enjoyable for it. Having said that, the entire duration of the film lasts only 65 minutes, and, truthfully, feels a little long despite the variation of stories involved.

Not a landmark film by any means, Parco Fiction still has plenty to offer particularly as a fairly early effort from these two directors who’ve since gone on to carve out fairly interesting careers. Sure to interest fans of quirky comedies, each of the segments has a zany, studenty humour vibe that often proves extremely funny. The film is undoubtedly low budget (and obviously filled with references to the Parco department store) but earnest enough and filmed in an accomplished and interesting manner.


This is another one you can randomly buy on UK iTunes with English subtitles.

Unsubbed trailer: