Black Comedy is a dangerous beast. Even in the best of situations, better than half of your audience is probably not going to get it. Translated from Japanese and running subtitles along the bottom of a television screen in bright white even further lessens the impact. Basing said black comedy on a novel by Japanese Literary Enfant Terrible Ryū Murakami (AUDITION) is also hardly going to win you any points for homogenization of the subject matter either. For Western Audiences, it does us an equal disservice to try and understand fully the culture vortex that spawned the source material in the first place. In other words, most Americans are ill prepared to fully understand and relate to what makes KARAOKE TERROR a comedy. Frankly, the film has everything going against it, in terms of crossing the Pacific and landing on US soil with any of its bite and wit left intact. So, what makes the film work? Let’s take a look.
If in fact, we are ever to approach this film with hope of understanding the humor behind it, we need to view the production through the lens of Absurdist Comedy. Forget all internal logic and think of KARAOKE TERROR as a fairytale—but not a nice Aesop Fable or even a slightly wicked Brothers’ Grimm yarn. Look at KARAOKE TERROR as a kind of Eastern cousin to Anthony Burgess’ A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. It’s hyperrealism driven to the breaking point. It’s blown so far out of proportion to make a point.
KARAOKE TERROR is ostensibly about two rival gangs, and as such, it should seem easily identifiable. However, in this film, these rival gangs are a group of 5 young men who square off against the Midoris, a gang of 5 middle-aged women—the link between the two wildly dissimilar groups: a love for Showa Era (1926 –1989) Karaoke. In fact the film’s subtitle is “The Complete Japanese Showa Songbook”, which mirrors its original title of SHOWA KAYO DAIZENSHU. The tale of these two warring tribes is simple. When one of the young men murders one the middle-aged women—after unsuccessfully trying to “pick her up”—the remaining Midori’s vow to seek revenge. What transpires next is a tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye showdown that mushrooms into a ludicrous and illogical war with maximum collateral damage. And that farcical nature is what drives the film to its shocking and surprisingly poignant conclusion.
If you peel back the onion on the protagonists in the film, you reveal some other interesting notes; both came to adulthood in a post-World War II civilization. The first—The Midori’s—are children of the 50’s and 60’s and thusly the Showa era songs are close to their heart. They represent the promise of a new future for the country as social and technological change was flourishing throughout the region. The young men are the children of today. Offered every toy imaginable, they have grown soulless, in a commercial society that invents new identities as fads and then throws them away a year or two later. To them, Showa is simply a retro identity that binds them together—like buying bell-bottoms or Aviator sunglasses. Looking at the film in the course of the history of Japan makes the conclusion that much more compelling, and in some respects that much more chilling. However, silly, nonsensical and even at times horrifying the film that proceeds it is, the final moments are brutally cautionary—like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE—even if the images they convey are exceptionally far-fetched.
KARAOKE TERROR is not an easy film, the humor is not directed at us, the situations may seem as foreign as the dialogue, yet consider how globalization has gentrified societies. Is the true horror of the film that it could happen, that it will happen? Probably not. What is terrifying is that if you look closely beneath the surface you can see that just because it’s a gross over-exaggeration doesn’t mean it’s that far off the mark and that glittering generality still finds its basis in reality. That doesn’t mean that we’re about to start blowing each other up tomorrow or even next week, month or year, but as a reflection of societies new found facelessness and immunity to shock value, it’s about as compelling an argument as flipping your web browser over to YouTube and watching some high school students beat each other up for 30 minutes.