Film / Reviews

'Lust in a Karaoke Box': Celebrating the joys of student life

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

When I taught at colleges here in the 1980s, I marveled at my students’ freedom, including freedom from study. They could spend most of their waking hours at part-time jobs or club activities and still, somehow, graduate.

But, as Shinya Tamada’s ensemble drama, “Lust in a Karaoke Box,” shows with the persuasiveness of deep familiarity, this carefree existence has its downsides — and is not as unfettered as it looks from the outside.

Based on a play that Tamada wrote and in 2016 staged with his own theater troupe, this debut feature premiered in the Japanese Cinema Splash section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. It left without a prize but reminded me of films by Kenji Yamauchi (“At the Terrace”) and Daisuke Miura (“Love’s Whirlpool”) — both directors with theatrical backgrounds who knowingly examine the inner workings of groups in action, from sly sexual innuendo to raw emotional revelations (which are not necessarily far apart).

Lust in a Karaoke Box (Ano Hibi no Hanashi)
Rating
Run Time 100 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The complaint against such films is that they’re not “cinematic” — meaning you could listen to them with the picture off and still understand what’s going on. But similar to his two celebrated senpai (seniors), Tamada creates visual dynamism in a confined space. If anything, he keeps his actors in such constant motion and sets the tension level so high that it becomes a strain to keep up. The occasional moments of quiet felt like the longed-for rest breaks in a fast-paced workout session.

The setting is an after-party at a karaoke box, with the nine partygoers all present or past members of an unnamed university club. In fact, we never find out what the club actually does. All we know is that the newly elected president has absconded with a female freshman member for a place and purpose unknown.

This scandalous behavior excites the erotic curiosity of the remaining male members. And all the drinking and socializing has loosened their inhibitions. When the women are out of the room, one of the more excitable guys, Asai (Takahiro Kinoshita), shows the others a box of condoms he has brought “just in case” and offers to share them. In the ensuing hilarity, an eager-beaver freshman, Ishikawa (Mizuki Maehara), spills a drink on the bag of a cute female member, Mao (Makoto Kikuchi). In cleaning it, a burly adult student, Ogawa (Tsuyoshi Kondo), discovers another box of condoms inside.

This inadvertent invasion of privacy (Ogawa, the big lug, did not mean any harm) leads to more riffling of bags in a fit of prankish glee. The night, we feel, will not end well.

Along the way to the inevitable confrontation between violated and violator, we are introduced to each member in turn, from the bossy-but-virginal Saito (Shigenobu Noda), to the assertive-but-love-struck Fumi (Mijika Nagai). All are familiar types but become distinct individuals. And their interactions, from the boyishly juvenile to the fiercely antagonistic, ring true enough, though the hand of the puppetmaster is at times visible.

The film’s embodiment of the reality principle, however, is a young male server (the single-named Taiga) who intercedes at a crucial moment and pierces the privileged bubble the club members occupy. Not angrily or resentfully, but rather quietly and pointedly. He envies students, he says, for “enjoying their youth.” Even, or especially, when it involves behaving like complete idiots.