LIST CANDIDATE: THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida,

PLOT: The Katakuri clan retires to a remote mountain area to run a bed and breakfast, but the place seems cursed, as every guest who stays there dies.

Still from The Happiness of the Karakuris (2001)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: They don’t come any closer to making the List on the first ballot than Katakuris. The only thing that holds it back is a dreadful unevenness, combined with the fact that there are already so many Takashi Miike films either already on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made or still out there in contention.

COMMENTS: The Happiness of the Katakuris begins with a four-minute scene, which has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, in which a claymation imp rises from a woman’s soup, falls in love with her heart-shaped uvula, and flies away with it. Unlike the serious and searing Audition, where the director springs the weirdness on an unsuspecting audience in a blistering last act, Miike does not allow anyone here to complain of stealth weirdness. After this bizarro prologue, the story about clan of hoteliers who break out into song whenever their guests die seems refreshingly sane and conventional.

The movie settles down into a narrative after that introduction as we meet the Katakuris: a patriarch and matriarch still very much in love, a feisty grandpa, a son with anger-management issues, and a desperate-for-romance daughter and her love child (who serves as the film’s narrator). The characters are well-drawn and likable, but ill-starred, as the location of their bed and breakfast proves too remote for foot traffic (and also too near an active volcano). When they finally do get a paying customer, he’s only checked in to commit a gruesome suicide (also the occasion for the film’s first musical number). The songs are definitely Karakuris’ high points; the dancers aren’t professionals, but neither that fact nor the unfamiliarity of the language to non-Japanese speakers impedes Miike’s imaginative stagings, which are decorated with simple special effects and colorful, kaleidoscopic green-screen backgrounds. The most memorable moments are a matrimonial fantasy that sends the bride spinning through space with her dashing half-Japanese sailor groom; a disco-ball love ballad between Masao and Terue with the cheesy production values of a 1980s K-tel records commercial; the final number, a direct parody of The Sound of Music; and any time the corpses peek out of their graves and try to dance along.

It may seem strange to criticize a project this deliberately loose and goofy for its aimlessness, but it really is a weakness in this case. Katakuris has energy, but lacks focus. It never decides whether the semi-serious family drama or mordant black comedy is most important, and the claymation action interludes just knock it farther off its axis. There isn’t much of a conclusion, just a series of incidents that eventually fizzle out. It’s much better in its parts, especially the musical numbers, then it is as a whole. But those parts are strange enough to make it a hard-to-forget oddity.

The Happiness of the Katakuris is actually a remake of a Jee-woon Kim’s (non-musical) Korean black comedy The Quiet Family. Miike made it the same year as Visitor Q, an even blacker comedy which also deals with the theme of a “happy” Japanese family. Arrow Video just released a 2-DVD or 1 Blu-ray special edition of the film, although most of the extra features appeared to be recycled from the 2003 Eastern Star DVD release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As weird movie openings go, this one’s in a class of its own. The rest of Miike’s musical extravaganza isn’t exactly your usual collection of song and dance numbers either.”–Mark Stevens, BBC (contemporaneous)

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