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Ulises [Celluloid 05.20.08] movie review horror

Year: 2003
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Writer: Ryû Murakami (novel) & Sumio Omorio (screenplay)
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Amazon: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
[Editor's note: We generally don't review material after it's been released but in this case the distributor sent it to us late, and as both Ulises and I loved the film, here it is]

To say that the age divide in Japan is wide would be like saying Battle Royale is a violent movie, with both statements deserving a rich, hearty, “Well, duh.” Although the divide between young and old people isn’t unique to Japanese culture, they certainly seem to have a societal preoccupation with the growing gap between the perceived self-destructiveness of youth and the unrelenting rigidity of the older generations. This was Battle Royale’s take: the differences between generations are so irreconcilable, they can only be maintained—with bloodshed. And it seems to be the take of Tetsuo Shinohara’s Karaoke Terror: The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook, a whimsical, gruesome, and effective dark comedy whose campy title belies the grim interpretation of its subject matter. And yet, Shinohara seems to suggest a different take on the matter: are our differences really that pronounced? Or are we all mired in a sort of aimless, self-indulgent existence where we willingly submit to the mindlessness of violence, revenge, and karaoke?

Karaoke Terror is a story of murder, revenge, and escalation, with karaoke sprinkled in for good measure, and ominous song lyrics titling each of the film’s chapter breaks. A group of five young men spend their nights goofing off, ogling the showering woman next door, singing karaoke, and generally wandering through their lives without aim, ambition, or reason. Even their friendship seems pointless—by their own admission, they have nothing in common.

It’s no surprise, then, that the event that triggers the film’s plot is itself a random event, a “glitch,” as the perpetrator calls it. One of the five men, Sugioka, sees a middle-aged woman on his way home, gets aroused, follows her, and tries to pick her up. Convinced that, at her age, she should be grateful she’s even getting the attention, Sugioka is shocked when she rejects his advances and calls him a pervert. So shocked, he slits her throat without saying another word. At first, he’s completely indifferent to the murder. But when it appears in the newspaper the next day, he’s quick to tell his friends that, yes, that was him, and yes, here’s the bloodied blade to prove it. Unsurprisingly, his friends’ reactions are amused disbelief, each one taking turns holding the murder weapon.

On the other side of things, the victim’s friends are in mourning. They are five middle-aged women who actually have something in common: they’re all named Midori, they’re all divorced (an apparently bad stigma for women in Japan), they all love karaoke, and they all want to avenge the death of their friend. (In a way, they have to—the police in this movie prove comically inept. To them, each murder case in unsolvable, each killer uncatchable.) And so, tracking down Sugioka through a bit of improvisational police work, they plot their revenge. Ironically, it’s their plotting that brings them together and gives their own aimless, shattered lives meaning. As they sit around talking about their plot, they realize it’s the first time they’re actually talking and listening to one another. And that the plot is allowing them to “concentrate,” something they’ve not been able or willing to do as their 30s rolled on.

Well, the Midoris get their revenge on Sugioka. But, wouldn’t you know it, his friends aren’t too keen on the idea of a bunch of middle-aged women killing off their kind, gentle friend. And so, they do their own police work, find Sugioka’s killer, and start plotting their own revenge. And once they get their revenge, well, let’s just say the Midoris aren’t about to call things even. From here on out, Karaoke Terror essentially becomes an arms race, with each round of revenge carried out with escalating weaponry and absurdity. Knife begets spear. Spear begets gun. Gun begets M-72 grenade launcher (I’m not kidding). You can imagine where it goes from there. By the jaw-dropping end of the film, you get the sense that Shinohara is suggesting that the age divide between the two warring factions isn’t just a product of social perception. It’s the surrender of individual will and thought that’s the main culprit, because as the boys’ main ‘arms dealer’ explains, “the moment you lose your will to evolve, you become one of them.”

Free will, or the lack thereof, seems to be at the heart of this story. The unquestioning aimlessness of both the young men and the Midoris seems to speak to the absurdity of a generational conflict that’s fueled less by actual interaction and more by hearsay. The verbal exchanges between the men and the Midoris are scant and based on pure assumption; Sugioka’s crude wooing of the first Midori is as much, or as meaningful, as anything these two factions will say to one another. Yet they believe without question what others say about their opponents. It doesn’t matter if it’s a senile hardware shop owner who says middle-aged women—not roaches—will survive nuclear holocaust, a creepy female student who witnesses the first murder and goes on to cooperate with both sides, or a retired, angst-ridden soldier who just wants to sing the Midoris karaoke before he shows them how to use the M-72. Both men and women surrender to hearsay, driven by assumption, obeying without question the words or instructions given to them (especially at the end), disregarding the grave consequences of their actions. By the end of the film, the surrender of free will becomes catastrophic, not just for the men and the Midoris, but for countless others.

Shinohara’s interpretation of the age divide and gender divide in modern-day Japan is bogged down by a plot that drags, especially between the second and third sets of murders. During this time, he tries to flesh out his critique, giving us glimpses into the frivolous, amnesiac lifestyles shared by the warring factions, possibly arguing that revenge itself is an isolated, aimless gesture whose purpose is quickly forgotten. But the film suffers a bit from it, because the good pacing and stylistic approach of the opening revenge salvos slows to a crawl. By the time the Midoris are back in action, you’re kind of glad someone’s blowing something up again.

Still, the film is chillingly entertaining as a dark comedy, maliciously clever in its take on the age and gender divides in Japan, and whimsically gruesome in its depiction of all-out cross-generational warfare. Shinohara weaves the narrative with a potent mixture of surrealism, humor, and shock value, carefully composing his argument without beating us over the head with it. Because if Battle Royale taught us of the absurdities of a hyper-competitive education system that pits students against one another, then Karaoke Terror teaches us that we probably need to start thinking for ourselves a bit more. Because we don’t always know everything about our enemies, or ourselves. And we sure as hell don’t know everything about the guy who’s teaching us how to make a fuel-air bomb…

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quietearth (14 years ago) Reply

Awesome review Ulises!


logboy (14 years ago) Reply

didn't think much of this at all. 'party 7' is a little better, but only in slight patches.


quietearth (14 years ago) Reply

I was hooked with the first throat slashing.. it was however painfully slow in the 2nd half at points, but the ending was unbelievable!


Cyberhal (14 years ago) Reply

I have to see this.

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