The Happiness of the Katakuris

The Happiness of the Katakuris is the weirdest Takashi Miike film I've seen. I won't claim that it's the weirdest film he's made, because he makes somewhere between 2-8 features every single year (Woody Allen looks like a lazy slowpoke in comparison) and I haven't seen the vast majority of them. However, I have seen such bonkers Miike flicks as Audition, Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django and 13 Assassins, and let me tell you, The Happiness of the Katakuris is way crazier than any of those. This is a movie that opens with a claymation soup troll eating a woman's uvula, and things just get wilder from there.

The Katakuri family has just opened a new bed & breakfast, but their inn is located in a fairly remote spot and business is slow. Still, they have each other, and that's something. The family has a long history of failure, with one career and business endeavor after another falling apart over the years. This time, they're determined to make things work. When a guest finally shows up and requests a room, the Katakuris are unbelievably excited. Alas, things go south quickly: the guest is murdered, though no one can figure out who might be responsible. Knowing that such a story will immediately kill their inn's reputation, the Katakuris decide to keep the matter a secret and bury the body on their property. Unforunately, fate has some nasty things in store for every guest that arrives at the inn. As the bodies pile up, the effort to keep things under wraps becomes more challenging.

Every so often, the film's characters will burst into song. Yes, this is a musical, and a rather wacky one at that. The choreography is deliberately sloppy, but it has a charmingly earnest quality that makes it rather irresistible – it's like watching a group of 6th graders attempting to work their way through a complicated Busby Berkeley number. The songs are brief, but catchy, and Miike manages to work at least a dozen different musical styles (from faux-opera to surf-rock to glittery pop) into the mix. The old rule of musicals is that characters should only sing when words no longer suffice. That rule is certainly followed here, as the musical numbers tend to appear in the midst of deeply emotional moments (someone's falling in love, someone has just been murdered, etc.). Later in the movie, the corpses start singing too, and there's one big zombie dance number that feels like something from one of Tim Burton's daydreams.

By this point, you probably already know if The Happiness of the Katakuris is for you. I had a big grin on my face for much of the film's running time, but many viewers will undoubtedly find the film a hyperactive chore. Still, I'd advise giving it a little while to sink its hooks into you – the film actually becomes funnier and more grounded as it proceeds. Things get particularly delightful with the introduction of a subplot involving a Japanese con artist (Kiyoshiro Imawano) attempting to convince the Katakuris that he's a member of the U.S. Air Force and the British royal family (“Poor Diana... I couldn't save her from the paparazzi...”). All of the members of the Katakuri clan have their virtues, but I was particularly fond of Osijan (Tetsuro Tanba), the cantankerous, lazy grandfather who's usually the most enthusiastic proponent of making troubling moral compromises.

For much of the film's first hour, it feels as if Miike is doing his own riff on Nobuhiko Obayashi's bonkers 1977 horror-comedy House, as both films offer a weirdly intriguing mix of loopy animated fantasy sequences, violent (and colorfully-staged) death scenes and a certain level of Scooby-Doo camp. However, as The Happiness of the Katakuris nears the finish line, it becomes clear that Miike is genuinely invested in these characters. As outlandish as the film gets, the film's concluding statements on the importance of family and the nature of humanity are – and I can hardly believe I'm saying this – pretty moving. In a movie full of crazy surprises, a last-minute jolt of pure-hearted sincerity is the biggest surprise of all.

The Happiness of the Katakuris

Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Year: 2001