Naomi NishidaKeiko MatsuzakaThe Happiness of the KatakurisTetsuro Tamba
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Medium: film
Year: 2001
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Ai Kennedy, Kikumi Yamagishi
Keywords: musical, zombies, favourite, reality with a dark twist
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Tetsuro Tamba, Naoto Takenaka, Tamaki Miyazaki, Takashi Matsuzaki
Format: 113 minutes
Website category: Takashi Miike
Review date: 19 March 2009
Where are my cannibals? I heard this was a Takashi Miike musical about cannibals! These people who told me are liars.
Apart from that, it's as mad as I could have expected.
This is one of those films that sets new benchmarks on "batshit insane". What makes it even more unbelievable is that it's a remake. The original was a well-regarded 1998 Korean film called The Quiet Family. Unsurprisingly, the outline of both films is the same. They're black comedies. A family of six have abandoned the city and bought a guest house in the middle of nowhere, but unfortunately their guests have a regrettable habit of dropping dead. It's no one's fault. They're not murdering them or anything. On the contrary, it's a pain in the neck having a fresh corpse upstairs when you're trying to keep up the reputation of your struggling family business.
Unlike Miike's version, the Korean one doesn't have deliberately cheesy musical numbers with occasional karaoke singalong, dancing zombies and claymation sequences after the style of Jan Svankmajer. I mean... what? What in the name of all that's holy possessed Miike to put all these things into the film? I mean, I adored the results. It's so gleefully silly that the only possible reaction is to laugh.
Let me describe the opening, for example. A cute girl is eating in a restaurant, which is all nice and normal apart from the opera soundtrack. What's less normal is for a claymation troll to climb out of her soup, pull out her uvula to the accompaniment of bagpipes and then fly away. (Your uvula is the dangly bit at the back of your mouth that I'd always assumed was called the tonsils. I'd never have known that's what it was called if I hadn't been watching the subtitles.) The troll then gets into what I can only describe as the Clockwork Orange version of Bagpuss, after which things get silly. None of all this is ever referred to again in the rest of the movie, by the way. It's just Miike softening you up with the cinematic equivalent of a two-by-four to the head so you're not shocked when the real film goes into rock and roll numbers with the walls falling down.
Once we're past that opening, the film actually hangs together rather well. The silliest bits will be Ally MacBeal fantasies. The characters sail off into song and stupidity, but then the next thing we see is the story continuing as if nothing had happened. Miike is doing that Japanese thing of switching between eye-popping nonsense and a proper story. The film's tone is all over the place, but somehow it works because the ground rules were laid down so clearly with that opening. Thus it's possible to discuss the characters and what they learn from their experiences. The title is significant. Everyone seems to call this Miike's happiest movie and I can believe it. In the beginning, Mum is an emotionally needy single mother whose husband ran off with a schoolgirl, while Grandad is close to breaking point as he insists that floods of guests will definitely absolutely come. Yes, sir. Any day now. In the meantime of course, the business is dead on its feet. However by the end, the family's trials bring them together and help them face the future optimistically.
There are actually four generations here. The narrator is a little girl, who gets almost nothing to do but still looks cute when she's joining in with the song-and-dance numbers. You won't see that in a musical that's taking its dancing seriously. She's here with her mum. Grandad and grandma own the guest house and everyone else helps them run it, with the remaining family members being an uncle and a great-grandfather. I couldn't understand a word the latter said, by the way. Like many men of his generation, he mumbles entire sentences into a single syllable.
Even the musical numbers are great. Obviously by "great" I mean "ridiculous", with outrageous tableau shots and people flying up on wires, but you can't accuse Miike of not pushing the gag all the way. For me it works much better than something like Hello Dolly, for instance. The songs are often quite short and one doesn't feel that they're stopping the plot. They're more varied than you'll usually get, with different numbers reminding me of Bollywood, hard rock concerts and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Finally and most obviously they're funny. Miike never lets the joke get old, always throwing out some new level of ridiculousness. I kept laughing out loud. I'm not a huge fan of musicals in film rather than on the stage, but I believe I've just found a new favourite to go alongside the South Park movie, Little Shop of Horrors and Disney offerings like The Little Mermaid.
This is a film to reduce audiences to jelly. I wish so hard I'd managed to catch this in the cinema instead of just watching it one morning on DVD. It manages that Little Shop of Horrors tone of glorying in its own absurdity and so it's all part of the joke when, for instance, a fly goes up a television presenter's nose or the weather conditions are openly kow-towing to the plot. There's a total eclipse of the sun, by the way. Nevertheless I shouldn't get carried away describing all this, since at the same time it has a strong story. Note the way in which the guest parade is never allowed to get predictable, for instance.
This film was itself remade in Hong Kong in 2003 as A Mysterious Murder, but that seems to have vanished almost without trace. I'll admit that I'm curious about The Quiet Family, though.