Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2001)
Japanese Title: Katakuri-ke no kôfuku

The Katakuris operate a guest house in the middle of a remote mountain where a highway is supposedly to be built. The family is composed of the grandfather (Tetsuro Tamba), father Masao (Kenji Sawada), mother Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), and granddaugher Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki). There hasn't been a single guest in the Katakuris' guest house, until a morose traveller makes an appearance and in the middle of the night, decides to kill himself by stabbing himself in the neck with the room key. The family decides to just bury the body in order to salvage the guest house's business feasibility. Guests do flock in, but meet the same morbid fate.

The plot comes from Kim Ji-woon's The Quiet Family (1998), but in the hands of Japanese schlock-meister Takashi Miike, becomes a musical extravaganza that is both weirdly entertaining and surprisingly touching. The family whose core seems to be best suited for a dysfunctional family: there's the idealistic dad and the supportive mom, the criminally callous son and the flirtatious and hopelessly romantic daughter. Yet in the hands of Miike, the dysfunction becomes utterly charming. Their bantering and frequent arguments only humanize what may seem like a totally ridiculous familial relationship that can never ever exist in this rational world of ours. And when they start positioning themselves to initiate an absurdly over-the-top musical number, one can't help but both giggle and nod by the fact that despite the weirdness of it all, it works in a totally ununderstandable way.

Miike is at his schmaltziest here. Instead of using CGI to create blood fountains or other gore visual fests, here, computer technology is used to pump up the colors. The Happiness of the Katakuris looks like a 50's musicale in the vein of The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) with its bright greens, pleasant blues, and other striking hues. Miike also uses claymation to probably excite the toddlers or to make more palatable the more violent and objectionable portions of the film. The claymation sequences are haphazardly done, but that only adds to the cheap charms of the film. The changes in visual style might be a bit too gratuitous but that's better than turning the film into a drab and lifeless feature.

If you intend to watch The Happiness of the Katakuris to grab something deep and subtle, be ready for disappointment. The Happiness of the Katakuris is nothing more than an absurdist fantasy whose only aim is to entertain and while doing so, add some moralistic lesson on what really makes a family happy. It's something you can learn a dozen times while watching the features shown in Hallmark Channel, or reading through last month's issue of Reader's Digest. The only proper way to watch The Happiness of the Katakuris is with an open mind ready for whatever visual and other sensory attacks Miike has devised and just enjoy whatever (positive or negative) effects it has on your intellect (which I assume you've already put at an all time low to get ready for the film). The songs are musically bad, the actors' singing even more so. Yet in the insane hands of Miike, these songs fit perfectly well in the stew pot of kitsch, bad taste, abnormally childish antics, and almost every other thing and gimmick that should never ever be used in a fare like this.

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