Saturday, 24 August 2013

Happiness of the Katakuris

Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Kikumi Yamagishi
Producer: Hirotsugu Yoshida
Cast: Kenji Sawada, Naomi Nishida, Keiko Matsuzaka
Year of release: 2001
Country: Japan
Reviewed from: UK festival screening (Far Out 2002)

Takashi Miike first came to western attention (or at least, this westerner's attention) with Audition, a slow-building, atmospheric, deeply nasty tale of psychological and physical torture. Two films more different than Audition and Happiness of the Katakuris it would be hard to find. Because this, my friends, is a musical!

In a nutshell, this is The Rocky Horror Picture Show crossed with The Shining and shot in Bollywood by Terry Gilliam. Kenji Sawada (Hiruko the Goblin) stars as middle-aged ex-shoe salesman Masao Katakuri, who starts up a guest house where he hears a new road is to be built. Helping him are his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), their divorced, lovesick daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida: Godzilla Millennium) and her little girl, their ex-con son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), and Masao’s father Jinpei (Tetsuro Tamba - who was in Kwaidan and You Only Live Twice!). And Pochi, the dog.

They wait for their first customer, and he eventually arrives in a thunderstorm, goes to his room, carves his room-key into a point and stabs himself to death. Knowing that calling the police would mean the end of their business before it has begun, the family dispose of the body, while suspecting unenthusiastic slacker Masayuki of stealing the man’s missing wallet.

Further guests arrive, in dribs and drabs, most notably a randy sumo wrestler and his petite teenage girlfriend; he has a heart attack during sex, and she is found crushed to death beneath him... Meanwhile, Shizue has met and fallen in love with a rogue in naval uniform who claims to be an illegitimate member of the British Royal Family. The story climaxes with an escaped killer and a volcanic eruption.

In any other film, a story like this would be an amusing, Fawlty Towers-esque sitcom, but Miike goes crazy with several song and dance sequences, which range from the endearing non-coordination of the six Katakuris (including the little girl) to full-blown Bollywood-style fantasy scenes. One romantic duet between Masao and Terue is even done with on-screen subtitles and the to-camera exhortation to “join in with us”!

And as if that wasn’t enough, parts of the film are animated! The opening sequence, entirely unconnected with the rest of the film, is an amazing piece of Svankmajer-like clay animation following a little angel/demon-thing and is reminiscent of nothing less than the titles of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. At various times later during the film, characters become clay animations too - but not always everyone on screen. On the other hand, another stylistic device, shaky handheld camerawork, doesn’t add anything to the scenes in which it is used.

On the basis of this and Audition, it’s hard to identify anything specific about Miike’s style as a director, except that he clearly does what he wants and isn’t afraid to go to extremes. He also makes a lot of movies. Between Audition in 1999 and Katakuris in 2001, he also made MPD Psycho, The City of Lost Souls, The Guys from Paradise, Dead or Alive 2, Family, Visitor Q, Agitator and Ichi the Killer - apparently. Whatever, he’s clearly a busy guy. (Earlier Miike films of note include Fudoh: The New Generation and Full Metal Gokudo.)

An absolutely bonkers, laugh-out-loud, must-see film - with, it must be said, a great zombie dance sequence - Happiness of the Katakuris is unreservedly recommended to anybody who likes offbeat cinema.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 3rd December 2004

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