Regular readers to these film reviews maybe shocked to know that this writer does NOT do Romcoms or Musicals! Of course there is always the odd exception to the rule and if for instance one is made that throws say cannibals or zombies into the equation or indeed gets directed by a nutty Japanese auteur I may always be swayed. The Happiness Of The Katakuris ticks at least a couple of boxes and has been a film that I have enjoyed since I first picked it up on an obscure region 3 Japanese DVD. Generally though with films that have the cast breaking into song for no apparent reason I adopt the Monty Python stance of shouting out “stop it, it’s really silly” and turning said feature off as quickly as possible. Some other exceptions to the rule are naturally the aforementioned group’s Holy Grail, Cannibal The Musical and Poultrygeist as Troma can do no wrong and the very odd Darren Lynn Bousman helmed Repo The Genetic Opera. Just for the record I would like to add that I absolutely detest The Rocky Horror Picture show and the whole blasted singalong a cinema culture it spawned.
Takashi Miike caught my radar at an early stage courtesy of his bizarre and confounding take on films such as his Yakuza busting Dead Or Alive films, Fudoh The Next Generation, Audition and Ichi The Killer. Here was a director who threw all rule books out the window in linear approach, narrative and filming conventionality. Miike is a gonzoid film maker like no other and he literally threw a huge array of films at us from the early 90’s to the present and has made no less than 98 so far and counting according to the IMDB. Further insight was gained through the very necessary and authoritative tome Agitator by Tom Mes and armed with this I naturally began the task of tracking down as many of his films as possible; sad to say I have probably only seen a fraction of his oeuvre.
Happiness Of The Katakuris is definitely up there with the oddest, yet having said that it is possibly one of his most accessible features and one that does not launch blood, guts and bullets at you every few minutes. It is fun for all the family and the four generations and dog that make up the Katakuris clan of the picture are definitely a fun family. Or they would be if things went right for them. Dejected with jobs and redundancies the extended family decide to open a guest house in the middle of nowhere (the white lover’s guest house, which is perhaps somewhat lost in the translation). They think that business will be good despite its isolated location due to the fact that a road is due to be built right by it and people will come. Unfortunately the only few that do decide to either kill themselves or expire in other somewhat selfish ways and the Katakuris in between bursting out into sporadic song have their work cut out for them disposing of the bodies. Their reasoning is that nobody would want to stay at a guesthouse where the first visitor committed suicide. One can’t help but feel sorry for them either (apart from when they start singing) and as the bodies pile up news comes in that the road is finally being built and guess where? Yep right through where they have been disposing of the corpses.
The film is partly narrated by the youngest member of the family a smiling, happy, dancing and cute acting tot of a girl but much of the action centres on her mother who is very single and falls in love with every bloke she sets eyes on. Unfortunately her latest desire is a rogue conman who may or may not be secret serviceman, relation of the UK Queen and high up in the navy to boot. This certainly helps pad out the plot and twist things even more as well as enhance things with some deliriously psychedelic all singing, all dancing scenes of romance. As the bodies pile up and things draw to a head though the hills are not so much alive with just the sound of music but…. Well you will just have to watch. Add to it all some of the most pleasant screen zombies ever who prove a pretty good chorus line and are actually the least of the beleaguered family’s problems.
Apparently Miike took inspiration from Korean film The Quiet Family (Jee woon Kim1998) when he made Happiness in 2001. It really does stand out and although there are a huge amount of comedic aspects in his films such as ghastly and gruesome predecessors like Visitor Q it does set out to inject humour as its central theme along with family, honour and other central principles that spill out from all his features. It certainly does not play things straight in the slightest though and if it is the first film you have witnessed by the director it is still going to be an utter headfuck of a watch. This is particularly illustrated by the opening segment that is set up to go round the houses and introduce us to the family which it does via a completely strange interconnected sequence largely filmed via Claymation techniques and animation. Indeed this is something that the director comes back to add times within the film, part as a cheat as filming some of what he does via live action would be impossible and partly because no doubt he can and wants to play with his ever befuddled audiences heads. It’s a fairly long film at 112 minutes although the director does not waste a frame here taking huge care in setting up each sequence and really throwing his deranged sensibilities into things throughout. You will giggle, sigh, gasp and cry along with the Katakuris and some of you may even join in and sing to the sickly bland J-pop and croon laden easy listening songs that pepper the film. Ultimately you will want to know whether the gods favour the Katakuris and if they will find their happiness in the end.
It has to be said the film on its UK and US Hi Def Blu ray debut looks fantastic, colours are lurid and totally add to the avant-garde psychedelic intricacies of the picture. Watching it I had to comment aloud (stupid as was on my own) “my god someone’s put acid in my film (again)” and that is very much like a viewing of this seems; it’s a real trip. Sound is boosted up loud too and the only downside of this is that it takes the blasted singing up to another level but despite my complaining about all this it’s worth suffering and cringing as Katakuris is an emotional and fun filled film and rather than coming at you like a particularly nihilistic tragedy is actually a highly feel-good flick that is even bordering on the cute. “Cute” and “Takashi Miike” really are not words that one would ever expect to see in the same sentence. You heard it here first folks.
Naturally there is a host of extras included from Arrow. First up is a new documentary with cast and crew sharing their experiences of making the film which lasts half an hour. It contains brief snapshots of all details from asking the actors what The Katukuris means to them; nobody seems 100% sure through to recording the songs, make up and costumes, acting and shooting on the actual locations. Like the film it’s a little schizophrenic dashing from one thing to another but it conveys a humorous vibe on the set and it looks like everyone had a good time making the film with lots of laughter (and blasted singing) throughout. Miike also gives a good description of what his intentions were with the film and goes deep and heavy into the narrative helping specifically to explain what he was getting at with the films conclusion.
Miike himself is the centre of the next segment a 40 minute interview recorded especially for this Arrow edition. Naturally one of the first topics of conversation is about the director who is well known for violent cinema making what is essentially a comedy. Despite the grim intensity of films like Ichi and Audition he explains that there is always plenty of humour even on sets of such films and it is a genre he grew up with, the dancing parts though were something new he wanted a stab (perhaps wrong phrase) at. As for that dancing he explains it was never meant to look perfect as it would have made things too natural and he wanted the characters to retain a certain level of idiocy so did not allow them much time to practice before takes. This is all quite in depth and interesting as well as helpful especially when we are told more about the actors in the film, probably not knowing as much about them in the Western world as audiences would do in Japan. It’s sad to hear that a couple of them are no longer with us. Some archival interviews do however bring them back along with all the principle cast in their own segments to have a short chat about their experiences on this ‘unique beyond unique’ film. There’s a short piece along with some funky music looking at the Svankmajer inspired animation processes within the film. Finally before you get to the commentary tracks (Miike and Tom Mes) trailers and all the other gubbins that Arrow so painstakingly provide there is a “Dogs, Pimps and Agitators” featurette. This is an all new visual essay narrated by Mes taking in the director’s work from origins through to success. It’s a lot to cram in just 24 minutes something that Mes states right at the start, jumping back and forth however gives us a good overview along with plenty of stills and clips, and if you want more, you can naturally go and pick up his books via Fab Press. This certainly showed how many massive gaps that I have in my collection and gave me a renewed interest to track down some more of his titles. Unfortunately many of his films have not made it over here for UK distribution which makes it all rather hard. If you are starting out with this one though, you will find the more popular titles over here. Be warned if you are thinking of picking up Ichi The Killer though, the UK censors snipped off 3:15 from the running time.
One thing’s for sure no matter how many Miike films you do end up watching there will never be one quite like The Happiness Of The Katakuris so if you are looking for something completely different and don’t mind a bit of a song and dance it’s well worth checking out.