Though ridiculously prolific director Takashi Miike is most often remembered for his gory horror films—such as Audition (1999) and Ichi the Killer (2001)—he’s made far weirder films throughout a career that has spanned nearly three decades and explored a range of genres including crime (Dead or Alive), drama (The Bird People in China), sci-fi (Zebraman), fantasy (The Great Yokai War), western (Sukiyaki Western Django), samurai film (13 Assassins), and more. But certainly in the running for his strangest film—and the one that blends the most number of genres together—is the glorious Katakuri-ke no Kōfuku (Happiness of the Katakuris, 2001). Musical, absurdist comedy, family melodrama, and horror film with surreal elements and moments of grotesque claymation, this is based loosely on the debut of Korean director Kim Jee-woon—now known for films like A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and I Saw the Devil (2010)—1998’s The Quiet Family. Of course, Miike makes it entirely his own beast and it would be somewhat misleading to refer to Happiness of the Katakuris as simply a horror musical or a black comedy, which makes it both so appealingly strange and difficult to classify.
After losing his job, Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) pools together all his resources and buys a remote inn in the countryside—on top of a former trash dump—hedging his bets on the fact that a promised road is supposed to be built in the area, which will bring much needed guests. His family also despondently helps to tend to the struggling inn: grandpa (Tetsurō Tamba), Masao’s wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), their adult son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), adult daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), and her young daughter Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki). One night a storm brings a surprise guest, but he commits suicide; the Katakuris decide to keep it to themselves and bury the body out in the woods. But the inn seems to be cursed: as guests begin to trickle in, very few of them make it out alive and the desperate family works around the clock to bury bodies, which is complicated by the arrival of a conman and a hysterical murderer.
Cut between a mix of lightly comedic scenes of family melodrama, vastly different musical numbers, and moments of absolutely absurd gore, horror, or violence, The Happiness of the Katakuris is, on one hand, one of Miike’s most accessible films, but also one that is likely to confuse the hell out of anyone solely interested in the director’s transgressive genre output. His trademark use of aberrant sexuality does make occasional appearances—such as in one of my favorite early scenes, when the second guest, a sumo wrestler, brings his seemingly underage girlfriend in for a tryst and does on top of her, mid-coitus, crushing her fragile body beneath his grotesque mass. But at it’s heart, the film explores conventional morality and the traditional family, the latter of which is a theme that winds through the majority of the director’s work.
Many of his films are about outcasts, misfits, criminals, and failures who come together, determined to build a life despite their often crippling handicaps (which are usually more emotional or sexual than physical). This is a paramount theme of something like Ichi the Killer, where characters seemingly unable to relate to the world around them cling together, despite (or perhaps because of) their destructive charisma together, which is all consuming. Film scholar Tom Mes wrote in Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike that “completeness of the family or the group” is a paramount theme of Miike’s films. “In both The Happiness of the Katakuris and Visitor Q, the members of a dysfunctional family aim to find happiness by repairing the unit. Surrogate families and group units are a staple of Miike’s cinema, offering refuge, security and belonging to characters who share the fate of being outcasts.” This appears in one of his earlier films, Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), about two family units—one domestic/biological and the other related to organized crime—who attempt to bridge personal, legal, sexual, and national boundaries.
There are certainly many conventional musicals about the trials and tribulations of dysfunctional families, such as Vincente Minnelli’s classic Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). But, as one of Miike’s weirdest films—which is saying a lot—there is also something about it that reminds me of Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), a film for which I have deep affection. In a rural community, a series of lonely, misfit neighbors, though they are essentially strangers to each other, come together over the corpse of the titular Harry, when they each discover him in the woods in turn. All, in one way or another, convinced they’ve accidentally or intentionally killed him, attempt to hide the body. In a series of comic scenes, Harry is covered and uncovered, and the small band of townsfolk bond over their shared desire not to betray Harry’s death to the police—as in The Happiness of the Katakuris—fearing personal setbacks, legal reprisals, and failure far more than they feel obligated to the law or local society.
And as The Trouble with Harry is one of Hitchcock’s most genuinely comedic films, The Happiness of the Katakuris has many florid displays of Miike’s sense of humor. Though this turns up in unexpected, perhaps unconventional forms throughout a lot of his films (I find Ichi the Killer to be nearly as funny), moments of The Happiness of the Katakuris are laugh-out-loud funny and it actually gets funnier the more you watch. The central focus for much of the humor revolves around the con man, Richard Sagawa (rock star Kiyoshiro Imawano), who meets and claims to fall immediately in love with Shizue. Distraught after her divorce—where her husband left her for a schoolgirl—the still young and romantic Shizue swallows the bait, despite Richard’s increasingly ridiculous claims. He tells her he’s an American naval officer (with a Japanese father, which is why he can speak the language) and that he’s the illegitimate nephew of Queen Elizabeth. At their first starstruck meeting, he sings to her, “By order of Queen Elizabeth, give me your cell phone number,” a line I cannot even type without laughing.
Grandpa, of course, is on to him like white on rice (as my own grandfather would say) and Richard doesn’t survive the Katakuris or their inn in quite the way he expected. In one of the funniest musical numbers—meant to parody the kind of absurd melodrama in love stories and romantic comedies—Richard and Shizue dance on an actual trash heap, levitating up into the air on the imaginary wings of their equally imaginary love, as trash flits around them like confetti and doves. In this sense, The Happiness of the Katakuris has a sort of natural mate in Miike’s films from the period in Audition, which functions as a horror film and a romantic drama (or romantic comedy gone horribly awry). But where the protagonist there is the architect of his own fate, trusting in the sudden and unexplained love of a homicidal young woman, here grandpa saves Shizue from Richard stealing money, and probably much else, from the family.
It is actually this genuinely warm and fiercely protective relationship that provides such a strong—though perhaps predictable—core to the film. Despite their issues with one another, all of the Katakuris have an unbreakable bond. In a blackly comic scene between mother and daughter, Shizue declares, “Dad would eat poison if you cooked it.” Her mother responds, “He would be easy to kill,” while they laugh together, by now acclimated to the near constant death and violence, which rapidly reaches inexplicable levels, including the eruption of a volcano. It is thanks to this volcano, among other minor events, that allows the film to have a bizarre happy ending, and an escaped murderer is blamed for any mysterious events as the Katakuris learn, hilariously, that the police have been on his trail all along and have no suspicions of their nocturnal activities.
If you’re a fan of strange musicals like Phantom of the Paradise (1974) or maybe even The Wiz (1978), you might have an inkling of what’s in store from The Happiness of the Katakuris, but it remains one of Miike’s warmest and most affecting films, bursting at the seams with utter strangeness balanced by the obvious love the director has for his characters. Bonus points if you’re someone who enjoys perversions or satires of melodrama and romantic comedy, as I do. The film is well worth watching at least once for the inexplicable use of claymation—perhaps included as a nod to the director’s penchant for the grotesque—and if you show up just because you heard there was a musical number with zombies (and likely the only Sound of Music spoof from a director known for extreme gore films), this is eons away from the “Thriller” video. No offense meant to Michael Jackson or John Landis, but this is something far weirder and—perhaps the highest compliment I can pay anything—is absolutely exploding with whimsy from every orifice.