Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores one of Takashi Miike’s strangest films (and that’s saying something), The Happiness of the Katakuris.
Is there a more eclectic filmmaker than Takashi Miike? He’s directed nearly one hundred features over the last twenty five years, and they’ve run the gamut from horror (One Missed Call) to children’s fantasy (The Great Yokai War) to bloody thriller (Lesson of the Evil) to gangster pic (Dead or Alive) to whatever the hell category Gozu fits into. They’re not always good films necessarily, but while I’ve only seen less than a third of his output I’d argue he’s made at least five great ones ‐ that’s a low percentage for his filmography, but five fantastic films is five more than most directors can claim.
The vast majority of his movies never reach the US in any official form, but the ones that have pigeonhole Miike as a filmmaker of dark, perverse, and brutally violent fare. He is that of course ‐ just watch any three minute stretch from Ichi the Killer for confirmation ‐ but he’s also a man with a surprisingly soft spot for family.
From the young thugs forced to come together in Fudoh: The New Generation to the severely broken family in need of healing at the heart of Visitor Q, Miike values the love, support, and acceptance inherent in strong families. Both are terrific films, and the latter in particular explores these themes in some truly twisted and ultimately touching ways, but for my money his best cinematic treatise on the topic is also one of the oddest, sweetest, and most creatively bonkers movies too many of you have yet to experience.
The Happiness of the Katakuris introduces four generations of a family forced together by circumstance into running a remote mountain inn (inexplicably called the White Lover’s Guesthouse). Masao Katakuri put his life savings into the place after losing his job and getting a tip that a major road would soon be built nearby, but the road never came and neither have the guests. His wife Terue is dutifully by his side for this depressing chapter in their lives, as are his father, his granddaughter, and their two grown children ‐ Shizue, a recently divorced single mom, and Masayuki, a former bad boy trying to reform his ways.
None of them are happy, all of them are frustrated with the bed & breakfast’s failure, and fissures are growing between them. Their luck appears to change when a man comes looking for lodging, but the next morning they discover he’s committed suicide in the room. Panicked at the thought of the death ruining their B&B they bury the body and move forward, but more guests come, more guests die, and more bodies end up buried in the woods. The Katakuris can’t seem to catch a break.
The film is a remake of Kim Jee-woon’s (I Saw the Devil, The Good the Bad the Weird) debut feature, The Quiet Family, but while the blackly comic story remains the same Miike has made it very much his own creation. Scenes shift into claymation, characters burst into song and dance, and the final thirty minutes see zombies, a murderer on the loose, and an erupting volcano shake things up for the family in ways guaranteed to change them forever.
It’s an insanely joyous concoction of love, imagination, and utter madness that leaves you unsure what’s coming next but eagerly anticipating it all the same. Miike doesn’t ease viewers into the weirdness either instead choosing to open with a cherub who exits a woman’s soup bowl only to rip out her uvula and fly away with the tasty snack. Yes, you read that correctly.
A circle of life and death follows with birds and razor-clawed teddy bears playing roles before we transition back to live action to meet the Katakuris. An adult Yurie (the young girl) narrates as she reflects back on this memorable summer and wonders about the things that hold families together through hard times. Turns out disposing of dead bodies and performing synchronized song and dance routines are some of those things.
The songs aren’t designed as catchy singles and instead follow the route of sequences designed to express heightened emotion or story turns. The suicidal guest gets the first ‐ a simple and soft ode to his sadness ‐ but it’s the family’s first collective effort upon discovering his body that sets the tone and mentality at work here. Guitar grinds, camera tilts, and theatrical lighting turn the find into an electric performance piece, and it’s as ridiculous as it is mesmerizing.
One of the best musical interludes comes with the introduction of a character deserving of cinematic immortality ‐ the one and only Richard Sagawa (Japanese rock star Kiyoshirô Imawano). He crosses paths with Shizue right after she sings of her desire for love, and the pair share a high energy duet featuring levitation, confetti cannons, and additional fantasy sequences. “She falls in and out of love too easily,” says Yurie about her mother, but can you blame her in the face of Richard Sagawa? “I’m with the US Navy,” he tells her, “to be more precise, Britain’s Royal Navy.” Brilliant. He mentions his close relationship with Queen Elizabeth, expresses regret over Diana’s death ‐ “If only I had been there!” ‐ and then slyly asks for a handout. Sure he’s a scam artist looking for nookie and cash ‐ essentially a singing and dancing version of of Bill Paxton’s character in True Lies — but it is impossible not to love this guy.
Claymation scenes are less frequent than the songs, but they return later in the film for big action beats. They’re a style choice to be sure, but also a canny way for Miike to save money on the budget, and there’s an undeniable charm to the figures and animation.
Even as the absurdities mount though Miike and his characters display real heart and affection for each other culminating in a tense scene featuring a murderer holding a knife to Terue’s throat. The absurd laughs and fantasy sequences preceding it don’t soften the emotional effect here as Masao pleads for his wife’s life and Masayuki risks his own. Another song follows, of course, as Masao and Terue share a genuinely touching ode to their son, and it’s as emotionally bare a moment as any you’ll find in Miike’s filmography. And then in an instant, the film shifts effortlessly to deliver a big laugh and segue into its grand, earth-shaking finale.
Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris is many things, all things, and for most people only familiar with his darker, far more cynical and gruesome side it will also be a revelation. The prevailing theme of family is shadowed by ideas of sacrifice, love, staying positive, and living and dying on your own terms. The grand, sweeping, Sound of Music-on-the-African-veldt finale makes room for one last death, and it’s as beautiful and nutty as much of what’s come before. This may be a remake, but it’s also one of the most refreshingly original movies out there. See it, share it, and dance along with Richard Sagawa.
“Man is just one of nature’s creatures, and one day mankind will probably lose the game of natural selection. But until that time man goes on living earnestly, touchingly. That’s life.”