More noise than signal

The Happiness Of The Katakuris

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Miike Takashi is legendarily prolific, sometimes at expense of quality control. Still, when at his best on works like Dead or Alive, Audition and now Happiness Of The Katakuris, the results are astonishing.

His genre-hopping and genre-parodying style now targets musicals, with unpredictable results. It seems as though the film is set to wrongfoot you from the very start, as a seemingly normal scene of a lady trying to eat her soup is interrupted by a claymation demon, which falls in love with her uvula, rips it out (“Ow! My uvula!”) and flies off with it. The soup-demon’s happiness is shortlived after it’s eaten by a crow, which in turn is downed by a well aimed stick thrown by Grandpa Jinpei Katauri (Tetsuro Tamba).

Returning from the clay based interlude we are introduced to the Katakuri family. Papa Kataruri, Masao (Kenji Sawada) used to be a shoe salesman before decamping to this hillside guest house, fixing it up with the aid of his wife Teryu (Keiko Matsuzaka) and their two kids. Masayuki (Shinji Takeda) is an ex-con, and a reluctant helper in this enterprise. His sister, Shizue is more positive about the business despite having separated from her husband, leaving her to care for her young daughter Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki). She’s on the lookout for a man.

They haven’t had anyone stop by yet, which gives them some pause for concern, and as it’s a musical this happens in the song format. This is a Japanese film, so obviously the songs and dialogue are in Japanese. As such it’s difficult to know how accurate the translated subtitles are, but assuming they are within the same ballpark these are some of the strangest yet most utilitarian numbers yet recorded. One thing that is pretty universal is music, and even though the lyrics may be incomprehensible all the actors involved in the film can carry a tune well, and the arrangements are catchy throughout. This film has been marketed as a musical for people who don’t like musicals, but that wouldn’t excuse it from being an unlistenable monstrosity. Thankfully, this isn’t an issue, as the numbers are well-produced and funny enough that you shouldn’t need to bring earplugs to the multiplex.

When the first guest finally arrives, the celebrations are shortlived. He commits suicide, using the hotels own ornamental key fob. This gives way to a particularly hilarious routine with the family singing only in screams of surprise. Fearing that this would cast a cloud over his establishment, Masao decides the only possible course of action is to bury the body and hide all evidence. The family reluctantly agrees and bury the poor fellow by the lake.

Shizue and Yurie have been spared all of this drama as they have been off in town for a little jaunt. There, Shizue meets and immediately falls in love with a man in dress admiral costume proclaiming himself to be Richard Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano). He claims to be a member of the “U.S. Navy, more specifically the British Royal Navy”. This doesn’t raise any alarm bells in Shizue’s head, so it’s not surprising later on when he reveals himself to be a member of the Royal Family that she buys it hook, line and sinker too. As the newest and incongruously Japanese member of the aristocracy laments the passing of his good friend Diana (“I’ll never forgive the paparazzi!”) atop a similarly incongruous rubbish dump, it’s obvious he’s a conman. And that this movie is bonkers.

More guests arrive, and in a stroke of astonishing bad luck they also die. This leads to a scene that shows the hazards involved in lowering dead Sumo wrestlers out of windows. More bad luck in a seemingly never ending stream of it hits when the new road they have been praying for is re-routed to go straight over their burial site. They have to move the evidence, but is the local police office growing suspicious of them? This leads to the scene that has given this film the relatively undeserved title of a zombie musical, as the corpses join the family for a musical number. As it’s only a few minutes out of the (some might say a touch too lengthy) two hour run-time (although I lapped up every second), the title may be undeserved but there aren’t many other films with singing dead people, so until the undead do West Side Story it’s perhaps the best example of a zombie musical in existence.

The plot itself is probably merely unconventional rather than insane, but the execution is so over the top as to redefine exactly what a top is. What’s the point of it all? There isn’t a lot of depth, given Miike’s usual preponderance for social commentary apart from showing one family pulling together, despite Masayuki’s initial (and well-founded) distrust of his fathers evidence hiding schemes. It shows how the Katakuris care deeply for each other, despite some petty squabbling, and has a take home message of sorts that if you work hard to achieve a worthy goal, eventually you will get there. Even if your guesthouse has to be carried there by a claymation landslide to a land of milk, honey, Mount Everest, giraffes and elephants. For most the take home message will be both ‘Eh?’ and ‘Beware of soup demons’. This is a bewildering film, but it’s inspired.

I loved this movie from the outrageous opening gambit to the equally outrageous closing scenes to all the places in-between. The pacing is immaculate; the film never drags at any point. Perhaps the numbers are chaotic compared to ultra-slick stuff such as Chicago, but it has all the more impact for it. Little touches such as a karaoke number between Masao and Terue with superimposed corner images of Masao in a silly costume doing a silly dance had me in absolute stitches, as did the rest of the film. All of theOneliner crew reckoned the same, as did the audience. This is just an absolutely incredible nutty feast of a comedy.

Given the rampant insanity it’s odd to think that this is one of Miike’s more conventional stories in that cause generally has an effect, even if it does have to enter claymation world to do it. Clearly he’s watched Bollywood movies with the same bemusement that most non-Indians have and decided to replicate the experience for Japanese in his own mad, crazy way. Normally if something is ‘zany and madcap’ its generally meaning ‘utter pish’, but this film is utterly hilarious and more deserving of your cinema-going currency of choice than any tepid Hollywood pseudocomedy nonsense.