The Best Films You’ve Never Seen #1: The Happiness of the Katakuris
In this new semi-regular feature, I’m simply going to be writing about some of my favourite films that very few people have seen. For my first selection, I picked a film that is quite simply unlike any other. A blackly comic, fitfully violent musical that features a devoted family, a wanted criminal posing as a US Naval Officers, a volcano, some singing zombies and disturbing stop motion, there’s no denying that Takashi Miike’s 2001 The Happiness of the Katakuris is one of the most audaciously weird films of all time.
Following a loveable Japanese family running a struggling bed and breakfast next to Mount Fuji, Katakuris is a film that, bizarrely, I can describe as both ‘impossible not to love’ and ‘quite easy to hate’. I know they sound completely ridiculous when used together, but I believe this to be true; in my mind, I can’t imagine anyone not feeling incredible joy at the upbeat songs, demented performances and strange Claymation style, but I know that some people will really take against this. Some will find the songs about love and happiness irritating; the farcical acting to be rubbish; the weirder elements of the film repulsive or just boring. This is a fair enough point, but I think you have to be pretty cynical not to smile or laugh at least once throughout the film’s near two hour running time.
To describe the plot is to face both a difficult task, and risk ruining many of the more surprising elements of the film. Suffice to say, the Katakuris finally get a string of guests staying at the hotel and each of them end facing increasingly unusual fates. Though this sounds simple, that’s just the simplified version; we also get the lovesick mother of our young narrator being wooed by the aforementioned fake US Naval Officer, a news reporter getting a bug up the nose and an opening scene, which is entirely unrelated and never alluded to again, in which a young woman finds a strange clay man in her soup which proceeds to rip out her ‘uvula’. Of all the madcap scenes in the film, the first two minutes win, hands down.
I’ve never actually reviewed a musical for the blog, because I can’t say I really enjoy them. Generally, I find the songs bland and schmaltzy, or not to my taste (The Rocky Horror Picture Show is about as far as I can make it), so I was surprised that once Katakuris became a musical, when the first guest of the hotel sings about committing suicide, I wasn’t at all bothered. In fact, I rather like the songs. They’re so demented in content and style (a dramatic dance to discovering a dead body, singing about happiness to some corpses) that I really enjoyed them; they’re fun, short and don’t take themselves seriously. Granted, it helps that there are long sections with music, and in between there’s a stop motion fight scene between the great granddad and the Naval Officer, and a girl crushed to death by a randy Sumo wrestler, but even so, as far as musicals go, this is possibly the best I’ve ever seen.
One element that really made the film work for me was the family. In terms of the tone, weirdly enough, Katakuris actually reminded me a lot of the phenomenally funny 1992 Australian hit The Castle. Though The Castle is relatively straightforward and simplistic, especially compared to Miike’s film, its portrayal of quirky families pulling together is actually pretty similar. Both families have increasingly odd members, both of them support each other through everything, and they all bond weirdly well. I’m a massive fan of The Castle, and I think Katakuris is just as entertaining.
Honestly, I don’t know if you’ll love The Happiness of the Katakuris as much as I did; few seem to love its whacky, farcical tone and insane songs in the same way. Takashi Miike may be best known for the genius Audition or ultra-violent Ichi the Killer, but it’s with this demented musical that I think he reached his magnum opus of the strange and surreal. Easily one of the strangest films ever made (if I was to revise my previous list, it would make the top 5 in a flash), The Happiness of the Katakuris is one of the least cynical, most enjoyable films I’ve ever seen, and even if you hate musicals, there’s every chance you’ll love this insane masterpiece.
By Harry Ford