Movies: The Happiness of the Katakuris

Takashi Miike is easily one of the most fascinating directors working in cinema. His Audition is a deliberately paced and beautifully shot exercise in horror, a precursor of genre “break-outs” such as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. In Ichi the Killer, a yakuza (gangster) flick with the sensibilities of a splatterpunk Looney Tunes episode, Miike created a masterpiece of hyperkinetic, highly stylized violence. He has directed everything from feel-good dramas (The Bird People in China is a stand-out here), to super-hero movies (Zebraman) to deeply disturbing meditations on the role of media (ghost story One Missed Call as well as the infamous Visitor Q). And yet, The Happiness of the Katakuris may be the weirdest piece in his oeuvre. Katakuris is actually a remake of a Korean film named The Quiet Family. The original was simpler in some ways, a Hitchcockian thriller about a family desperate to cover up the strange deaths which have been plaguing their little bed-and-breakfast. However, while Miike retained the basic plot of the previous film, Katakuris presents a wild take on it, a manic, cross-genre hodge-podge which somehow stays both coherent and surprisingly sweet.

The Happiness of the Katakuris presents a family caught between the past and the present in both their general and individual circumstances. The ways in which this story unfolds (both the movements of the plot and the manner in which Miike relates it) tells another story, one of trial and resurrection. The film can simultaneously be seen a struggle with the economic issues Japan has grappled with, an examination of the resulting social upsets, and a playful scrambling of accepted aesthetic formulas. It is here, at a place of strange coincidences and hidden dangers, that these conflicts become exaggerated, confronted, and perhaps resolved.

The introductory scene of the film (a wild little ride through claymation and monstrous horror) suggests a curse on the land. This segment, seemingly unconnected to the rest of the film, shows the Phoenix-like birth-death-rebirth cycle of a strange, winged little monster, possibly a yokai, an anarchic spirit-creature. In its final form, the creature is shown being eaten by a bird. This bird plunges from the sky into the forest surrounding the home of the Katakuris. The viewer is given no more glimpses of the creature, and its subsequent adventures seem to play no role in the larger narrative. However, its presence seems to haunt the rest of the film: chaos and misrule make their appearance shortly thereafter. Whatever the details, it becomes clear this family has chosen a bad piece of land on which to build their nest, a land poisoned by a sense of foreboding and instability similar to their personal situations.

The film, released in 2001, obliquely refers to the collapse of the Japanese economy, the so-called “Lost Decade.” At the outset, the Katakuri family is faced with several unhappy and transitional situations. The Katakuri’s patriarch, genial middle-aged father of two Masao, and his wife Terue have lost their jobs. Masao, in particular, seems to have taken this situation to heart. Being without a job, with his role as provider in peril, he sometimes radiates a sense of desperation, of barely restrained guilt. Yet he and his wife are hopeful. They have invested everything, up unto the last yen, in a bed-and-breakfast which they hope will bring them stability, both familial and financial. Their daughter Shizue is caught in her own uncomfortable situation. Her husband has abandoned her (for a high-school girl) and left her to care for their daughter, Yurie. Shizue is lonely, a romantic seemingly undeterred in her pursuit of love by her scurrilous husband’s behavior. Her attraction to men of dubious honor will bring her once more into trouble. Her brother Masayuki, a former stock-broker, hovers in a grey zone between law-abiding work and thievery. Within his family (who loves him yet do not know how far they can trust him), he floats between being a good son and a black sheep. When he lost his job, he turned to the criminal life. Finally, Grandpa Jinpei, old, simultaneously wise and silly, deals with questions of his own worth. Can he still be a useful member of his family, or was his best sacrifice made many decades ago, in a war his nation lost? The Katakuris, both as individuals and as a unit, are suspended between worlds.

The terrain on which they build their bed-and-breakfast is also unstable. Although a beautiful landscape seemingly ideal for tourism and the gentle past-times of rural living, it conceals problematic foundations. This land was once a garbage dump, and may still harbor toxic materials just below the surface. The mountain overlooking this idyllic scenery has begun grumbling and shaking. It is, otherwise, a beautiful place, reminiscent of the rolling hillsides featured in The Sound of Music.

Katakuris constantly disrupts the linear, naturalistic development of the story with bizarre flights into musical (sometimes gory) fantasy. The first segment, the tale of that little monster, presents the viewer with an almost indigestible place to start the story. It is, however, after the first guest dies that the real disruption begins. Upon finding that he has died in the night, the family suddenly bursts into song and the movie shifts genres to that of the “music video.” Several songs follow, with styles ranging from hard rock to Japanese karaoke sing-alongs to big song-and-dance numbers which would not have been out of place in a classic American musical. Aside from considerations of pure entertainment, what purpose could these interludes serve? They are, throughout, nullified by the scenes immediately following them, with characters re-arranged into their previous poses and costumes or, in one case, by showing a character (in this case Shizue) rolling around on the floor, apparently in the grips of a musical delirium. One result of these disruptions is to relate to the viewer that this story is taking place in a borderland, a strange space wherein the “natural” progress of the tale is subject to sudden, albeit playful violation. Another technique Miike uses is that of rendering scenes by use of claymation. This happens in three scenes, including the first one. Although adopted, primarily, for the purpose of showing scenes too expensive to film using live-action, these parts further the sense that the viewer is being taken through a space of shifting realities, an interstitial zone.

One character shows a special relation to this ever-changing logic of the film. Richard Sagawa, a con-man who seduces Shizue, seems to embody many of these elements. He claims to be the natural son of a member of the British Royal family, yet also presents himself as belonging to the U.S. Navy. He is thus a member, at least supposedly, of three worlds. His first appearance erupts into a grand style dance number in which he sings, flies and brings Shizue into a starlit world only possible in a musical[1]. He represents himself to Shizue as the romantic dream she has been yearning for, while being obviously on the run from the consequences of various criminal activities. In his trickster-like transformations and feeble attempts at passing himself off as a grander figure than he is, Sagawa embodies many of the shifting features of the film’s landscape. He is also monstrously entertaining, a figure with almost no redeemable characteristics, with the exception of his ham-fisted wickedness itself.

Miike uses several cinematic resources to transport his viewers into a space of strange, and shifting realities. This fantasy-world mirrors the uncertainty and anxieties of its characters while signifying their buried strengths and untapped resources. The film is filled with strange pleasures, from a brief zombie sequence to a karaoke scene (complete with onscreen lyrics). That it has become a comfort movie for many of the lucky who have stumbled across it should come as no surprise, as its message of hope and resurrection in the midst of dire circumstances is one most should be able to appreciate.

Katakuris is a movie fully aware of its own weird nature, and that self-awareness contributes to the fun. One scene in particular (to share the details would spoil a significant moment) threatens to descend into bathos and schmaltz undercuts itself hilariously without entirely collapsing the emotional import of the sequence.[2] With Katakuris, Miike found the musical to be a genre uniquely equipped to deal with his brand of cinematic anarchism. This movie manages to mock itself at the same time as heightening its sentimental affect.

[1] He is portrayed by Kiyoshiro Imawano who, in addition to also appearing in Miike’s The Great Yokai War, was also a rock star. Even the actor belonged to more than one world.

[2] This highlights Miike’s gifted directing: he uses meta-fictional techniques and parody without forsaking narrative drive. In some of his movies, this results in bizarre divergences. Pieces such as Dead or Alive or Gozu end with violent disruptions of genre, sudden movements from action film to horror or even to the world of cartoons, but their climaxes maintain the momentum built in previous scenes.