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Karaoke Terror
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by Jay Seaver

"The best gang war movie featuring middle-aged women you'll see all year!"
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I've been playing the "X meets Y" game with "The Complete Japanese Showa Song-Book" (or, as it appeared in the festival program, "Karaoke Terror", and the best I've come up with is "'Fight Club' meets 'Thelma and Louise'", or perhaps more appropriately, "'Fight Club' VERSUS 'Thelma and Louise'". I do this not just because I would be proud to have my name on the back of its DVD case, but because I'm trying to think of a way to recommend it to friends and family who have not reacted well to previous "weird stuff from Japan" recommendations, even if they've enjoyed weird stuff in the past.

And yes, Karaoke Terror is weird. The plot involves twelve karaoke fans - six men in their early twenties and six divorced women in their mid/late thirties. The six young men don't quite recall how they came together; some met at work, others at school; the women met when profiled for a magazine article; they're called "The 6 Midoris" because they share the same given name. When one of the boys (who's already pretty unstable, taking to carrying a knife around) catches a glimpse of one of the women, he tries to force himself on her, figuring that a woman her age should consider herself lucky that someone is showing an interest. She refuses, and after a brief scuffle he stabs her in the throat. One of the other Midoris finds the body.

With the police saying that the killer is unlikely to ever be found, the groups meet up - the kid bragging to his friends, and the women vowing vengeance. By tracing a piece of evidence not surrendered to the police, the women track their friend's killer down and quickly dispose of them. And then when the guys learn that this was no random act, they, too, promise to avenge their fallen comrade. From there, it's war.

If the premise is kind of out-there, the execution is even more so. The characters in the two "gangs" are actually some of the most grounded; we have not yet touched upon the girl who lives across from one of the crime scenes and gives information to both sides, or the ranting knife-store owner who sells the boys a gun when they reveal that their enemies are middle-aged women, or the ex-military guy who sells the ladies something bigger. Sure, the guys do their karaoke in costumes that seem to run counter to their enthusiastically heterosexual reaction to watching the woman across the street strip for her shower, and the Midoris talk about how planning their murders is really bringing them closer together, but one can at least understand where they're coming from: Their friend was killed, and the police will likely never find the killer. The folks around them, who abet in the escalation, are just strange.

The story comes from a novel by Ryu Nurakami, the writer of Audition. Like that film, this one is a quite literal battle of the sexes that does have something to say when you strip away the black comedy, with commentary about both sides: The young men have no sense of purpose, finding profundity in pop songs because they've got no sense of it from anywhere else; indeed, murder is the first substantial thing any of them have ever done. Meanwhile, the women initially have little self-esteem, since they're treated like they should be grateful for any notice or attention given them, no matter how crude and self-serving it is. It's only when they unite to seek their revenge that they recognize that they are not failures for being divorced; they contribute to society and deserve some respect and support. When they lay in wait for the boys, only to see them emerge in lipstick, leather, heels, and sheer body stockings, a substantial part of the audience is going to be with them - these young punks don't have any conception of how good they've got it, so it's time to strike back.

Working from Nurakami's novel, screenwriter Sumio Omori and director Tetsuo Shinohara build a film that not only gets that point across, but is also one of the funniest comedies I've seen in the past few years. As much as I love Audition, I think this is a better movie. It's not just more slickly produced, but also more focused in its storytelling, able to balance its characters and ideas with its dark comedy. Just because it has smart underpinnings doesn't mean it will rely wholly on highbrow comedy; one of the funniest bits is, shall we say, fluid-related. It's sharp, effective satire if you want it to be, absurdly violent comedy if that's all you're looking for.

I loved this movie, I really did. It's going to be a cult thing no matter what, but it deserves to have a large cult. I hope I haven't damned it too much with the comparisons to Audition, since this is not just an even better movie, but a more audience-friendly one. It wants you to think, yes, but it also wants you to laugh.

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originally posted: 07/12/05 08:12:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/25/06 sert serret can`t happen in lalaland 5 stars
7/13/05 Mk Awsome movie 5 stars
3/28/05 Paul Excellent. Also known as Complete Showa Japanese Songbook 5 stars
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