Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Kikumi Yamagishi
Producer: Hirotsugu Yoshida
Cast: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Tetsuro Tamba, Naoto Takenaka, Tamaki Miyazaki, Takashi Matsuzaki
Running Time: 113 min.
By Kyle Warner
When Takashi Miike agreed to do a remake of Kim Jee-woon’s directorial debut The Quiet Family, he wanted to give the story his own “personal stamp” to make his version worthwhile. And Miike did exactly that, turning the dark comedy into a bizarre musical, complete with claymation monsters and zombie dance numbers. The Happiness of the Katakuris is somehow simultaneously one of Takashi Miike’s most insane films and one of his most accessible. It’s a wonderfully weird journey into the mind of one of cinema’s boldest, most inventive filmmakers.
The basic plot of the film follows the original pretty closely. After a series of disappointments, Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) buys a guesthouse and wants his family to help him run it. There are rumors of a new road coming through the area, promising to bring lots of business right to their door. Until that time, though, there’s a whole lot of waiting as the guests just aren’t coming. When finally they welcome their first guest, the man commits suicide in his room. Worried that the death will ruin their business, the family gets rid of the body and covers up the crime scene. Then the next guest dies, too, and it seems like the Katakuris are spending most their time burying bodies in the woods. Things get even crazier when a series of suspicious characters enter their lives, threatening to bring down everything they’ve worked for.
Unlike The Quiet Family, which was a thriller with a dark sense of humor, Miike tells this macabre tale as a musical. No musical number is quite like the one that came before it as multiple music genres are depicted throughout the film, including a Sound of Music-style song in a field, an 80’s rock and roll music video, and even a karaoke singalong. I would say that even those filmgoers who typically don’t like musicals will get a kick out of this one.
The film opens in a way that I fear may scare some viewers off. In the opening sequence, a claymation monster pops out of a woman’s bowl of soup, jumps into her mouth, and tears out her uvula. The monster then flies off and so begins a circle of life with other claymation animals and monsters. It’s the weirdest, most disturbing sequence in the film and is only barely connected to the rest of the story. I’ve grown to like the opening on repeat viewings, but initially it came as a shock, and made me worry the whole film would be just as strange. Well, the movie that follows is weird, just not the same breed of weird. The opening does successfully setup the audience for an “anything goes” type of movie, but I’m still not sure it was the right way to start things off.
Miike’s known for filling his films with shocking content, so it’s interesting to see how he plays with comedy here. The situation that the Katakuris have put themselves in is nuts already, but the world that surrounds them seems just as crazy. On TV the only shows to watch are a newscaster with a beetle in his brain and an aging female singing ‘Dem Bones’ (both the newscaster and the singer are played by one of Miike’s repeat players, Naoto Takenaka). In one of my favorite parts of the film, daughter Shizue Katakuri (Naomi Nishida) falls in love with a dashing Navy serviceman named Richard Sagawa (rock star Kiyoshiro Imawano). Richard claims to be on leave from the US Navy, or “To be more precise, Britain’s Royal Navy.” This all leads to one of the film’s best visual moments as Richard sings about how much he loves Shizue in the middle of a garbage dump while trash flies in the wind.
The performances all around are very good, selling both the horror and the humor. Naomi Nishida (My Secret Cache) is excellent as the love-struck Shizue. I’m largely unfamiliar with Kiyoshiro Imawano but he’s great as Richard, who is likely the film’s most complicated character. Veteran actor Tetsuro Tamba (You Only Live Twice, The Water Margin 1 & 2) is also a welcome member of the cast, giving a carefree performance as Grandpa Katakuri. It’s a great ensemble with no weak links to be found.
The newly released Arrow Video Blu-ray contains a wealth of special features both old and new. Ported over from the old DVD are interviews with the cast, a making-of featurette, a quick look at the claymation, and a commentary from Takashi Miike. New to this edition is a video essay look at Miike’s career put together by Midnight Eye’s Tom Mes, a film commentary by Mes, a booklet, and a new 40 minute interview with Miike. The new video essay by Mes is pretty good, detailing Miike’s start as an assistant director for Shohei Imamura before eventually becoming one of the most famous directors in Japan. Tom Mes isn’t the liveliest commentator and his commentary track for Katakuris won’t be for everybody, but the author knows his subject well and offers some informative tidbits throughout. The best new feature is the interview with Miike, who tells memories of filming Katakuris and his feelings towards directing in general. The exhaustive special features — plus a colorful picture presentation — make this Blu-ray easy to recommend to fans of the film.
Kim Jee-woon’s The Quiet Family is a good film but it’s not one of the director’s finest. You can see how Kim has grown as a filmmaker since then. Miike made The Happiness of the Katakuris at the most interesting point in his career where he was transitioning from Japan’s bad boy director to one of Japan’s most popular mainstream filmmakers. As such, the film has the same madness and energy we recognize from his earlier films, while also being mainstream enough for general audiences without ever feeling like a company product.
After The Happiness of the Katakuris, Takashi Miike proved that he could competently direct pretty much whatever he set his mind to. Miike would go on to do many more mainstream films after this, but he remains one of cinema’s most unpredictable directors. Despite its status as a remake, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a one-of-a-kind film. In a 25 year career with already almost 100 films to his name, The Happiness of the Katakuris ranks among Miike’s very best.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 8.5/10