Happiness of the Katakuris
I had a memorable experience at the end of my first viewing of The Happiness of the Katakuris at the 2001 International Rotterdam Film Festival. The film had me laughing so long and so loud that, stumbling out of the exit, I was still in stitches – humming the final song and already reliving the best gags with my companions.
A Japanese man came running up to me. He enquired, somewhat incredulously: “Did you really like that film?” I enthusiastically replied: “Yes, I sure did!” “Well”, he went on to explain, “I was on the crew. We made it in a week. None of us understood what was going on, but we did it anyway! And I am glad you evidently appreciate so much the result of our work”.
Japanese director Takashi Miike is a cult filmmaker for our time – and he cuts an impressively maverick figure within the circuits of festival cinema and mainstream film or television alike. His work since the early 1990s has been fast, cheap and frequently out of control – or, at least, it gives a good impression of all-out chaos. Working so much, and in so many different production situations and formats, he has almost inevitably become skilled as a craftsman, at the helm of action-adventures like Shield of Straw (2013).
Miike is wildly celebrated by his fans – to the point of sometimes being overrated – for excessively violent horror-fantasy-thrillers such as Audition (1999), Visitor Q (2001), Ichi the Killer (2001), and Izo (2004). By now he has covered most popular genres, as well as several unpopular ones – even venturing into wholesome entertainment for children, such as with Zebraman (2003, sequel 2010) and The Great Yokai War (2005).
Some ferocious devotees try to stay abreast, the best they can, of his insanely prolific output; others gave up long ago, unable to detect the subtle variations from one broadly similar exercise to the next within the various templates he employs, from robust cop drama to surreal manga adaptation.
Miike takes a welcome break from his frequently gruesome fare with The Happiness of the Katakuris, a camp, musical comedy hoot made hyper-quickly, but on 35 millimetre. I learnt from the guy who politely accosted me at the end of the Rotterdam screening that a great deal of improvisation went on at every level – from swiftly bashed-together special effects devices, to dialogue and dance choreography.
Coming on like an outrageously extreme episode of The Simpsons or South Park – it even includes some animation – The Happiness of the Katakuris milks its rough and ready humour from the premise of a happy-smiley family, led by grimly determined Masao (Kenji Sawada) and his ever-perky wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), that relocates to a country estate and tries to run it as a guesthouse. For a while, it seems that no guest will ever show up. And when they do finally arrive, they tend not to stay very long – death intervenes in their holidays, in a variety of colourful ways. Suspicion instantly falls on the formerly criminal Katakuri son, Masayuki (Shinji Takeda).
As maintenance of this new life (the hotel is charmingly situated near a rubbish dump) tumbles out of control, the rising rate of catastrophe does nothing, however, to halt the flow of songs, dances and sickeningly pastel imagery. Miike takes acute pleasure in subverting and mutilating the sacred cow of the supposedly normal, nuclear family unit: in a macabre spin on the disquieting, bucolic pastoral of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), the more that ordinary people have to deal with the daily bother of removing dead bodies, the more they matter-of-factly find themselves debating the finer points of cutting them up, lowering them out the window, etc.
Poses of innocence, such as that regularly assumed by the adult daughter of the Katakuris, the naïve, single mother Shizue (Naomi Nishida) – “Cast your magic love spell on me!”, she sings, in the course of a particularly soppy ballad – are met with especially dire consequences in the universe of Miike. In this instance, Shizue’s fate is to be entangled with a pathological liar in a gleaming white, military suit, Richard (Kiyoshiro Imawano), whose topics of discourse range from the atrocious war in Iraq to the annoying peccadilloes of the British Royal Family (of which, naturally, he claims to be a member).
But characters, their neuroses, secrets and eccentricities, are not the only thing that drive this tale into its strange, wayward corners: a nearby volcano (Mt Fuji itself) also figures in the plot … although no one in this weird family ever seems to catch wind of this news blasting from the TV set.
Like an Austin Powers movie (1997, 1999 or 2002, take your pick) – but made for a fraction of the cost – The Happiness of the Katakuris throws in a bit of everything: scatological jokes, movie pastiches, satire of national manners (communal meal scenes are multiplied throughout). Felicitous micro-touches abound: such as when the snare-drum beats of a wacky musical number are timed to coincide, in the montage, with the heaps of dirt shovelled atop a wrapped-up corpse in a hole.
There is no doubt that any viewer unfamiliar with the minutiae of Japanese pop culture (in film, music, TV and consumer styles) from the dawn of this new century will miss the point of (at least) a couple of hundred jokes, allusions and put-ons. But there is plenty left over to whip up a ramshackle, infectious energy for everybody, close to the buzz that merrily stoned cinephiles today derive from the crazy, digitally-streamed humour of Eric Andre or Tim & Eric.
But the film historian in me wonders: am I the only person in the world who suspects that Miike may have gathered a little inspiration for The Happiness of the Katakuris from a roughly similar American Z-budget farce from 1985, The Outdoorsters (aka When Nature Calls), directed by the largely unsung Charles Kaufman (Mother’s Day, 1980 – no relation to the rather better known Charlie K.)?
Whatever the source of this delirium, I can promise that you, too, will be singing (in whichever language you please) the final number – long after the film’s 113th minute is done.
© Adrian Martin September 2002 / July 2015