Director: Takashi Miike
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Life in the United States is getting pretty squirrely right now. The election season is in full bloom, and partisans for the various presidential candidates still in the race are getting more wild-eyed, offensive, and addle-brained by the minute. I fully expect to hear claims of miracles or evidential documents showing that a candidate’s soul belongs to Satan. Compared with the fool’s circus going on around me, Happiness of the Katakuris, a domestic comedy/musical/horror flick that dabbles heavily in claymation and natural disaster, seems almost mundane.
Takashi Miike has a reputation as a director of ultraviolent films, but in fact, he has made many different types of films within the studio-like system of the Japanese film industry. Interestingly, Happiness of the Katakuris is a remake of the dark Korean comedy called The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok, 1998), and from reading the synopsis of The Quiet Family, it appears to be a faithful one.
Household head Masao Katakuri (singing star Kenji Sawada) and his job in shoe sales part company. Rather than feel miserable, Masao feels freed to pursue his dream of family togetherness. He hears about plans to build a major road near a volcano in a remote part of Japan. Masao thinks it’s time to get in on the ground floor of the tourist industry that is sure to explode, and moves his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), his delinquent teenage son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), his divorced daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida) and her daughter Yurie (Tamiki Miyazaki), and grandfather Ojîsan Jinpei Katakuri (Tesuro Tamba) to the area to live in and run a bed and breakfast called the White Lover’s Inn.
Unfortunately, work on the road is delayed, and the venture seems doomed. One evening, however, the Katakuris greet their first guest, a deranged-looking man who stumbles in and asks for a room. The entire family moves in well-rehearsed unison to register him and tend to his every need. The next day, they find he has paid back their hospitality by stabbing himself in the neck and dying on their clean floor.
Worried that guests will shun the inn if they hear it was the site of a suicide, the family decides to bury the body themselves. After a time, a new pair of guests, a sumo wrestler and his underage girlfriend, check in for some extremely vigorous and loud sex—Miike signals what’s on the Katakuris’ mind in a shot of the full moon with craters shaped like two bunnies humping. The next morning, the wrestler is face down on the bed—dead—and his girl nowhere to be found, that is, until they lift the heart-attack victim and find her smothered below him. Out come the shovels again.
There is one more death and hurried plans to dig up the corpses and move them when the road construction starts with the bodies in its path. Eventually, the family, brought together through adversity and shown to be better than they thought they could be dance in a Sound of Music style meadow and sing about the true meaning of happiness.
In between, absurdity reigns supreme. A woman tries to drink soup. Her spoon keeps hitting something and then pulls up a claymation figure that looks like a sea monkey. She turns into a claymation figure and screams. The sea monkey grabs her uvula and tears off the end, which looks like a heart. We are then spun into a love song of sorts in a claymation world. Other wonderful moments include Grandpa’s skill knocking crows out of the sky by flinging pieces of wood at them, a glamorous nightclub duet in which Masao and Terue sing of their love, a song-and-dance number by the Katakuris and the corpses, and the family weeping over the bloody body of Masayuki, stabbed by a crazed wife murderer, and then discovering he has suffered only a flesh wound.
The funniest part for me is when Shizue goes into town and meets a very scruffy looking man who claims he is Richard Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano), an American naval pilot and also a captain in the Royal Navy of Great Britain. Shizue falls for his cheap flattery and imagines a rainbows-and- daffodils wedding. When Miike returns us to reality, Shizue is writhing on the floor in happy delirium, while onlookers back away from her. Richard shakes her from her reverie, but the two are parted. He later turns up at the inn, much to Shizue’s delight, claiming that he would like to marry Shizue, but that he needs permission from his aunt Queen Elizabeth. They walk though a dump near the property, where Richard speak bitterly about the royal family and how they were unfair to Princess Diana, and then tries to hit Shizue up for plane fare back to England. Grandpa moves into action, and claymation Richard ends up going over a cliff and splashing into the river far below.
The story has brief moments of narration by an older Yurie. The fantasies of the tale remind me of when I was six and turning a Chinese restaurant I ate at with my family into a mandarin’s palace for my playmates. It’s fitting that the last, heroic act Yurie remembers is of claymation Grandpa rescuing Yurie’s dog Pochi, who is floating on a river of lava from the just-exploded volcano in the distance. Hanging by his knees from a tree limb, Grandpa yells to Pochi to reach up his paws and whisks the mutt to safety. In the end, the lava flow covers all the land around the inn, but leaves the structure standing—a real tribute to the durability of the family.
It’s an odd combination of horror, comedy, fantasy, and romantic musical Miike juggles. If you can go with the absurd tone, you’ll find that this film really has a heart. There are many kinds of loving families in the movies including, I suppose, the vomit-inducing, murdering Fireflys of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. One might have supposed that violence-prone Miike would have turned to this film as a model for the Katakuris. But he’s more interested in how people are brought together and stick by each other through disaster, death, and disappointment. The Happiness of the Katakuris is the kind of circus I love. l