Arrow Films are really spoiling us lately when it comes to amazing Japanese cinema – they’ve given us some cool ’60s classics and forgotten gems like Lady Snowblood, The Stray Cat Rock movies, Branded to Kill, Massacre Gun and Retaliation but now they’ve zapped back to the more recent past and brought us one of Takashi Miike’s zaniest and best loved efforts, The Happiness of the Katakuris. You don’t need me to tell you what this crazy, zombie and murderous inn keeper themed musical psychedelic masterpiece is about but you can read my review of the film and Arrow’s new HD effort over at UK Anime Network. (Spoiler, it’s pretty great).
Ah, Takashi Miike – that unpredictable Japanese auteur who’s equally at home with bloody yakuza dramas, gore soaked satire and strange fever dream experiments. There’s no denying his out put is decidedly patchy, which given his prolific career isn’t particularly surprising, but there’s really nothing he won’t at least try. Such is the joy of a Takashi Miike movie. The Happiness of the Katakuri’s wasn’t the first time he made use of musical sequences in his films and it wasn’t the last, but it is one of the craziest. Inspired by the 1998 Korean film The Quiet Family (debut movie of Kim Jee-woon) The Happiness of the Katakuris is, essentially, a family drama which incorporates shady goings on at a guest house, singing zombies, volcanoes and weird stop motion creatures appearing in people’s soup only to fly off with their uvulas (dangly bit between your tonsils).
The film begins with a young girl finding a weird looking creature in her soup which then rips out her uvula and flies off with it before before being snatched by a crow which is then hit with a log by an old man with surprisingly good log throwing game. The old guy is the grandpa of a family which runs a small hotel in the middle of nowhere. Family patriarch Masao used to be a shoe salesman but after losing his job was convinced to buy a hotel after a tip off that a road was supposed to be built nearby which would likely mean lots of customers. Predictably, the road has not materialised and the fledgling inn isn’t exactly packing them in. Besides grandpa, Masao is helped out by his long suffering wife, grown up daughter with a little daughter of her own and a grown up yet seemingly feckless son.
At last, a guest arrives but unfortunately dies soon afterwards. Bearing in mind the declining state of their new business, Masao makes the decision to quickly bury the body in the woods rather than report the death and suffer the negative publicity. Just when things were looking up, another two guests arrive and then promptly die too (in somewhat embarrassing circumstances). As if that weren’t enough, love sick daughter Shizue has fallen in love…again! With “Richard” the secret Japanese love child of the British royal family who’s also some kind of sailor which is why it’s difficult to get in touch with him. All told through the child’s eye view of the youngest member of the family, Shizue’s daughter Yurie, this was one crazy summer in the life of this strange family.
It would be wrong to call The Happiness of the Katakuris a musical, there’s no real musical through line so much as a collection of musical sequences inserted at points of high tension. The musical numbers themselves often act as parodies of other genres with their traditional ballads, karaoke video style sequences and the bonkers Sound of Music-esque field frolicking. Then there’s the singing corpses – who knew zombies were so jolly?
It all undeniably gets a bit grim as the family have to contend with burying the bodies of their unfortunate customers all the while waiting for someone to finally build this long promised road so their business can take off. Each of them is chasing a different kind of “happiness” the father in looking for success in business which will lead to financial security for the family, the daughter in looking for love (in all the wrong places) but it takes the totally bizarre death filled adventure of demons, corpses and escaped murderers to make them realise that they had what they needed to be happy all along – each other. The Katakuris may not be a model family, but everything runs better when they work as a team and they are very happy together no matter what strange adventures befall them. Despite all the trappings of weirdness, The Happiness of the Katakuris maybe Miike’s most subversively conservative film as it ultimately fulfils the role of that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, in which the traditional family is reformed and everything in the world is right again.
Available for the first time in HD, Arrow’s new set is nothing short of a wonder. Shot near the beginning of the digital age before the cameras where anywhere near as good as they are now, you wouldn’t assume The Happiness of the Katakuris would look this good and even if it does show its age here and there the presentation is pretty much top notch and the best it’s ever going to look. The set also comes with a host of special features, some ported over from the original release but also adds a Takashi Miike commentary with critic, Miike champion and sometime actor Toshitoki Shiota in Japanese with English subtitles but also, in an appropriately strange and surreal option, a dubbed version with actors “playing” Miike and Shiota speaking their lines in English too. You also get an entirely new commentary from Japanese film scholar and Miike expert Tom Mes of the recently deceased Midnight Eye plus a short video essay about Miike’s career and a couple of new Miike interviews too.
Almost 15 years on, The Happiness of the Katakuris remains as endearingly bizarre as it did on its first release and is truly worthy of its status as a beloved cult movie that continues to be the go-to weird Japan choice for the genre savvy cinephile. Back and better than ever, this new set from Arrow breathes new life into the film and is a great excuse for another stay at the White Lover’s Inn.
Here’s a trailer for the film:
If Takashi Miike x musical madness is your thing you also need to see Ai to Makoto (AKA For Love’s Sake) – available in the UK from Third Window Films.
Also a mini reminder for Miike fans that Over Your Dead Body is going to be at Frightfest and is apparently going to receive a UK release from Yume Pictures (the same people who released A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, now available on UK DVD). Miike madness is back! In more ways than one.
Over Your Dead Body trailer: