Blu-Ray Review: The Happiness of the Katakuris

Director: Takashi Miike
Screenplay: Kikumi Yamagishi
Based on a Film by: Kim Jee-woon
Starring: Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda
Country: Japan
Running Time: 113 min
Year: 2001
BBFC Certificate: 18


There was a wave of fairly successful Asian films which reached the West in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. One of the directors that rose to prominence during this time was Takashi Miike. The title of his that caught the world’s attention, after churning out largely direct to video fare, was Audition. A slow drama that suddenly turns into gut churning horror in the final act, the film was a critical success and it helped boost the popularity of J-horror, which had reached Western shores with Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring). Miike didn’t sit back and rest on his laurels though. One of the most prolific recent directors I’ve ever come across, he continued (and continues) to churn out film after film. He’ll be 55 this year and he has 98 directing credits to his name from his debut in 1991 (that’s an average of around 4 films a year!) according to the IMDB.

2001 was a big year for the director. Eight of his films were released that year and four of them made it to the UK that I’m aware of and received a mixture of acclaim and notoriety. This really cemented his reputation as a fearless master of extreme cinema with the unbelievably violent Ichi the Killer, the seriously f*cked up Visitor Q, Yakuza drama The Agitator and the comedy horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris.

The latter title is being re-released on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK by the ever dependable Arrow Video label. Although I was rather smitten by the wave of Asian cinema released in the early 2000’s when I was a student, I never got around to watching The Happiness of the Katakuris, so I was keen to see what the fuss was about.

The Happiness of the Katakuris is actually a loose remake of The Quiet Family, the directorial debut of Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, A Bittersweet Life etc.), only Miike amped up the daft humour and added song and dance numbers.

The story sees the patriarch of a family, Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada), use his redundancy money to buy a ramshackle house near Mount Fuji in an area he’s told will soon have a major road running through it. He turns the house into a hotel, roping his whole family in to help. There’s his dad Jinpei (Tetsurô Tanba), his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), their troublesome son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), love-crazy daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), granddaughter Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki) and their dog, Pochi.

The road development keeps getting delayed and they wait and wait for guests to arrive, with no success. Eventually a strange man appears in the night, but he commits suicide in his room, using a sharpened key fob. Worried this incident will tarnish the hotel’s reputation and that his son may have something to do with it due to his criminal record, Masao convinces his family to bury the body and forget it ever happened. However, as the next few guests also fall dead in the hotel, the makeshift grave out back begins to fill up. This develops tension between the family, who try their best to keep a positive attitude and work together to make their family business a success.

After talking about Miike’s success at the beginning of the review, I must admit I have wildly differing opinions of the director’s work. Of the handful of his films I’ve reviewed here, I’ve given one of them a 1 star rating, another 2 and a half and one film was picked as my absolute favourite of 2011! Although I admire the daringly wild, unique and varied films he released in his heyday, I get the feeling his ‘churn it out’ attitude either means he’s not patient enough to spend time crafting solidly constructed work or is more of a ‘director for hire’ than his supposed auteur status suggests. I think the latter seems to be true in more recent years as he’s directed a handful of child/teen friendly game and manga adaptations which don’t match his more famous wackier fare.

So, although I was interested in finally watching The Happiness of the Katakuris, I had a certain level of trepidation. Now that I have seen it, I’m as torn about the film as I am about the director in general though.

The film opens with a young woman finding a strange creature in her soup, which swiftly pulls out her uvula (the dangly bit in the back of your mouth) and flies away. The creature and the ensuing opening title sequence is created in stop motion animation, as are all of the action set pieces in the film. There’s no attempt at realism here, it’s simply a bold stylistic choice and it works a treat. These wonderfully bonkers sequences were the highlights of the film for me.

However, much of the live action forming the rest of the film was hit and miss. Shot in the then burgeoning digital HD format, the film looks kind of cheap and washed out, when I expected more of a technicolour feast for the eyes, mimicking the musical genre it’s gleefully trying to subvert.

Speaking of music, there wasn’t as much as I expected. There isn’t a proper song until almost twenty minutes into the film and many of the musical numbers are very short, when I’d have quite liked to have seen more of them. The songs aren’t particularly great and the dancing rather shambolic, but it’s all part of the zany charm and Miike has fun with a variety of song and music video styles throughout.

The bizarre nature of everything prevails for the most part and the spirited performances, although technically poor, give the film life. Most memorable is actual rock star Kiyoshirô Imawano, playing the conman Richâdo Sagawa who tries to seduce Shizue. She has a history of easily falling for the wrong men and is oblivious to his obvious lies about being in the RAF and US Air Force as well as being a member of the British royal family.

Unfortunately, like I often find with crazy genre-mashing Asian titles like this, the film is too long and can’t sustain the ‘wild ride’ pace it was probably aiming for. There’s not enough meat here to justify a two hour running time and I did find myself clock watching occasionally. I think I was expecting the film to be more over the top than it actually was too. It’s certainly very silly, but I think I imagined more horror, more violence and some more spectacularly ridiculous musical numbers.

What did surprise me though was the final act. By about the one and a half hour mark I was starting to lose interest in the film, but it pulls out what I least expected from a crazy horror comedy; genuine pathos. When everything has turned against the Katakuris and all hope seems lost, the family come together to face the problems head on and it’s surprisingly touching and rousing. Admittedly it’s performed as over the top as the rest of the film, but it works and ends the film on a high note.

So as oddball as much of the film is, The Happiness of the Katakuris actually ends up being thematically cohesive and successful in delivering its core message. It’s too long and not as consistently wacky or funny as I expected, but as an ode to working together through hard times it does a bizarrely good job. That, on top of some inspired flourishes (particularly the stop motion sequences), means I’d still recommend the film, warts and all.

The Happiness of the Katakuris is out on now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Arrow Video. As usual, Arrow doesn’t disappoint on the picture and sound quality. The film was shot digitally so it’s pin sharp on Blu-Ray, although this emphasises the cheap, drab look from early HD camera technology.

There are plenty of special features. Here’s the list:

– Audio commentary by director Takashi Miike
– The Making of the Katakuris: An original documentary from the film’s production featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with the cast and crew
– Interviews with the Katakuris cast members Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, Tetsuro Tanba and Miike
– Animating the Katakuris: A look at the creation of the film’s stop motion effects with animation director Hideki Kimura and Miike
– Trailer and TV Spots
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
– Booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Johnny Mains and a re-printed interview with Miike conducted by Sean Axmaker, illustrated with original stills

I must admit I’ve been too busy to watch the features for this, but I intend to at some point soon, particularly the commentary.