Takashi Miike is one of my favourite Japanese directors, in actuality he is probably one of my favourite directors period. Amongst the ranks of current Japanese filmmakers his output is probably one of the most well known amongst western audiences. Whilst ghosts with wet hair may have popularised some Japanese directors the ones who have broken through remain rather anonymous. You may like that film where the kid with black eyes makes a noise like a strangled kitten, but I bet you couldn’t identify the director without a trip to IMDB. What Miike films have above all else is a certain visual ownership. But this reputation also comes at something of a price.
The problem is that this visual ownership comes from the fact that his most popular films are the ones that skirt the edge of taste and decency. Whilst I’m all for skirting the edges of taste and decency it becomes abjectly depressing when a filmmaker who is arguably brilliant becomes bogged down as the guy who pushes things to far. People fixate on the extreme elements of Miike’s cinema; they focus on the bloodletting in Ichi The Killer, the sleaziness of Dead or Alive, the sheer trauma of Audition and never seek to look at the techniques employed.
Someone once told me that Miike was the closest we had to a modern day equivalent to the Italian exploitation directors of the 70s and 80s. Whilst there is a certain similarity in the way Miike pushes boundaries and flouts convention, the one thing Miike possesses is an underlying craft as a director. Even when divorced from his gore and sex he can make films that are riveting in their own way.
That isn’t to say that he isn’t a gorehound. Of the 70+ films Miike has had a hand in most are fairly trashy and exploitative DTV films he did in the early 90s and the majority of the rest have at least a scene or two which could be classed as pervasive. But for every gory gangster film there is a film which shows a far more serene Miike, for every Ichi The Killer there is a Bird People In China, for every Gozu and Agitator. It is just that these films have always been cast into the background of Miike’s career to help promote the legend of Miike the desperado filmmaker.
So naturally upon hearing that Miike has made a musical the reaction is to assume something truly outlandish and horrifying. Whilst the outlandish tag fits the bill, Happiness of the Katakuris is a far more playful and lighter film than you would expect especially considering the subject material.
The film is a remake of a Korean film by Ji-woon Kim (future director of A Tale Of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life) called The Quiet Family. In the film a family buy a small Inn and find their customers dropping dead overnight, in a bid to maintain their inn’s reputation the family try to conceal the deaths by burying the bodies.
Happiness of the Katakuris takes this plot and shapes a lavish musical around it. Whilst the two films have the story trajectory Katakuris adds more and more outlandish elements until it becomes a truly bizarre spectacle. To get my Spinal Tapage on Katakuris ramps up the elements of The Quiet Family to 11. Even minor characters are drastically altered to maintain this grand vision. In The Quiet Family the daughter of the family has a quiet and unassuming admirer, in Katakuris the admirer is an extravagant conman posing as a member of the Royal Navy. In his limited screen time the admirer directs a grand love song, flies into the air, gets poisoned, hit over the head, dropped off a cliff and much more.
The song and dance numbers are done with a wonderful sense of knowing camp. The dance moves are melodramatic, the singing ranges from gut wrenchingly awful to about karaoke standard, and the musical scores are almost always hilarious overdone. Despite this there seems to be a genuine fondness for the old musicals and while this film shamelessly rips on them you can tell a lot of care and attention has gone into the production.
The film is just jam packed with a cheeky exuberance which makes it both hard to take seriously and also unforgettable. The cast of characters is perfect from the determined husband and wife duo who lead the house, to the crotchety old granddad who steals every scene and musical number he appears in. Add to that a menageries of guests that include a singing suicide victim, a peppy schoolgirl and her gigantic sumo boyfriend, and a family who seem doomed from the moment they enter and it is almost impossible to get bored throughout the proceedings.
Takashi Miike was hired to direct Happiness of the Katakuris by Shochiku Studios as their annual feel-good New Year’s family film. Just as would be expected from the king of subversive cinema he released the film he wanted to release complete with talk of cutting up bodies, girls suffocated under their heavyweight lovers, sumos dropped out of windows, granddad burying a style live guest, the rabbit in the moon made to mount another, and the father of the piece floating across the screen dressed in full Von Trapp gear as his wife sings the film’s signature karaoke song.
In the end Happiness of the Katakuris despite all the death, deceit, premature burials and zombie dance numbers is actually a really bright positive movie. It really is the feel good movie that Miike was hired to direct, just done in his own style. In fact the film is a perfect representation of what Miike does best. All of Miike’s film have at least some emotional or philosophical core at their heart, and Happiness of the Katakuris is a film primarily about the strength and unity of the family unit. A lot of his films deal with broken family units (be it blood relatives or the more esoteric bonds of gang life) and in Katakuris he finally finds a film in which he can reassemble his fragmented families.