October 23, 2002

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The sound of Miike
Japan's most outrageous director hits a new note.

By Chuck Stephens

ONE OF THE seven or so films that tireless Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike directed last year, The Happiness of the Katakuris is a jaunty horror-musical-comedy that concerns a family of innkeepers who run a cozy – though rarely frequented – bed-and-breakfast somewhere in the shade of a strangely volatile Mt. Fuji. It's rarely frequented because, much like the Bates Motel, the Katakuris' White Love Guest House is a victim of inopportune civic planning: the road that was to have been built adjacent to the inn never materialized, leaving the "happy" titular family in a state of restless semi-ennui that's tempered only by their love for one another and their tendency to vent their emotions in a series of full-throated songs and carefully choreographed dance numbers. And when, at last, a weary traveler does arrive at their rural retreat, his decision, upon checking in to his room, to plunge the room key into his throat also has consequences rather like those precipitated by Janet Leigh's untimely arrival at the Bates Motel. Suddenly, more and more guests keep turning up at the guest house, and shortly thereafter, keep turning up dead.

Oh, and by the way, those corpses? They have a habit of singing and dancing too, even after the happy Katakuris begin dismembering them.

This unlikely blend of Psycho, The Sound of Music, and Night of the Living Dead might be surprising coming from anyone but Miike, whose best known film, Audition, is a quirky modern romance in which a lonely widower gets involved with a fragile former ballerina – who proceeds to saw off one of his legs with a length of piano wire. There are a few surprising things about The Happiness of the Katakuris, though, the first of which is the following snippet of dialogue from the movie's Claymation preamble: "My Uvula!" That line, and that uvula, belong to a character who appears only once and whose sole function is to open her mouth so that a flighty songbird might steal the fleshy dangle out of the back of her throat and soar off – with the rest of the movie – into narrative chaos. Marrying things like an image of a lopped-off glottal skin tab with the necessities of an all-singing, all-corpse-grinding zombie musical is simply a part of the everyday ministry of Miike, and his ever growing flock of followers is sure to endorse much of what he's accomplished with this intermittently fitful remake of a far more mild-mannered South Korean film by director Kim Ji-Woon called The Quiet Family.

Surprising, and quite wonderful too, is the sight of supporting cast member Tetsuro Tamba, "New Age cult figurehead" (according to Bay Guardian contributor Patrick Macias) and world-renowned star of such assorted pre-Miike fantasias as You Only Live Twice (costarring Sean Connery), Black Lizard (Kinji Fukasaku's tranny classic, costarring Yukio Mishima), Pigs and Battleships (as Slasher Tetsuji; directed by Shohei Imamura), and Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999 (costarring the end of the world). Tamba's appearance here, as great-grandfather Katakuri, belting out ditties and beaning noisome crows with blocks of timber, is a thing of real beauty and a tribute to the undying genius of this major player in the murk of Japanese – and Hong Kong – cult movie-dom.

Unfortunately, though, the film's ultimate surprise is that the happiness viewers are likely to accrue while witnessing the Katakuris' lyrical high jinks and increasingly deranged interactions with an assortment of "kooky" secondary characters – including a lusty sumo wrestler, his microscopic girlfriend, and a suspiciously Japanese member of the English royal family – is a thing of rapidly diminishing returns. Halfway through the film you begin to feel that you've seen the whole thing already – twice. Like a far too overextended installment of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, The Happiness of the Katakuris turns out to be both sophisticated and juvenile. Despite its ever rising body count, this is ultimately a Miike film so mild mannered that you could comfortably take your mother to see it. That's hardly a recommendation for a filmmaker who has elsewhere so artfully deployed everything from hookers drowning in feces to ferociously sodomized stool pigeons, not to mention title sequences formed from foamy ejaculate and hyperlactating heroin-addicted matriarchs.

Miike's already made another six films since, two of them a change of direction more apropos of his dark-side métier: an epic yakuza flick called Agitator and a remake of Kinji Fukasaku's nihilistic classic Graveyard of Honor that's filled with needle drugs, bat-winged antiheroes, and moral chaos. Now, if only some U.S. distributor would grab ahold of those terse, timely, and altogether singing zombie-free amazements, then we'd be in business. In the meantime Miike completists will be satisfied with The Happiness of the Katakuris. As for the rest of the moviegoing community: you've had fair warning.

'The Happiness of the Katakuris'
opens Fri/25, Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness, S.F.; and Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck, Berk. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.