The premise of The Happiness of the Katakuris is like this: A middling patriach of a Japanese family leaves behind his mundane shoe sales job in order to open up a bed-and-breakfast at the foot of Mt. Fuji and drags his whole family along for the ride. However, when they finally get their first guests, each one ends up dying overnight. Desperate to stave off police suspicion and save the family business, they decide to bury the growing number of bodies in the nearby grounds.
Now, this sounds pretty macabre, like some sort of Asian “The Telltale Heart.” A conventional treatment of a plot such as this might be a quiet, haunting horror movie filled with chilling imagery, deadly silences and mounting dread that culminates into a terrifying treatise on guilt and paranoia.
But this movie was made by Takashi Miike, so it’s a musical comedy instead.
Takashi Miike is probably one of Japan’s most prolific and well-known directors. He’s achieved some small measure of American cult status for his films Audition and Ichi the Killer. He’s most notorious for hyper-violent, bizarre yakuza flicks, but he also has occasional dalliances with straight-up horror along with some other genres here and there. He is also almost preternaturally prolific, having directed almost 80 works in the past twenty years. Needless to say, his quality can be… scattershot. While some of his movies such as Ichi the Killer are entertaining, some of his other stuff, such as Izo and MPD Psycho, are best described as the cinematic equivalents of waterboarding. I mean, really, who adds in RAIN with CG?!
Anyways, Miike’s insane, uneven touch could have turned The Happiness of the Katakuris into an interminable fiasco, especially if he’d stuck to his uber-gore torture-porn horror schtick. But creating a musical diametrically-opposed to the gravity of the situations that the Katakuris find themselves in was brilliant. It… actually works! Watching the family discover the first body while doing song and dance (complete with blue lights and fog effects!) put a smile on my face. And the movie is filled to the brim with bizarre touches that keep the viewer happy all the way through.
The most significant subplot (and my favorite) was the one involving Mr. Katakuri’s daughter, a woman who falls in love far too easily and has her own daughter to show for it. She drags her along to a cafe where she meets (implausibly) an American naval officer of British descent who is related to the queen of England, and proves his gaijin status to the audience by randomly peppering English into his speech.
And that’s not even the most odd thing that happens. The beginning of the movie itself pushes the envelope with regards to quirkiness. It opens in a restaurant where a woman is just about ready to enjoy a bowl of soup when she sticks her spoon in and feel something odd at the bottom of the bowl. She uses a fork to pick it up and discovers… a hideous little winged humanoid made out of clay that reaches into her mouth and rips out her uvula, which it proceeds to eat before it is eaten by a crow that is beaten to death by a nightmare version of Sackboy. What relevance this has to the movie that follows eludes me.
If this movie fails in any area, it’s that the songs just didn’t have the kind of polish that could have really pushed this over the top into a top-notch musical. Although it does a pretty good job spanning styles of music, the songs themselves are usually just flat in terms of quality. You won’t remember any of the tunes, but you probably won’t sit there wanting to claw your ears out. And the dancing is pretty lame, too. While it occasionally works through sheer humor because of the grim situations they cheerfully dance through, it’s clear not a lot of thought or effort was put into it. I blame para para.
At the end of the day, The Happiness of the Katakuris‘ quirkiness and relentless, foolish optimism make it rise above common Japanese cinema schlock. The Katakuris march through awful tragedy with a Von Trapp-esque panache and lust for life. And surprisingly, the sadistic mind of Takashi Miike gives us… a life-affirming message at the end to cherish our loved ones?! And to think I thought he couldn’t shock me anymore.