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Happiness of the Katakuris - Special Edition, The

Arrow Features // R // June 16, 2015
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted July 13, 2015 | E-mail the Author
When it comes to international cinema, Asia seems to have the best grip on the American public's attention span. Classic films from other countries, especially smaller ones, are often harder to come by even in the age of the internet, but martial arts and Godzilla movies seem to have helped open a door between us and our Pacific Ocean neighbors early on, one that would eventually help popularize samurai movies (thanks to the DNA they shared with westerns), anime, and J-horror. Logic would've said British films were a shoo-in for American success, given they're in English, yet outside of James Bond and Monty Python, the UK's cinematic footprint on these shores appears smaller. From this critic's perspective, the early 2000s and the DVD boon brought wave after wave of Asian cult classics and underground hits, including Battle Royale, Versus, and Riki-Oh.

One film that came up frequently but never managed to end up in my possession was Takashi Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris, a story about a family struggling to entice customers to their new hotel, perched on the edge of an active volcano. The patriarch, Masao (Kenji Sawada), bought the place with the understanding that a road would be built that runs past the establishment, but no date for construction has been set. The rest of the family, including his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), his son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), his daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida) and her daughter Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), his father Jinpei (Tetsuro Tanba), and their dog Pochi have all been forced to join him and work at the hotel, despite their reservations about the potential for success. When they finally do get their first guest, Masao is overjoyed, but his presence is only the first in a string of gruesome incidents that threaten Masao's future as a successful hotelier.

Miike is arguably more famous as a horror movie director, in particular for directing Audition and Ichi the Killer, two other popular American imports. Although Katakuris is bursting with imagination and creativity, whatever it is that attracted Miike to the project remains vague. The easiest guess would be a desire to stretch his wings -- not only is Katakuris a comedy, but also a musical, complete with full-blown dance routines performed by the Katakuri family. On top of that, Miike also throws in a number of stop-motion animated sequences, one of which opens and sets the tone for the movie, in which a woman finds a weird demon-like creature in her soup that pops out and eats the first thing it sees, and then goes on its own violent and strange little journey.

At times, Miike's desire to stretch pays off. Shizue is divorced and still nursing her wounds until she meets a dashing soldier slash British secret agent named Richard Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano). Their dance number together strikes the perfect balance between goofy and sweet. While the others are less effective, most of the musical numbers in the movie have a certain charm to them, including an operatic routine when the family goes to wake up their first guest, and another near the end when the family argues over which one of them will make a noble sacrifice. The performances are also all excellent, from Sawada on down to Miyazaki. Although the film is called The Happiness of the Katakuris, Masao's sorrow at the morbid problems his business is facing has an authenticity to it that gives the movie's exaggerated comedy a bit of heart.

That said, Happiness has severe pacing problems, and never quite finds a hook to pull the audience all the way through its tapestry of strangeness. Although Masao's problems continue to pile up, there's not enough sense of where the film is going, and the entire enterprise is so goofy it's hard to worry about it. From the beginning of the film, the characters are resilient, bouncing back whenever tragedy strikes, but given they're like that already, it doesn't mean much to see them thrown around the room. Miike's bursts of gonzo creativity make the movie brighter, but they're spaced out such that the film drags constantly while more typical melodrama is going on. Worst of all, at nearly two hours, the film is in desperate need of a trim. Scenes such as a karaoke ballad between Masao and Terue, and a climactic stand-off involving a maniac are clearly meant to deepen the film's emotional impact, but both are a drag that go on well past the audience's understanding of their point.

Viewed in 2015, long after cult cinema has gone mainstream, Katakuris is an interesting cinematic artifact. At times, it is inspired and funny, at others it is surprisingly dull for a movie that contains zombies, demons, volcanoes, and murder. Although many of Japan's more colorful and inventive movies are a delight despite our cultural differences, such as Nobuhiko Obayashi's House, Happiness of the Katakuris strikes me as more of an oddity that American audiences at large enjoyed from afar, because it was weird more than because it connected with them in the way that Miike intended. Although its message of optimism is charming, the film is mighty uneven, more of a film fanatic curio than a fully-realized masterpiece.

The Blu-ray
Arrow offers The Happiness of the Katakuris in one of their standard packages: a slightly thicker two-disc transparent Blu-ray case with a swing tray to accommodate the Blu-ray and DVD copy, with vibrant, eye-catching, newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil, and the underwhelming original theatrical poster on the flipside. Tucked inside the case is a card promoting other Arrow releases, and a thick booklet featuring essays by Grady Hendrix, Johnny Mains, and DVDTalk's own Stuart Galbraith IV, as well as an interview with director Miike by critic (and personal acquaintance / fellow Seattle-area resident) Sean Axmaker.

The Video and Audio
The packaging lists this 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer as a "new high definition digital film transfer by Shochiku Co." Although IMDb lists 35mm as the shooting format, Katakuris was actually filmed on early HD video, and as a result, the picture has a decidedly video-like appearance, similar to that of a soap opera. This is common for films shot in Asia, but it does mean there are a number of drawbacks to this new high-definition presentation. Colors can bleed slightly, especially in scenes where most of the colors take on a single tone (for example, blue night-time sequences), and whites are consistently blown out throughout the film, most noticeably when bright light falls onto white clothing. When the camera pans or characters move quickly, motion blur similar to interlacing is noticeable, and the entire presentation is completely grainless. That said, fine detail is really strong, and colors are generally vibrant and well-saturated. At times, the image is so crystal-clear it takes on a nice dimensional quality. On one hand, the limitations of digital video from 2002 prevent this from being the prettiest transfer, but that also means this is the best the film can ever look, not to mention the fact that getting a 16x9, uncut, original-language DVD for an Asian film can be such a hassle.

Sound is an uncompressed LPCM 2.0 track in the original language, which sounds good. As this was a fairly low-budget movie, the mixing on this one is not exactly immersive and enveloping, but the film's musical numbers and more action-oriented sequences sound nice and crisp, and dialogue is fine. English subtitles are provided.

The Extras
Arrow has provided Happiness of the Katakuris with a massive supplement package that should please any fan of the movie.

Arrow Video is a UK-based distributor, and Katakuris was released in the UK on DVD. For this Blu-ray release, Arrow appears to have licensed almost all of the content from their DVD, including an audio commentary, this one by director Takashi Miike and actor Tokitoshi Shiota, who is not mentioned on the box but is on the disc's menu, which is presented both in Japanese with subtitles and in an English dub, which is a bit unusual but not unappreciated, I suppose. "The Making of the Katakuris" (30:42) is a making-of documentary captured on the set, featuring interviews with the entire cast and crew on what the film is about and their characters. A gallery of interviews follow, including Miike (5:03), Sawada (5:00), Matsuzaka (2:48), Imawano and Takeda (4:28), Nishida (2:19), and Tanba (4:04), which were filmed after production and have a more retrospective air to them. Finally, "Animating the Katakuris" (5:30) peers into the film's claymation work. One omission: a 30-minute interview with Miike.

Luckily, for fans of the film, Arrow has replaced that missing interview with brand new Takeshi Miike interview (38:59, HD) of their own. This lengthy chat dives into Miike's thought process behind making the film and his choices during production, complete with clips from the film. There are also two other extras, both with Miike biographer Tom Mes: an audio commentary and "Dogs, Pimps, and Agitators" (23:51, HD), a visual essay. Having written two books about Miike, the last one in 2013, Mes is very-well versed in Miike's style and history, and has a pleasant, conversational tone -- film historians can get a little dry, but Mes is an enjoyable and knowledgeable speaker, and not without the occasional bit of humor. On the commentary, Mes stays more or less focused on Katakuris in particular, but the video essay is more about Miike's entire career.

The package is rounded out by an original theatrical trailer, and some TV spots.

Although The Happiness of the Katakuris falls firmly into "love-it-or-hate-it" territory, there's no question it's a vibrant and interesting film. To that end, Arrow Video has also created a stellar Blu-ray package for the film's high-definition release, including an impressive (if imperfect) transfer, and a boatload of supplements. On the quality of the package alone, this set easily earns a recommendation.

Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.
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