Director Takashi Miike is credited with seven or eight films in the year 2001 alone, depending on who you ask. One of the most energetic and life-affirming of these pictures is The Happiness of the Katakuris. This is an absolutely joyful and bizarre flick, a musical comedy complete with stop-motion sequences, a pile of dead bodies and the ever-looming presence of Mount Fuji.
The Happiness of the Katakuris is an unabashed remake of Kim Jee-woon’s 1998 film The Quiet Ones, with Miike paying direct homage to several of the shots and scenes in the Korean movie. He certainly strays at times from Jee-woon’s outing, but the two pictures actually have a great deal in common - right down to their musical cores. Miike’s version is certainly more of a farce, though.
That farce features the Katakuri family, four generations strong. Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) is the father and Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka) is his loving wife and the mother to two adult children. They are the reformed criminal Masayuki (Shinji Takeda) and the divorced and love-struck Shizue (Naomi Nishida). Shizue has a daughter named Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), plus there’s dear old grandad (Tetsurō Tamba).
Masao has sunk all of his money into purchasing a guesthouse at the base of Mount Fuji and he’s convinced the rest of the family to work at the place, which they’ve dubbed the White Lovers’ Inn. Things aren’t going well at first, but soon a customer shows up and promptly kills himself. Fearful that the incident will reflect badly on the inn, the Katakuris hide the body. And it only gets worse from there.
There are other bodies and other guests that wind up dying, like the sumo wrestler and his underage girlfriend. There are accidents, suicides, murders. The Katakuris cover up the swelling pile of corpses, interring them in the woods and hoping for the best.
The problems multiply when Shizue falls for Richard Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano), a shifty fellow who tells the poor woman that he’s a United Kingdom Naval Officer. At one point, he says he’s flying over Iraq and just called to say “I love you.” Later, he says that he’s related to Queen Elizabeth II. If only he’d been there when Princess Diana was being chased by the paparazzi, things would’ve been different.
These issues would complicate and drown out a lesser film, but The Happiness of the Katakuris only grows in strength as it progresses. The musical numbers range from the silly to the serious, like the piece shared by Masao and Terue. It’s a karaoke song, complete with follow-along lyrics for male and female parts. Somehow, Miike makes it into a nice moment.
And that’s really what makes The Happiness of the Katakuris work so well. Miike insists that everything he’s trying to say about life in general can be found in the opening stop-motion sequence and that’s certainly true. Life is life, complete with moments that make us feel silly and moments that make us cry and moments that scare the living bejesus out of us.
Those who make the mistake of suggesting that Miike isn’t known for his sense of humour would do well to watch The Happiness of Katakuris, but they’d also do well to take closer looks at movies like Audition and Ichi the Killer. While the more evident viewpoint suggests that Miike is a mere provocateur, there’s more to it than that.
In the case of The Happiness of the Katakuris, there are certain clues. Masao and Terue, for instance, lose their jobs. Masao becomes a broken man. He cannot provide for his family and his patriarchal role is at risk. The White Lovers’ Inn becomes his opportunity, but the advent of four spiritual wanderers suggests that the road to success may have its share of problems.
Building the inn at the base of Mount Fuji isn’t exactly the model of stability, but it certainly is a sign of the times. Miike uses various genres of “music video” to press this point, hazarding through dance numbers and Japanese pop on his way to setting this family as the unit it needs to be. For all the catastrophe in and out of the inn, the Katakuris find something vital when they draw together.
In that sense, The Happiness of the Katakuris is almost conventional. It is a hopeful and entertaining motion picture, one that swings its way through the concerns and dreads of its characters by carrying the audience through numerous fantastical realms. But there is no straight line to the finish. That’s life. That’s Takashi Miike.
The Happiness of the Katakuris is now available on Blu-ray thanks to the good people at Arrow Video. This outing features a new high definition digital film transfer from Shochiku Co., with the original uncompressed Stereo PCM audio.
There's an audio commentary by Miike and an audio commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes, plus a new interview with the director and an original documentary about the making of The Happiness of the Katakuris. There are also interviews with cast members and a feature about the stop-motion effects featuring the animation director Hideki Kimura.