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

Kanikosen (蟹工船, SABU, 2009)

kanikosenBack in 2008 as the financial crisis took hold, a left leaning early Showa novel from Takiji Kobayashi, Kanikosen (蟹工船), became a surprise best seller following an advertising campaign which linked the struggles of its historical proletarian workers with the put upon working classes of the day. The book had previously been adapted for the screen in 1953 in a version directed by So Yamamura but bolstered by its unexpected resurgence, another adaptation directed by SABU arrived in 2009.

As in the book the film follows the lives of a group of men virtually imprisoned on a crab canning ship anchored near Russian seas in the 1920s. The men on the boat are of various ages and come from various different backgrounds but each is here out of necessity – nothing other than extreme poverty and lack of other options would ever persuade anyone to take on this arduous and often unpleasant line of work. Technically speaking the boat has a captain but it’s the foreman who’s in charge – dressed like a European officer in a white frock coat and riding boots and with a vicious looking scar across his left eye, Asakawa rules the waves, barking out orders and backing them up with a walking stick.

SABU films the workers’ struggles through the filter of absurdist theatre beginning with a darkly comic segment in which each of the men recount their poverty riddled circumstances and dreams for social advancement before one, Shoji, emerges and posits another idea. They will make a bid for everlasting freedom by committing mass suicide in protest to poor working conditions and consistent exploitation of their class by those above. Predictably, this fails when everyone realises they didn’t actually want to die in the first place. Later Shoji and another man are picked up by a Russian boat after being stranded at sea and after seeing how happy the Russian sailors seem to be, they return determined to enact the revolution at home.

Conveying the workers’ plight through production design, SABU opts for a packing room which is both oversized yet claustrophobic, filled with giant cogs and gears of the capitalist system in motion. The men are little more than fleshy gears themselves, just another piece of the production line to be thrown out and replaced once worn through. Gradually the workers start to realise that this system is only sustainable because of their own complicity. The foreman is, after all, only one man and the workers have made a decision to obey him – they also have the ability to decide not to. That said, the spanner in the works is that the foreman also represents the larger mechanism at play which is the imperial state itself and can call on its resources to defend himself against a potential mutiny.

Having decided to rebel and seen their revolution fail, the workers come to another realisation – that the only true path to social change is a movement for the people lead by the people as one, i.e. with no leaders and therefore no head which can be cut off to disrupt all their efforts. Hand in hand and with the bloody flag raised high do they march into battle to put an end to unfair exploitation of those without means by those that have. Ever since they’ve been on this boat, they’ve been told that they’re at war, that their services are necessary for the survival of the Imperialist state – and now so they are, engaged in the class war to end the imperialist hegemony.

In the end, SABU’s message is a little confused – he advocates collective action, but not the collective, as his revolution is born of individual choice rather than the workers linking hands behind a faceless banner. It works as a semi-effective call to arms, but more often than not undermines itself and has a tendency to pull its punches when it really counts. That said, even if it wasn’t perhaps quite what Kobayashi meant, the more general message that the revolution begins in the heart of the individual and that one has the possibility to choose to live in hell (as a slave of the state) or create a heaven for one’s self (as a free person) is one that has universal merit and appeal.


 

Otakus in Love (恋の門, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004)

koi no monReview of Suzuki Matsuo’s Otaku’s in Love (恋の門, Koi no Mon) first published on UK Anime Network in February 2014.


The word “otaku” is a difficult one to pin down. In the West, it’s often come to be a badge of pride and respect, a label that many fans of what most people would perceive as a niche subculture actively identify with and eagerly apply to themselves. However, the roots of the term are much darker and in its native Japanese, “otaku” can be far from a nice thing to call another person. Of the central couple in this film perhaps only one can be thought of as a traditional “otaku” the other being more of a “tortured artist” whose eccentric behaviour makes it difficult for him to survive in the real world. Well, to be honest finding a base line for “normal behaviour” in this film is a pretty tall order, we run into bizarre anime conventions, cosplay obsessives, broken hearted ex-mangaka (manga) bar owners and a bizarre cult like office environment where the only rule is you must be “happy!” all the time. Otakus In Love is an endearingly odd film that is jam packed full of in jokes and meta references that knows its audience very well and never fails in the humour stakes as a result.

Mon is a down on his luck, in fact totally broke, manga artist. Well, he calls himself a “manga artist” but his work isn’t exactly what most people would expect. In a touch of the avant garde, Mon makes his manga out of rocks. Mon’s “manga” are, in fact, a collection of rocks painted with a single kanji character and arranged inside a custom made wooden box. Needless to say each of Mon’s works is a one off piece and his sales record is not exactly going to get him on the best seller list. He can’t seem to hold down a part time job either due to his extreme reactions to people not taking his art seriously and his strange appearance which is something like a seventies guru come glam rock god whose ragged clothes have an oddly deliberate look to them. One fateful day he has an interview for Tsugino Happy Inc which turns out to be a cult-like office environment which seems to advocate happiness through total subjugation. He lasts about an hour at this job before punching his new boss in the face for failing to appreciate his artistic qualities.

However, on the way there about to pick up a particularly fine looking rock, he meets Koino who turns out to be a colleague of his at Happy Inc. The two go out for drinks which ends up at Koino’s apartment where upon Mon wakes up the next morning to find out he’s been a victim of forced cosplay! Unwittingly dressed up as Koino’s favourite character from Soul Caliber II, he’s quickly posed by Koino for her cosplay wall and dragged into a world of doujinshi, comiket, cosplay and all things geeky. Koino is an amateur manga artist who claims to have made a small fortune selling her home made manga at conventions and is well and truly an otaku. Can two such different people really find love? There’s only one way to find out!

Otakus in Love is based on Jun Hanyunyuu’s manga Koi no Mon (also the original Japanese title of the film) and as such carries over various extremely clever meta visual references. Directed by well known actor Suzuki Matsuo (Ichi the Killer) the film is often about as close as you could get to being a live action manga as Matsuo manages to make standard manga tropes like reaction shots and surreal action scenes work in a totally believable way. In the course of the film we’re treated to full on musical sections and ridiculous comic motifs that resurface at fairly predictable moments which could all end up just being far too much, but under Matsuo’s steady hand the film comes out on the right side of crazy and is never anything less than totally zany fun.

The film isn’t afraid to wear its otaku badge on its sleeve, either. Jam packed with references from video games, anime, and manga, Otakus in Love gets its audience completely and trusts it to understand all of its allusions and homages without needing to repeatedly bash the viewer over the head with tie-ins. It also takes an affectionate side swipe at fan culture with some bizarre interactions with cosplay, conventions and ani-singers which any anime fan can probably relate to. The film also has a fair few cameos from such well known personages as Hideaki Anno, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike to name but a few.

At a 114 minutes it does run a little long and occasionally feels like it’s going to run out of steam but for the vast majority of its running time Otakus in Love is a genuinely hilarious, truly bizarre, romantic comedy. Full of warmth and exuberance, it’s difficult to image anyone not being swept away by its surreal humour and though it’s certainly on the broader side of comedy it never feels particularly over the top (or at least not in a bad way). Otakus in Love is a romanic comedy that no self confessed otaku should miss out on seeing.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2014.

Thermae Romae

THERMAE ROMAE-T

Lucius ambulat in Tokyo? Review of improbable time travel comedy Thermae Romae up at UK-anime.net.


Pop quiz – what do modern day Japan and Ancient Rome have in common? Fish sauce? Emperor worship? Sandals? More than you thought, wasn’t it? Well, the correct answer is public bath houses and sure enough the people of modern day Tokyo still love going to the public bath even though they enjoy the luxury of being able to bathe at home! Of course, bath house culture with all its social and political uses and divisions was one of the things the Roman Empire took with it wherever it went. However, there must have been a time when some Romans began to feel their baths were getting a bit stale and in need of a new ‘modern’ twist, but what to do? What if they could leap forward in time and learn from the 21st century bath culture of modern Japan! Enter down on his luck architect Lucius who suddenly finds himself in a strange land full of strange looking people who seem to have taken bath technology to its very zenith.

Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is a once successful bath architect with a case of serious designer’s block. Replaced on a prime project because he’s been unable to come up with any ideas he decides to go for a soak at the local bath house but whilst clearing his head underwater he finds himself sucked through a passage way only to reappear in a very strange looking place – it’s a bath house alright, but not as we know it! As they’re speaking a strange language he doesn’t understand, Lucius assumes the elderly men bathing here must be slaves and he’s been sucked into the “slaves only” part of the baths. Some of this stuff is kind of cool though – what are these funny spigot like things for, and these handy little buckets? Wait – they have baskets for their clothes?! We could do with some these in our bit! And so Lucius experiences the wonder of public bathing in Japan to the extent that it makes him cry with joy at which point he returns to Ancient Rome and begins to put some of these techniques to use in his designs. Travelling back and fore, Lucius always seems to run into the same Japanese girl who wants to make him the star of a manga and group of kindly old men. Can Lucius finally build the bath house of his dreams and stop a conspiracy against his beloved Emperor Hadrian at the same time?

Based on Mari Yamazaki’s manga of the same name (which also received an anime treatment from DLE), Thermae Romae sticks fairly closely to a fish out of water format for the the first half of the film as Lucius becomes by turns confused and then entranced by the various pieces of modern bathing technology he encounters on his travels. As a Roman encountering other people who are obviously not Roman, he of course adopts a superior attitude and assumes these people are either slaves or ought to be and so is extremely bewildered that their advancements seem to have eclipsed those of his own beloved Rome. These situations obviously provide a lot of room for humour as Lucius encounters various things that seem perfectly normal to us but strange and alien to him – his pure joy at discovering the wonder of the multifunctional Japanese toilet being particularly notable. It does though become fairly repetitive as Lucius finds himself in different situations which are essentially the same joke in different colours but then when the plot element begins to kick in later in the film it too fails to take off and feels a little too serious when taken with the wacky time travelling antics we began with.

Aided in his quest Lucius meets several amusing supporting characters including the group of elderly men from the baths who didn’t really need the help of an improbable ancient Roman to get themselves in trouble and Mami who functions as a kind of love interest who’s cast Lucius as the hero in her next manga. Mami begins learning about the Roman Empire and takes a course in Latin which helps a lot when she too finds herself in Ancient Rome and facilitates a kind of cross cultural exchange as she steals ideas from Rome for her manga as Lucius stole for the baths. However, the romantic comedy element never really comes together and even as Mami continues to pine over her noble Roman, Lucius remains aloof in the universal belief that all non-Romans are inferior. Though he does come to grudgingly acknowledge that the ‘flat faced people’ as he calls them have particular strengths such as their willingness to work as a team and put collective success ahead of personal gain, he never quite sheds his Roman arrogance.

It’s all very silly but undeniably quite funny if often absurd. We hear everyone in Rome speaking in Japanese and Lucius continues to think in Japanese wherever he actually is but obviously once he gets to Japan he can’t understand what anyone’s saying and attempts to communicate with them in Latin (whilst still giving his interior monologue in Japanese). Likewise, when Mami learns Latin she uses it to communicate with Lucius in Japan but once they get to Rome, all their ‘Latin’ is Japanese too which causes problems when the old men arrive because they’re speaking the same language as everyone else yet can’t understand anyone or be understood – which might be why they don’t get to say very much other than to Mami. It’s all quite strange and disorientating but kind of works as does the largely Puccini based score which screams 19th century Italy much more than Ancient Rome but helps to give the film the air of classical pomposity it’s aiming for. Big, ridiculous, silly fun – no one could accuse Thermae Romae of having any kind of serious message but it does provide genuinely entertaining silliness for the majority of its running time.