Directed by Takashi Miike, 2001, 112 minutes, starring Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, and Tetsuro Tamba.
It must be a strange place, the middle of Takashi Miike's head - a director who is so prolific, yet unique, who can deliver not just slick yakuza parodies, but also historical epics, kids' movies and mainstream horror flicks. Let's face it, if a movie isn't "typical" Miike – ie, ultraviolence and misogyny served up with a liberal side dish of gore – then the chances are either you've ended up with an early yakuza clunker or one of the more, er, idiosyncratic Miike works.
The Happiness of the Katakuris, a remake of Korean movie The Quiet Family, is one such movie. There's absolutely no way anyone else in their right mind could envisage a remake of what was, by all accounts, a rather fine black comedy as a camp musical claymation pantomime with added zombies. It's an insane idea; chuck in the principle that Miike is woefully hit-or-miss at times and potentially the portents are not necessarily good. Yet, if you're in the right frame of mind, The Happiness of the Katakuris hits the spot.
The Happiness of the Katakuris starts out, it must be said, brilliantly. In a scene seemingly totally unconnected with the rest of the film, a girl in a restaurant pulls a bug-eyed, angel-winged thing from her soup which promptly pulls her tonsils out, flies off (as we morph into fantastic claymation-vision) and is promptly munched by a ravenous raven, which in turn is promptly felled with a log chucked by a local farmer.
The farmer turns out to be Jinpei, an old man whose family has moved in together to run a guesthouse, in the expectation that a major new road will be built nearby and bring in trade. Problem is, the road is nowhere near construction and to date they have not welcomed a single guest. Not one. Things are a little... tense in the house, all four generations feeling the financial pinch. As a storm brews, and dinner is tofu stew again, there's a knock on the door – a guest! The guy's soaked, and as he checks in and trawls up to his room dressed only in a towel, Jinpei offers him the use of his underwear – fortunately turned down, I guess as the thought of using an old man's knickers is never particularly appealing, freshly laundered or not.
Anyway, the next morning the debutante guest is found dead. Cue mass panic and, erm, a song and dance number (in the Rocky Horror vein) as they decide what the hell they're going to do. And, semi-logically as publically declaring their first ever guest to have snuffed it – with his room key embedded in his neck no less - could be considered commercial suicide, they bury him by the side of the lake and decide to never mention it again.
Meantime, Shizue is in town doing some shopping (in full frilly regalia, it should be said) and catches the eye of a dodgy looking gent dressed in full formal British Navy uniform. He's Richard, and claims to be either high up in the Royal Navy, a British spy, or a member of the British royal family, or all three. Now, forgive me if I'm wrong, but I don't remember there being a Japanese arm of the Windsor family... Anyway, Shizue falls for it and is swept off her feet in a massive musical number that recalls Bollywood if anything.
A few days later at the guesthouse more guests arrive – this time a massively famous Sumo wrestler and his tiny groupie girlfriend. And, guess what? During a rather, er, vigorous bout of groupie luuurve-ing, Mr Sumo has a heart attack and dies, smothering Ms Groupie underneath. So when they're found by the Katakuris, they of course don't declare it, lowering fatty by rope out of the window ('cos they can't get his bulk out of the door) and burying the two bodies by the lake again...
I could go into much more detail about the plot from this point on, but frankly there's not much point. It continues much in this vein for another hour or so, looping unlikely situation followed by musical number. But the formulaic nature of this structure doesn't really matter as it's so much fun – of course there's absolutely no realism in the acting or the direction, or even the plot, but the pastiche nature of the movie makes up for this.
Nevertheless, the question remains: just what the hell is this movie all about? For a start, almost uniquely for a Miike film, it just doesn't go far enough. The musical numbers aren't camp or catchy enough. The claymation is initially wonderfully inventive and sadistic but subsequently peters out to be a woeful compensation for a low special effects budget; it's as if as soon as the producers said, for example, sorry mate, we can't afford to actually slide that house down a mountainside, Miike responded by breaking open the can of Playdoh. And as far as the trademark weirdness goes - again, it's almost as if lip service is being paid in the opening ten minutes or so, but there's little subsequently. Gozu this sure as hell isn't. And, criminally for a movie that proclaims itself to be a zombie claymation musical, there just aren't enough zombies. Namely, four, who appear on screen for all of about four minutes in a musical number and who then promptly vanish.
No, what Miike should have done is go the full Bollywood route. There's (sort of) hints of this in places – not least when Shizue meets Richard, though the formation dancing just isn't fully developed enough. Chuck in a starring role for the zombies – and who can resist the dancing undead? – and you're onto a winner. Just imagine how Busby Berkeley might have done it – a tier of thirty be-sequinned zombie showgirls dancing in formation by a fountain, forming an arch of fallen-off limbs as the great Zombie Astaire tapdances under them. Still, considering the dancing zombie quotient in most other movies stands at 0%, and Miike goes some of the way at least, you're on to a winner straightaway.
The more I see of late period Miike, the more I like it - it's like the misogyny and shock factor of his earlier works has disappeared as he gains confidence in expressing his inner... weirdness? In my review of The Great Yokai War, I coined the phrase "the Miikeverse" - if there was ever a definition of it, perhaps it rests here in The Happiness of the Katakuris and over there in Gozu. In terms of mood, there's little to separate them, although in terms of content they're very different pieces; both have a definite WTF factor, and depart the rational world for something far more fantastical.
But really, it's a bit difficult to know what to make of The Happiness of the Katakuris. The first half hour or so is really strong, but it soon develops into rampant farce. Easily thirty minutes too long, it's difficult to know if Miike wanted to camp it up, or go strong on the gore, or what. While it is certainly a bizarre movie, it's really not as bizarre as it wants (or even needs) to be. If you're specifically looking for for a movie with dancing zombies (which may be highly unlikely, but still), the Happiness of the Katakuris is the movie for you. If you're not, in any case it's a fun and diverting two hours. It's just that there's a nagging thought that it's all a bit half-arsed...
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 7½/10
Sex: Sumo/10. Mmm... sweaty dead blubber...
Zombies: puttin' on the Ritz
Silly Putty: Miike has shares
Films in a similar style: The Quiet Family, obviously. Other than that, you name another movie with claymation and dancing zombies ;-)
*** Recommended ***
The Happiness of the Katakuris Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.asiaextreme.co.uk/archive/asiaextreme2003/katakuris/index.html - English-language Katakuris mini-site from Tartan, with trailer and photo gallery
http://www.thegline.com/dvd-of-the-week/2003/08-01-2003.htm - The G-line review, incisive as ever
http://www.kfccinema.com/reviews/comedy/katakuris/katakuris.html - comprehensive review at KFCC, including technical specs
http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/dvdcompare/happiness.htm - comparison of different DVD editions. Nice images as well
http://www.duallens.com/index.asp?reviewId=50704 - intellectual review at Dual Lens
http://www.channel4.com/film/reviews/film.jsp?id=115570 - Channel 4 like it too