"The Sound of Music Meets Dawn of the Dead!"
What kind of mindframe was Takashi Miike in when he decided to construct a horror musical that claims to splice societal zombie filmmaking with the mountainous cinematography and vocal styling made famous by a nun babysitter? He's certainly been on a vigorous creative streak over the past ten years. Most enthusiasts recognize his work from the renown he's gained in the horror genre, namely with Ichi the Killer and Audition. However, he has also developed successful non-horror pieces over this span, including the fantastic drama-comedy hybrid Bird People of China and the grim family adventure The Great Yokai War. He's clearly not a one-note director -- even though his skill oozes from the pores of any one of his catalog of horror works.
But then there's The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kofuku), where he chucks every ounce of bizarre energy that he has into a vat of stewing artistry and directorial competence. Hearing its tagline alone can kind of take you aback, right? Even more baffling is the fact that Miike's horror musical is pretty darn entertaining. It tries too hard to be unique in pushing the "outlandish" button, while also neglecting to compete tooth-and-nail in gunning for all-out chaos in the same vein as Thriller and Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet, there's a novel grasp on screwball humor at play here that makes it worth stomaching Happiness of the Katakuris' few odd artistic choices, predominately for its range of character performances that refreshingly provoke the film to wobble on that line between fright and funny.
Takashi Miike's musical finds the Katakuri family operating a bed and breakfast in the country outskirts, a location choice based on serenity and separation for its guests. He crafts unique, almost cartoonish personas out of each family member, from the mother-father duo that embody a dynamic that splits Julie Andrews's Sound of Music character in half with a hint of construed morals added on, to the young daughter who falls in and out of love "much too easily". As a result of the mother's wavering affection for men and erratic behavior, we're treated to her young daughter becoming a reminiscent narrator in certain spots of the film. When the family's country bed-and-breakfast finally signs in its first guest, a fairly large roadblock pops up in their business model: he's discovered the next morning in the center of one of their guest rooms -- dead, in brutal suicide fashion. In that, Takashi Miike exploits this ingeniously simple idea for a plot mechanism as he emphasizes the corruptible, albeit hilarious, notion that allowing police activity and media coverage of a dead body at their unknown little inn might not be such a good fiscal decision for the family.
Roughly based off Tale of Two Sisters and Bittersweet Life director Kim Ji-woon's harder-edged Korean film The Quiet Family, The Happiness of the Katakuris ropes together influence from the likes of Dead Alive and Evil Dead with flute-like overtones from upbeat musicals. Just don't expect a wealth of zombie footage, because it'll disappoint if that's your sole draw. With the first body that the Katakuri family brushes under the carpet, Takashi Miike has a blast introducing the musical humor behind Happiness of the Katakuris -- but it's with the second, and third and so forth, that he really emphasizes the nuggets of comedy-horror gold. He doesn't even try to unnerve the audience abondantly, especially since that notion went out the window with the first round of jazz hands and strobe lights; instead, the Audition and Gozu director builds an amusing environment that taps into a barrage of witty quotable lyrics and profuse situational goofiness. And, impressively, it establishes an effective helping of comicalness that crosses language barriers without any humor lost.
Equally as unexplainable are some of Miike's choices concerning the arrangement of a few of his musical numbers -- namely one that, though taking place in the inn's foyer, takes its audience out of the picture and onto a lavishly-lit stage with the husband and wife. Transplanting the audience away from the claustrophobic house and into the couple's marital history via song is one thing, but doing this by first transplanting them on stage and accompanying their musical number with rainbow-colored "sing-a-long" text becomes drastic overkill. Yet, somehow it's all still charming in a way that's hard to put your finger on.
The Happiness of the Katakuris remains a riot even considering its overextended creativity, all the way until its pompous lyrical conclusion taken straight from Miike's odd visualization of the famous Sound of Music field scene. It has cult flick scrolled all over its crazy antics, which illustrates how much enjoyment Takashi Miike wants to invoke in his audience -- especially since it shows how much fun he had in piecing all of its bits and pieces together. Much like Miike's Great Yokai War, The Happiness of the Katakuris has a bit of trouble finding a direct audience with its sprawling focuses, namely being too dark for some younger crowds and too cheery for others. But for those who can stomach both extremities, along with a heaping helping of saccharine demeanor and oddly-placed animation, then you'll find plenty to digest in this comical gross-out rumpus.
Eastern Star and Ryko Distribution brings this release of The Happiness of the Katakuris to American audiences in a standard keepcase presentation with fitting coverart and beautifully-designed orange discart.
Presented in a 1.75:1 or so anamorphic image, this transfer was more than likely taken from a strong native Shochiku source. What clues me into this is the fact that Happiness of the Katakuris looks exceedingly strong here in color, detail, and overall digital competency. You'll have to stomach a hair of haloed edge enhancement against lighter scenes, which can be a bit glaring in spots. But outside of that, the competent rendering of a myriad of color palettes and concentration on minute details is stellar in this transfer. When looking at both live-action shots and claymation sequences, there's a wide range of textures -- wooden, stone, and human -- and other intricacies available that really make this image leap from the screen.
The Japanese Stereo track sounds pretty darn strong as well, though the added dynamics from a full surround track could've aided a few of the musical numbers and atmospheric scenes. But vocal clearness and score audibility both sound strong, exhibiting plenty of breadth within its limited sound capacities. Its musical numbers -- since they were more than likely recorded in a booth -- really pack a strong punch in the clarity department. Subtitles are available in Optional English Only, while the only film language option is the original Japanese track.
Commentary with Director Takashi Miike:
Accompanied by Tokitoshi Shiota, the actor who plays the First Guest I the film, Takashi Miike takes a relaxed interview-esque style with this track. He explains the themes of the film, the budget, shooting locations, inspirations -- even the dancing styles of the Katakuris. But he does all of it in a joking, upbeat manner with his guest track participant, who even operates as something like a moderator at times. He asks Takashi Miike questions that get his explanatory gears rolling, and for that listeners of the track should be grateful.
One novel thing to note about the commentary track is that you can watch the film both with the original language track on and the Commentary subtitles adorning it, or with the Commentary track on by itself for Japanese-speaking individuals.
Instead of a featurette, this piece works more as an effective thirty-minute (30) span of behind-the-scenes footage blended with interview time involving the actors and filmmakers involved. There's some great footage showing Miike's methodologies behind the camera, ones that show how he pulled such unique characters out of each of his actors.
Animation of the Katakuris:
Essentially,t his extends the behind-the-scenes nature of the "Making-Of" documentary into the spectrum of the claymation involved in the picture. It shows time with Miike as he instructs his animations with sizable refrain, allowing them to develop their ideas without too much constraint from the director. It also allows a great appreciation for the time spent into this artistry, which usually took them a day to create about 15 seconds of footage.
Interviewing the Katakuris:
Around four to five minutes (4-5) of additional interview time is included in these segmented interview times. They're broken down by actor, and are individually selectable: Takashi Miike, Kenji Sawada (Grandpa), Keiko Matsuzaka, Kiyoshiro Imawano (Richard Sawada), Naomi Nishida (Daughter), and Tetsuro Tanba (Great Grandpa) Also included are an anamorphic Trailer and TV Spot for Happiness of the Katakuris, as well as a slew of other previews for similarly bizarre horror works.
If outlandish horror comedy like Dead Alive, Shaun of the Dead, or Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series are your thing, then The Happiness of the Katakuris serves up a similarly music-based demeanor that aims to keep the audience more entertained than unnerved. For fans of the director, however, this is essential viewing in seeing another deviation from his core talents. But, yes, this Miike side-step from his horror classics can be excruciatingly funny in its zany creative nature. Together with Eastern Star's apt presentation of the film and a slate of high-quality supplements (including an entertaining commentary), The Happiness of the Katakuris comes very firmly Recommended -- especially around those certain occasions when the itch comes to watch a film that's morbid and grotesque in all the ways that rouse up chuckles instead of chills.