Monday, July 13, 2015

Review: Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2015
Images from the Internet

The Happiness of the Katakuris (aka Katakuri-ke no kofuku)
Directed by Takashi Miike
Shochiku / Arrow Video / MVD Visual
113 minutes, 2001 / 2015

Japanese director Takashi Miike (pronounced Mee-KAY) is no stranger to extreme cinema, having started with direct-to-video (you read right) films that mainly focused on violent underworld and cop-and-robbers themes, such as the Dead or Alive series. In the West, he is more known as the person who created such icky-fests are Ichi The Killer (2001), the creepy “Box” segment of 3…Extremes (2004), and most notably the graphic and horrific Audition (1999).

So, of course, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a…musical? Oh, but not just any musical, that is certain. A mixture of the love of family, death-death-and-more-death, horror, crime, comedy, dancing, and a snappy soundtrack; yes, we’re off to a Miike off-kilter special treat.

"We're a happy family / We're a happy family /
We're a happy family / Me, mom and daddy"
We are introduced to the six-member Katakuri family through the very young daughter, Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki, in her only film credit), who is full of hope and contentment. Her mom, Shizue (the cute Naomi Nishida) is a single mother after a brief marriage (it is explained that she “falls in and out of love too easily”), Shizue’s brother, Masayuki (Shinji Takeda) is an ex-con recently out of prison but has a good heart, their parents who are laid-off shoe salesman Al Bund… I mean Masao (Kenji Sawada) and lovingly doting wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), and Yurie’s great grandfather, Ojisan Jinpei (the then-80-year-old Tetsuro Tanba), who was a World War II soldier and still has an amazingly good pitching arm. There’s also a cute little mutt, Poochi. The whole clan moved out to the countryside to try and make a go at a Bed and Breakfast called the White Lovers’ Guesthouse, but are waiting for patrons to finally show up. The problems begin when they do eventually come. And go.
Through no fault of the Katakuri tribe, the customers rarely seem to last a night without meeting their maker by different means. Since the family doesn’t want to ruin their reputation before they have the chance to be successful, they must figure out what to do with the growing pile of bodies.

To add to the problems, Shizue has fallen for a con man in a Western Naval uniform named Richado, or Richard in the translation (Kiyoshiro Imawano), who claims to be the illegitimate son of the Queen of England’s half-sister. Through all this craziness, there is even crazinerness (yeah, I know it’s not a real word, lighten up) singing and dancing.

This film is a bit of a legend in Japan, less so outside, because its cast at the time is off the hook as far as character actors known in the Islands country. For example, at the time, Imawano was the largest native rock star who occasionally acted. It would be like when David Bowie did Labyrinth (1986). Sawada, on the other hand, is one of the original rock’n’rollers in Japan, and on some level is known as the “Elvis of Japan” (except he can act). The rest of the cast, including the second and tertiary level, are easily identified character actors (Miike refers to Nishida, for example, as the “Meg Ryan of Japan”). Many have become known through Miike’s previous prolific and prestigious work, but most have come into their own through various work.

Original Sound of Music-like Poster
Even though there are references here to The Sound of Music, including the design and font used on the poster, this is certainly not a Julie Andrews lightweight megalith, but is very dark and humorous at the same time. For example, in Miike fashion, some the characters include a sumo wrestler and his obviously underage uniformed schoolgirl girlfriend, an TV announcer who has a bug climb into his nose, violence, zombies of a sort, and as I said, a nice body count. And did I mention the Claymation yet?
At the odd moment throughout the film, such as the enjoyable yet WTF opening sequence, suddenly everything and everyone turns to pixilated Claymation for part of the scene. You just never see it coming, but it’s hard not to enjoy it. It’s handled quite imaginatively, and it’s always easy to tell which characters are which, even though they are in clay.

There are certainly some Asian tones to the film that some Westerners may get, but not to the level of those in the East. For example, one of the musical numbers is very stylized in a music video way, set to a karaoke mode so the audience can sing along (if you can read Japanese, of course). As I experienced last year in China, karaoke is a big thing, and rather than being in a bar with everyone in the audience observing, one would rent a small room for private parties of a dozen or so people, drink and sing along to music videos on a screen, with the words highlighted underneath rather than just having the lyrics alone. It’s a socially fascinating thing to experience for a Westerner, but kind of common for the middle classes.

Another aspect that Western audiences may not get used to right away, even if they notice, is that there are some long, static shots rather than quick editing. Sergei Eisenstein may be correct that editing = action, as MTV videos promoted decades later, but Miike looks at it differently, and succeeds in still getting the action on high without cutting around quickly. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some effective jump-inducing scares here and there.

This shot in Kyoto film is actually a remake of another dark (sans music and dancing) Korean film, The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok) from 1998, but Miike definitely changes up the story enough to make it his own. It’s an exciting, sometimes experiential yet mostly a cohesive and comprehensive release.

While I won’t delve into it here, as usual Miike’s ending is a bit evasive, and I have my own theory of what happened that isn’t necessarily the filmmaker’s (and is just as fantastical as his), but I guess that’s my problem, right? Normally a “smiley” emoticon would go here.

Tons of extras abound on the DVD. There are a couple of trailers for this film, a 5:30 short on the Claymation process, an interesting 30 minute Making of documentary that includes interviews with the cast, a 24-minute analytical look at Miike’s career filled with clips made in 2015 called “Pimps, Dogs and Agitators” by academic critic Tom Mes, and a separate series mostly archival interviews – and one from 2015 – with most of the main cast members ranging less than 10 minutes each, though the latest one with Miike is 38 minutes (for honesty’s sake, it’s the only extra I didn’t watch all the way through).

Mes also does one of two commentary tracks giving the viewer a detailed-filled and precise look at this film. Most of his references are lost on me as I have only seen a few of Miike’s multitude of output, and Mes is kind of monotone, but it still kept my interest throughout. The second track is Miike and actor/film critic (and first guest of the B&B) Tokitoshi Shiota discussing the film. There are two versions available of this last track, one is in Japanese with English subtitles, and one is translated into English. Normally I would go for the original, but since I wanted to still follow the story through subtitles, I went for the translation one. There was a bit too much kibitzing, but there was still enough information about the making of the film for me to not give up and have fun with it.

Beyond all the events that happen to this family, the core of the film is actually quite sweet, a treatise about what is happiness. This is a bit of classic film in Japan, and it’s easy to see why. You certainly will not be bored, especially since it isn’t a typical and formulaic story or production.

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