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

Kamikaze Taxi (Masato Harada, 1995)

Kamikaze Taxi DVD coverAlmost 25 years later, Masato Harada’s post-bubble critique of a society failing to deal with its traumatic past feels oddly relevant. Xenophobia, misogyny, class oppression, and political corruption are far from unique problems but find fertile ground in a society in flux in which recent economic trauma has forced tensions to the fore. 1994 was a period of marked political chaos in which a corruption scandal had brought down a Prime Minister while the country debated electoral reform and attempted to deal with the ongoing recession, finding itself caught between the problems of past and future as the Showa era legacy continued to gnaw at the promise of Heisei.

Lowly goon Tatsuo (Kazuya Takahashi) has been charged with finding girls for corrupt politician Domon (Taketoshi Naito), but his world is turned inside out when Domon badly beats a prostitute leading his girlfriend Renko, a madam, to kick up a fuss which eventually gets her killed by sadistic mob boss Animaru (Mickey Curtis). Insensitively ordered to dispose of Renko’s body, Tatsuo’s resentment intensifies until he is shouldered with caring for the injured prostitute, Tama (Reiko Kataoka), who tells him that Domon keeps a large amount of cash hidden in his house. Seeing a chance to escape from the yakuza world whilst getting revenge on everyone involved in the death of Renko, Tatsuo enlists a few of his trusted guys and stages a heist. It goes badly wrong, leaving everyone except Tatsuo dead.

Meanwhile, on the run, Tatsuo gets a lift from Peruvian returnee Kantake (Koji Yakusho) now working as a taxi driver after being unable to find any other kind of work in the middle of a recession in a society not always welcoming of overseas workers. Although he was born in Japan and spent most of his childhood in the country, Kantake’s grasp of the language has become corrupted and he finds himself unable to communicate in his “homeland” despite being “Japanese”. Even without verbal communication, the two men bond and Kantake returns to collect Tatsuo despite becoming aware of his gangster past, forging a kind of brotherhood in their shared outsider status.

When Tatsuo is first introduced to Domon, the first thing he asks him is if he is “fully Japanese”. Domon “hopes” he is, but has his doubts because his name “sounds a bit Korean”. Harada opens the film with some on screen testimony from migrant workers in Japan, some of whom are, like Kantake, of Japanese birth if raised overseas but nevertheless find themselves regarded as foreigners – turned down for housing and employment, cast out from regular mainstream society. In the bubble era when it was all hands to the wheel, the migrant workers were an essential part of a well functioning economy, but now the bubble’s burst and they are no longer “needed” as construction dwindles and the demand for casual labour decreases, men like Domon begin to suggest simply sending them all “home”. 

A fierce nationalist, Domon is also a misogynist whose sexual proclivities run to extreme violence. Sadly, his views are not so far from the mainstream as might be hoped – the heartless yakuza think nothing of silencing Renko and then disappearing her body, while Tama’s assault is something bought and paid for. On TV, Domon appears on a panel discussing the comfort woman issue and unsurprisingly refuses to acknowledge it while the increasingly exasperated female contributor points out that the use of comfort women was not only a state sponsored crime but a crime against women which speaks volumes about current social attitudes. Domon insists that the Japanese women who “served” as prostitutes overseas were soldiers, while the “foreign” women were soulless money hungry mercenaries who deserved everything they got. In his view, all of today’s problems are down to “selfish” career women who should get back in their boxes as quickly as possible so everything can go back to “normal”.

The wartime legacy hangs uncomfortably over modern Japan as ultra nationalists like Domon harp on about their time in service, exploiting their fallen comrades for personal and political gains. Kantake too, it seems, has fought in a war and is the son of a former kamikaze pilot of the kind despised by men like Domon who themselves have continued to live even in defeat. Drugs and foreign wars link two eras and two continents, not to mention two men, as Kantake reflects on the true “kamikaze” spirit as seen in the beautiful flight of the Condor coasting on the winds above the Andes. It is indeed a gust of wind which saves him as he decides to fulfil Tatsuo’s quest for vengeance, remaining true to their brotherly bond and attempting to wipe the slate clean by eliminating the corrupting forces which deny each of them the right to live as full members of their society. Asked for his life story by a dying man, Kantake begins to speak but all too quickly is urged to “forget about Showa” – a partial plea for making peace with the past, getting rid of nationalism, the yakuza, the hierarchical and patriarchal society in favour of something kinder and more honest built out of its ashes.


Kamikaze Taxi screens at New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 1st July at 6pm plus Q&A with director Masato Harada.

HD re-release trailer (no subtitles)

The Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2002)

laughing frog posterEver have a day (or perhaps a lifetime) where you feel so stupid that even the frogs are laughing at you? That’s pretty much how it is for disgraced former bank manager Ippei when he turns up one day at a family holiday home he assumed would be empty but turns out not to be. In Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Warau Kaeru) director Hideyuki Hirayama deftly dissects the modern family, the gradual redundancy of the middle-aged man, and the way society seems to have of anointing the lucky and the unlucky, in a darkly humorous satire in which even mother nature seems to be mocking our petty human concerns.

33 year old Ryoko (Nene Otsuka) is attending the third memorial service for her late father at which her greedy sister-in-law (Kumija Kim) asks for various things in an attempt to get some of the inheritance in advance while Ryoko’s brother (Shuzo Mitamura) wanders off to chat about silkworms in Chinese on his mobile phone. The event ends with Ryoko’s sprightly mother (Izumi Yukimura) and the sister-in-law urging her to sort out some kind of marital difficulties in order to ease the awkwardness surrounding her lack of external connections.

Meanwhile, Ryoko’s missing husband, Ippei (Kyozo Nagatsuka), rocks up at a rural station and climbs into a familiar house through an open window. Wandering around in his pants, he hears a noise and realises someone lives there after all. Ryoko has moved into her father’s old house in the country and started a whole new life for herself. After a brief discussion, Ryoko agrees to let him stay for a while on the condition that he finally sign the divorce papers but Ippei soon finds himself confined to an especial kind of irrelevance as he starts his new life in the hall cupboard observing his wife’s new freedoms by means of a tiny hole in the wall.

No one seems to have much of a good word to say about Ippei, which is fair enough seeing as he apparently became obsessed with a bar hostess and embezzled money from his bank to pay for a lavish affair before running away and leaving his wife to deal with the fallout. He is, however, paying for it now as his own irrelevance is once and truly brought home to him as he lives out his days like an impotent ghost trapped in a storage cupboard undergoing his wife’s strange mix of kindness and revenge.

Ryoko, the goodly wife, is not quite all she seems. Ippei’s mistress makes a surprise appearance to try a spot of extortion on the wealthy wife but she’s no match for Ryoko’s perfectly practiced poise. One of the oddly cruel accusations the mistress has to offer is that Ippei once referred to a kind of boredom with his wife’s properness, branding her a “fancy pet cat” whilst apparently avowing the mistress’ bedroom superiority. If Ippei’s sheepish behind the wall expression is anything to go by he is guilty as charged but then perhaps the uncomfortable statement leads right back to his uncomfortable place within Ryoko’s upperclass family who seem to look down on a mere bank manager, affecting politeness while secretly bemoaning the fact that their daughter has married beneath herself.

The model upperclass family is a simulacrum. Feigning politeness, elegance and dignity they attempt to disguise their otherwise distasteful affectations. Ryoko’s sister-in-law is at least honest in her constant harping on about the inheritance, plan to steal grandma’s house out from under her to knock it down and build a new one, and constant asides to her apparently hopeless (and unseen) son away at a (not great) university. Meanwhile her husband, Ryoko’s brother, pretends to chat silkworms in Chinese on his phone but is really talking to a Chinese mistress and Ryoko’s mum is planning to get married again to a (possibly dodgy) antiques dealer (Mickey Curtis) who is so deeply in debt there won’t even be any inheritance anyway.

Ryoko too has moved on. Ippei is forced to watch as she entertains her new boyfriend (Jun Kunimura), a stonemason whose main line is headstones, while the frogs outside work themselves into some kind of frenzy. Little by little all his manly affectations are worn away – he’s forced to realise how foolish he’s been, how irrelevant he is in Ryoko’s life, and how perfectly pointless his fugitive existence really is. Ryoko meanwhile remains calm and calculating. She “lies” and she wins in a bloodless victory, allowing her opponents to sentence themselves to the punishments they feel themselves to deserve. Ippei, it seems, is just a weak, unlucky man doomed to ruin himself through a series of poetic failures and petty self involved mistakes. Meanwhile the frogs look on and laugh at our human follies. Makes you feel small doesn’t it….


Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2017)

survival family posterModern life is full of conveniences, but perhaps they come at a price. Shinobu Yaguchi has made something of a career out of showing the various ways nice people can come together to overcome their problems, but as the problem in Survival Family (サバイバルファミリー) is post-apocalyptic dystopia, being nice might not be the best way to solve it. Nevertheless, the Suzukis can’t help trying as they deal with the cracks already present in their relationships whilst trying to figure out a way to survive in the new, post-electric world.

Receiving a package from grandpa fills the Suzukis with horror more than gratitude. Mum Mitsue (Eri Fukatsu) can’t bring herself to cut the head off a fish and the sight of the giant bug that crawls out of the lettuce is just too much to bear. Her teenage daughter, Yui (Wakana Aoi), is not very excited either, tapping her smartphone with her fake nails, while her son Kenji (Yuki Izumisawa) spends all his time alone in his room with headphones permanently attached. Mr. Suzuki, Yoshiyuki (Fumiyo Kohinata) – the family patriarch, is a typical salaryman, obsessed with work and often in bed early.

All that changes one day when Yoshiyuki’s alarm clock does not go off. There’s been a power outage – nothing works, not the TV, not the phone, not even the tower block’s elevator. Being the salaryman champ he is, Yoshiyuki tries to make it into to work in other ways but the power’s out across the city and there’s nothing to be done. Everyone is sure the power will come back on soon, but days pass with the consequences only increasing as supermarket shelves become bare and water frighteningly scarce. After his boss decides to take his chances in the mountains and a neighbour dies as a direct result of the ongoing power shortage, Yoshihyuki decides to take the family on the road to find Mitsue’s country bumpkin father in the hope that he will have a better idea of how to survive this brave new world.

Yaguchi is quick to remind us all of the ways electricity defines our lives, even if we’ve begun to forget them. Not only is it a question of mobile phones being out and lifts being out of order, but gas appliances are also electric ignition as are the pumps which drive the water system. So used to the constant stream of electricity, no one quite realises what its absence means hence Yoshiyuki’s big idea is to get a plane from Haneda airport. Ridiculous as it may seem, he’s not the only one to have underestimated the part electricity plays in flight and the aviation industry as the airport is swamped by people trying to escape the rapidly disintegrating city. Credit cards no longer work leading to long checkout lines as the old ladies with their abacuses make a startling return to checkouts while bemused shoppers attempt to use the ATM machine to get more cash.

Cash itself still has worth, at least for a time. Eventually the barter system takes over as food and water become top price commodities. A very flash looking man tries to trade genuine Rolex gold watch and later the keys to his Maserati for food but is roundly informed that none of his hard won prizes is worth anything in this new back to basics era. Thanks to Mitsue’s housewife skills of frugality and haggling, the family are able to get themselves a small stockplie of resources but find themselves tested when the less fortunate ask them for help.

The crisis brings out both the best and the worst in humanity. As the family make their escape from the city on a series of bicycles, they pass a succession of salesmen all upping the price of bottled water by 100% each time. Profiteering is rife as the unscrupulous procure ordinary foodstuffs to be sold for vast amounts of money. Yet the Suzukis rarely find themselves on the wrong side of trickery and even encounter a few kindly souls willing to help them on their journey such as a gang of cycle wear clad survival experts and a very forgiving farmer who takes the family in when they help themselves to one of his escaped pigs (a sequence which allows Yaguchi to go on another Swing Girls-style pig chase only without the slo-mo and classical music).

Forced to reconnect, the family become closer, gradually coming to know and accept each other whilst finding new and unknown talents. Living simply and harmoniously has its charms, ones that don’t necessarily need to disappear if the power ever comes back on. The only certainty is that you can’t survive alone, and who can you count on if you can’t count on family?


Screened as the opening night movie of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Masanori Tominaga, 2009)

Pandora's BoxOsamu Dazai is one of the twentieth century’s literary giants. Beginning his career as a student before the war, Dazai found himself at a loss after the suicide of his idol Ryunosuke Akutagawa and descended into a spiral of hedonistic depression that was to mark the rest of his life culminating in his eventual drowning alongside his mistress Tomie in a shallow river in 1948. 2009 marked the centenary of his birth and so there were the usual tributes including a series of films inspired by his works. In this respect, Pandora’s Box (パンドラの匣, Pandora no Hako) is a slightly odd choice as it ranks among his minor, lesser known pieces but it is certainly much more upbeat than the nihilistic Fallen Angel or the fatalistic Villon’s Wife. Masanori Tominaga had made an impact with his debut film The Pavillion Salamandre and seemed to be a perfect fit for the quirkier, darkly comic Pandora’s Box but perhaps in the end it was too perfect a fit.

Inspired by events from Dazai’s own life, the story centres around a young man at the end of the second world war who has been suffering from tuberculosis for some time but kept quiet about it expecting to die soon and remove the burden on his family. However, when the war finally ends Risuke (Shota Sometani) inherits a new will to live and commits himself to a sanatorium to treat his lung condition. Whilst in the hospital he comes into contact with writers and poets as well as pretty nurses all the while proceeding with his plan to become a “new man” for this “new era”.

At once both hopeful and nihilistic, Pandora’s Box mixes gallows humour and denial in equal measure as the motley collection of inpatients waste their days away in this eccentric establishment which looks after them well enough but promises no real progress in terms of their health. Each of the patients receives a nickname when they enter the sanatorium so Risuke quickly becomes Hibari (sky lark). Tellingly, these nicknames overwrite real world personas – original names are recalled only at the time of death. Deaths do indeed occur but aside from these unhappy events, no one acknowledges the seriousness of their condition or the possibility that they may die from it, never leaving the hospital again. Physical pain and suffering is almost entirely absent though Risuke gives ample vent to his mental anguish through his letters to a fellow patient who has now been discharged back into the unseen chaos of the post-war world.

Indeed, the sanatorium might be a kind of idyll in this era of instability. Well fed and well cared for, the patients are far better off than many left adrift in the starving cities but the outside world rarely impinges on the isolated atmosphere of the sanatorium. Events change slightly when a friend of Risuke’s, Tsukushi (Yosuke Kubozuka), is discharged and a new nurse, Take (Mieko Kawakami), arrives stirring up various different emotions amongst the male patients in Risuke’s ward. Striking up a friendship with the younger nurse, Mabo (Riisa Naka), Risuke finds himself torn between two very different women.

Although its tone is necessarily one of depression and numbness, Pandora’s Box ends on an improbably upbeat note in which Risuke remarks that just like a climbing plant he may not know where he’s going, but it will certainly be a place of bright sunlight. A minor work filled with dark, ironic humour it’s perhaps unfair to expect the same kind of impact as Dazai’s more weighty efforts but Pandora’s Box is a lower budget affair which, although interesting enough in terms of direction, fails to make much of an impression outside of its obvious pedigree. The light jazzy score and deadbeat voice over add to the period feel whilst also lending an air of hopeless yet buoyant resignation to Risuke’s ongoing journey into the post-war world. This, in many ways, is what we’re here for – Risuke, unlike Dazai, has made a commitment to forge a way forward in which he plans to fight for the sun rather sink below the waves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)