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

Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Isshin Inudo, 2014)

Miarcle devil claus posterChristmas is a time for romance, at least in Japan, but thanks to the magic of the season it can also be confusing. For one nerdy aspiring mangaka at the centre of Isshin Inudo’s Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Miracle Devil Claus-kun no Koi to Maho) it’s about to become very confusing indeed as he becomes convinced a prophecy he himself made up when he was a child is actually coming true. Cross-cultural love, lifelong longing, frustrated dreams, and misconstrued realities threaten to derail fated romance but never fear – it is Christmas after all, and even evil Santa has his heart in the right in place as long as anyone is prepared to really listen to him.

Hikaru (Masaki Aiba) and Anna (Nana Eikura) have lived across the street from one another all their lives and been friends as long as either of them can remember. These days, Hikaru is chasing dreams of manga success while working in a bookstore, and Anna is an aspiring artist specialising in large scale metal work. 20 years ago, Hikaru made up the figure of Devil Claus who is the embodiment of Santa’s emotional pain on being forgotten and abandoned for 364 days of the year. Seeing as no darkness can be permitted in the heart of Santa, Devil Claus evolved into his own pixie-like creature and now mostly stars in the cute, inspirational posters Hikaru illegally pastes all over town.

Devil Claus is also a big part of a prophecy Hikaru revealed to himself in which he believed Devil Claus would eventually lead him to the “Goddess of Destiny” who will appear dressed in red with the moon at her back, carrying knowledge of the future and accompanied by a leopard! It is quite a list and so when Hikaru bumps into an extraordinarily beautiful woman wearing a red coat, carrying a wooden leopard in one hand, and a collection of books about “the future” in the other, he comes to the obvious conclusion. In a coincidence worthy of the movies, it just so happens that the woman is Seo-yon (Han Hyo-Joo), a Korean artist in charge of organising a large scale Christmas display which is also the project Anna has been working on.

Predictably enough, Anna has long been in love with the completely clueless yet pure hearted Hikaru. Ironically, Hikaru thinks of Anna as a big sister who has always protected him when he is so obviously unable to stand up for himself, but though she berates him for his lack of backbone she is the one too embarrassed to confess her real feelings and has been patiently waiting for him to finally notice her all her life.

Nevertheless, this particular plot strand takes a strange turn when Anna figures out that Hikaru’s “Goddess of Destiny” is almost certainly Seo-yon. Despite her own feelings she does her best to fulfil Hikaru’s dreams but Inudo frames her behaviour strangely – Anna acts coldly towards Hikaru, while gazing somewhat longingly at Seo-yon who seems to literally sparkle as the sun shines ever behind her. It would be easy to come to the seemingly obvious conclusion that Anna has a different reason for being irritated with Hikaru and his current romantic pre-occupation (why exactly does she already have the book Seo-yon has been wanting before she decides to give it Hikaru to give her?), but the dilemma is later reframed as an inner conflict about her lack of traditional femininity. Yes, Anna’s “manly” dungarees and love of welding might easily play into a stereotype supporting the first conclusion but are actually offered as reasons for feeling underconfident in romance. Just as Hikaru thinks he isn’t good enough for someone so glamorous and accomplished, Anna thinks she isn’t good enough for Hikaru because she can’t measure up to a woman like Seo-yon.

All of that aside, the refreshing message behind Devil Claus is less one of conforming to a social ideal than of learning to regain your self confidence in order to open yourself up to the vulnerability of exposing your true feelings. Hikaru’s romantic and professional rival (not that Hikaru would ever really think of anyone else as an enemy), Kitayama (Toma Ikuta), was one a top rated city trader and now apparently successful mangaka but in a depressive slump over a conflict of artistic integrity. Only by remembering the importance of sincerity and emotional connection can he unlock his creative block by remembering what it is that’s really important. Frothy fun and proud of it, Devil Claus mixes infinitely cute if slightly subversive animation with innocent and pure hearted romance in which the main messages are embracing your authentic self and accepting other people’s. In other words, a perfect Christmas story.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

It All Began When I Met You (すべては君に逢えたから, Katsuhide Motoki, 2013)

It All Began When I Met You posterChristmas, in Japan, is an occasion for romance. Strangely, the Christmas date movie has never quite taken off though there are a fair few examples of this oft maligned genre even if they don’t generally help to ameliorate the contempt in which it is held. Truth be told, It All Began When I Met You (すべては君に逢えたから, Subete wa Kimi ni Aeta kara) won’t help to do that either but then it isn’t really intended to so much as provide a little warmth combat the to Christmas cold whilst celebrating the centenary of Tokyo Station (a destination surely as romantic as meeting under the clock at Waterloo).

Spinning out from Tokyo Station, the film splits into six interconnected stories of love ranging from dealing with long distance romance to an orphaned little girl who has projected her need to believe in the existence of her parents onto a faith in Santa Claus. Counting down to Christmas Day, the protagonists each progress towards some kind of crisis point which will allow them to deal with their various problems whilst getting into the holiday spirit.

Couple one are a pair of youngsters, one a fashion designer, Setsuna (Fumino Kimura), and the other an engineer, Takumi (Masahiro Higashide), who are separated because of differing work commitments. She’s in Tokyo, he’s up North, but they chat on the phone all the time and seem close despite the distance between them. The truth is revealed when Takumi comes to Tokyo and is supposed to meet up with Setsuna but stays out all night drinking with a (female) colleague instead.

Meanwhile, a college student (Tsubasa Honda) is invited to a karaoke party but isn’t sure whether to go because her crush is going and she can’t pluck up the courage to confess to him. Her boss at the pastry shop (Chieko Baisho) where she works tells her to go get him rather than allow her true love to slip away as, we later find out, happened to her when her boyfriend failed to appear at Tokyo Station 49 years earlier when they had arranged to elope. One of their regular customers, a Shinkansen driver (Saburo Tokito), has just retired early and, it turns out, may not have long to live but wants to make the most of his last Christmas with his son (Ryutaro Yamasaki) who is preoccupied about a “half-coming of age” ceremony they’re having at school.

Across down, the train driver’s brother-in-law, an arrogant CEO (Hiroshi Tamaki), runs into an aspiring actress (Rin Takanashi) who is currently in rehearsals for a play she puts on every year at a local orphanage. This year might be her last, however, because she’s begun to accept that her acting career will never take off and it’s time to go home. One of the little girls at the orphanage, Akane (Emiri Kai), is particularly looking forward to the festivities because she’s invested in the unseen figure of Santa as a substitute for believing in the unseen figures of the parents she never knew.

Each of the stories is intended to capture something of the complicated business of modern city living – a long distance relationship is, perhaps, something that many will be familiar with, relating to the pain and confusion of being not quite sure where each party currently is in terms of commitment. The pace of contemporary life frustrates romance, but the station is there to connect people and bring them back together. The conclusion is perhaps a little optimistic in its sudden cementing of a romantic bond but broadly in keeping with the Christmas theme.

The CEO and the actress, by contrast, are a much more conventional rom-com couple. Serendipitously meeting each other at various upscale joints, the CEO immediately tags the actress as a gold digger after she (accidentally) catches him flashing his premium credit card. Offended she spins him a yarn about a dead boyfriend as payback but finds it backfiring when he is unexpectedly moved and tries to make it up to her. Warmer in tone, this strand sets the station up as a symbol of the interconnectedness of city life where such mini miracles are indeed possible even if the perfectly rational reason for all the coincidental meetings is later explained to us.

However, where there’s joy there’s also heartbreak. The train driver’s tale seems out of place here, but plays into other themes of coming to terms with reality and committing to enjoying the now rather than worrying about the past or future. Similarly, the little girl begins to work out her faith in Santa maybe misplaced because the letter he’s written her is in Japanese, which is weird because isn’t Santa Swedish? Learning to accept that not having parents is not due to a lack of faith and that she has good people looking after her helps Akane move past her loneliness while the baker gets a surprise visitor who helps fill in a few details about her failed romance which in turn helps her offer advice to her young assistant faced with her own typically adolescent love worries.

Miracles really do take place at Tokyo Station, which, it has to be said, is quite picturesque. Saccharin and superficial, It All Began When I Met You is nevertheless a heartwarming tribute to the strange serendipity of city life, throwing in a good amount of Christmas cheer with hope for the future and presumably a happy new year.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Chokolietta (チョコリエッタ, Kazama Shiori, 2014)

ChokoliettaWhen examining the influences of classic European cinema on Japanese filmmaking, you rarely end up with Fellini. Nevertheless, Fellini looms large over the indie comedy Choklietta (チョコリエッタ) and the director, Shiori Kazama, even leaves a post-credits dedication to Italy’s master of the surreal as a thank you for inspiring the fifteen year old her to make movies. Full of knowing nods to the world of classic cinema, Chokolietta is a charming, if over long, coming of age drama which becomes a meditation on both personal and national notions of loss.

The story begins in the summer of 2010 when five year old Chiyoko (Aoi Morikawa) is involved in a car accident that results in the death of her mother. Flash forward ten years and Chiyoko is a slightly strange high school girl and a member of the film club. Her parents, as far as she knows, were both big fans of Federico Fellini – in fact the family dog is named “Giulietta” after Fellini’s muse and later wife Giuletta Masina. As a child, Chiyoko also received the strange nickname of “Chokolietta” from her mother which also seems to be inspired by the star. Sadly, their Giulietta has also recently passed away removing Chiyoko’s final link to her late mother and once again forcing her to address the lingering feelings of grief and confusion which have continued to plague her all these years.

At this point Chiyoko goes looking for the DVD of La Strada they watched in film club last year which leads her to the now graduated Masamura Masaoka (Masaki Suda). Masaoka is an equally strange boy with possible sociopathic tendencies though he does own a large collection of classic DVDs and the pair settle down to return to the world of Fellini. Eventually Masaoka convinces “Chokolietta” to star in a movie for him and the two take off on a crazy road trip recreating La Strada where Masaoka stands in for the strong man Zampanò and Chiyoko plays the fragile Gelsomina.

Thankfully, the partnership between Chiyoko and Masaoka is not quite as doom laden and filled with cruelty as that between Gelsomina and Zampanò. Though Masaoka often talks of the desire to kill and Chiyoko the desire to die, both appear superficial and are never presented as actual choices either will seriously act on. Masaoka is cast in the role of the strong man but he more closely resembles The Fool as he gently guides Chiyoko onto a path of self realisation that will help her finally learn to reach a tentative acceptance with the past and begin to move forward rather than futilely trying to remain static. Of course, he’s also forcing himself into a realisation that he doesn’t have to play the role he’s been cast in either and so it doesn’t follow that one has to behave in the way people have come to expect simply because they expect it.

Technically speaking the bulk of the story takes place in a putative future – around 2020, or ten years or so after the death of Chiyoko’s mother in 2010. 2010 is also a significant date as it’s the summer before the earthquake and tsunami struck the Japan the following March causing much devastation and loss of life as well as the resultant nuclear meltdown which has continued to become a cultural as well as physical scar. The journey the pair make takes them on a fairly desolate route past no entry signs into ghostly abandoned shopping arcades still strewn with the remnants of a former, bustling city life but now peopled only by a trio of silent, stick bearing men. This is a land of ghosts, both literal and figural but like most things, the only way out is through.

Taking a cue from Fellini, Chiyoko has frequent visions of her her deceased mother and fantastical sequences such as boarding a whale bus like the whale in Casanova or suddenly seeing Gelsomina and an entourage of dwarfs trailing past her. Her world is a fantastical one in which her daydreams have equal, or perhaps greater, weight to the reality. Her now empty indoor dog house comes to take on a symbolic dimension that represents an entirety of her past her life as if she herself, or the dog she claimed to want to become, had been hiding inside it all along. The film returns to La Strada in its final sequence only to subvert that film’s famous ending as where Zampanò’s animalistic, foetal howling spoke of an ultimate desolation and the discovery of a truth it may be better not to acknowledge, here there is a least hope for a brighter future with the past remaining where it belongs.

However, Chokolietta runs to a mammoth 159 minutes and proves far too meandering to justify its lengthy running time. Truth be told, the pace is refreshingly brisk yet the central road trip doesn’t start until 90 minutes in and there are another 30 minutes after it ends. It’s cutesy and fun but runs out of steam long before the credits roll and ultimately lacks the necessary focus to make the desired impact. That said there are some pretty nice moments and a cineliterate tone that remains endearing rather than irritating all of which add up to make Chokolietta an uneven, if broadly enjoyable, experience though one which never quite reaches its potential.


Unsubtitled trailer:

Bonus – here’s an unsubtitled trailer for La Strada (which is possibly the most heartbreaking film ever made).

Also the other two Fellini movies mentioned in the film:

Casanova

and Amacord (original US release trailer)