One of the greatest, most inventive creators in all of filmdom was Chuck Jones. In a career spanning well over 60 years, Jones was responsible for creating such cultural icons as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, Roadrunner, and most of the rest of the Warner Bros. pantheon of two-dimensional stars and directing them in shorts of the highest quality. During World War II, his amusing Private Snafu shorts caught the attention of enlisted men as no dry lecture could and gave them valuable information about hazards they didn’t realize they might face in theatres of war, from malaria to venereal disease.
In 1965, during his fruitful later years with MGM, Jones created an illustrated literary adaptation running approximately 10 minutes that won him his only Academy Award. The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics showed the kind of sophistication that Jones and his frequent codirector Maurice Noble used to appeal to both children and adults.
Written by Norton Juster based on his own story, The Dot and the Line tells of a line who falls in love with a bouncy, lively dot. It may seem strange that a relatively representational illustrator/animator like Jones would turn to abstract forms to tell a story, but what could be more natural to him that paying homage to the building blocks of his profession and when better than during the explosion of pop and op art of the 1960s. But what about the subtitle, “A Romance in Lower Mathematics?” Putting that label on any film, let alone an animated short, would be unthinkable today if you wanted the film to reach beyond the festival graveyard. Fortunately, anti-intellectualism hadn’t reared its ugly head in 1965—for example, scientists working on the space program were among the heroes of the day.
Narrator Robert Morley begins, “Once upon a time there was a sensible, straight line, who was hopelessly in love, with a dot.” Unfortunately, no matter how he tried to ply his suit, the dot brushed him off as boring and rigid, and bounced away to spend time with the spontaneous, fun-loving squiggle. Despite entreaties by his fellow lines to forget about the dot (“She’s not good enough for you.” “She lacks depth [a nice joke on a sphere versus a dot].” “They’re all alike anyway. Why don’t you find a nice, straight line and settle down?”), the line knew only how wonderful she was. He had to find a way to make her happy.
“He tried and failed and tried again, and then, when he had almost lost hope, he found that he could change direction and bend wherever he chose. So he did, and made… an angle.” With intense concentration and practice, he found that the variety of shapes he could make—box, triangle, parallelogram, and so forth—was endless. Giddy with the discovery of his prowess, he gave himself a hangover from changing shapes willy nilly all night. Finally, the day came when he felt ready to approach the dot and try to win her away from the squiggle.
Much like the Private Snafu shorts, The Dot and the Line doesn’t skimp on the geometry lesson, though the idea really is to show how a simple line can become so many dazzling things with a little practice. The urging toward creativity is unmistakable, and wrapping it in a tale of romance allows viewers of all ages to understand the tangible rewards of literally thinking outside the box.
Many viewers of The Dot and the Line have commented on how shallow the dot is, concurring with the line’s friends that she’s not good enough for him. I can’t say that I blame them; this simple story doesn’t allow for much nuance of characterization. Nonetheless, it’s plain to see that the dot comes to see beyond the limitations of the immature squiggle, and for his part, the line understands that he cannot just rigidly go along in one direction, but needs to be able to bend and adapt if he wants to be part of a loving team.
These days, people lament how far the United States has fallen behind the rest of the world in science and technology. Perhaps if the talents of our most creative minds were made more available to the general public—as The Dot and the Line was—there would be a lot more young people turned on by the idea of creativity with a purpose, as eloquently expressed by the line:
“Freedom is not a license for chaos,” he observed the next morning. ‘Oh, what a head!’ And right there and then he decided not to squander his talents on cheap exhibitionism.”
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