Before I begin, I need to state that I absolutely despise any and all marketing for The Happiness Of The Katakuris. It may be a completely different affair in Japan, but every single piece of marketing about this movie in the west states that The Happiness Of The Katakuris is a zombie horror film with taglines such as “The Sound Of Music Meets Dawn Of The Dead”, “The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Screaming”, “Filled with surreal musical numbers, disturbed animated characters, killer zombies and an array of gruesome deaths”. This could not be further from the truth. Although the movie has its slightly grisly moments and a couple of dark, horror inspired moments, The Happiness Of The Katakuris is first and foremost a comedy musical, a comedy musical about family and love. There’s no ‘killer zombies’, no ‘gruesome deaths’, no ‘sounds of screaming’, and the fact that the movie is marketed that way winds me up every single time I have to look at the front cover of the dvd box.
The story of The Happiness Of The Katakuris revolves around a four-generation family who own an inn in the middle of nowhere. However, in a long bout of bad luck and poor decisions, the family run into many problems along their way: from guests dying at their establishment, to a run in with a seductive (yet stupid) con-artist, to run-ins with the police whilst trying to bury the bodies. What’s important to note is that the story of The Happiness Of The Katakuris isn’t one that is exactly typical. The film is about a normal family and the absurd, almost surreal things that happen to them over the course of a few days, and the film ends quite abruptly afterwards. There’s no grand plot, no great arc, no story focus, just a string of events linked through themes of love and family that test the family and their resolve, bringing them together in love and harmony with every struggle. The most important thing about The Happiness Of The Katakuris is not the events of the plot, but rather the characters of the Katakuris themselves and their search for peace and frivolity whilst running an inn, providing clear evidence that the film places more emphasis on characters than an overall plot. The family themselves are an absolute delight in the most realistic way. The family’s personalities and characters aren’t sad and dejectable in a sympathetic way like Visitor Q, but rather relatable in an empathetic way. Their reaction to the world around them is completely believable, yet animated enough to provide a lot of physical comedy throughout the film, and a viewer can thoroughly believe that this is a family who love each other and would stand by each other no matter what.
Thematically, The Happiness Of The Katakuris is a film about love, all kinds of love: Family love, relationship love, lustful love, even grief and the lack of love. From my viewpoint, every visitor to the Katakuri’s inn is a representative of a form of love from the sumo in lust, to the family who love each other through hard times, to the first man who commits suicide from a lack of love. This theme is explored throughout the events of the story as well as the use of love as a method of exploring happiness, hence the title. Each of the film has a story-arc of love that ends in happiness; whether its re-discovering love for a family member who has betrayed you in the past, realizing that one does not need the love of a romantic partner to be happy, embracing the love of a long-lasting relationship to be happy, or even embracing the love of one that has passed away to feel a form of happiness. Each of these elements are present within the members of the Katakuri family and are explored through the films crazy story-line in a clear, intelligent way.
What’s very interesting to note is the fact that the story is told from the grand-daughter’s perspective as she remembers her family, thus The Happiness Of The Katakuris is another film that plays on themes of nostalgia and absurdity a la Dead Or Alive 2: Birds, this time from a family perspective instead of a pure masculine perspective. This also provides another spin on the narrative, especially when it comes to a lot of the more absurd elements of the movie: is this what really happened, or is this based on nostalgia and warped memories creating this larger than life version of events in the mind of the grand-daughter. The strange thing is that with Takashi Miike and his expert ability to blend reality with surreality, and especially in the case of The Happiness Of The Katakuris where certain events play out vastly differently to real life situations, the film can be read in either way. This movie is either highlighting a normal family in a crazy world where absurd is the norm, or it’s showing the nostalgia laden memories of a young girl who saw what happened and reminisced on how it made her family stronger despite a plethora or difficult events. Personally, I read this movie as the latter, but neither theory is wrong because of how this movie satires the musical film genre and its style of story-telling.
However, The Happiness Of The Katakuris isn’t what one would call a ‘typical’ musical. There’s less of an emphasis on perfection on the singing and choreography for the songs, and more of an emphasis placed on humor and silliness. The musical numbers feel like they were inspired by Japanese karaoke; rather than treating each song as if it’s the most serious thing in existence, much like western musicals such as Les Miserables and The Sound Of Music. The Happiness Of The Katakuris embraces the silly and erratic by showcasing characters who can’t sing, and choreography that is incredibly awkward. In a way this film feels like a satirical send up of the musical genre, embracing all of its faults and stating how wonderful it is when instead of embracing a polished product, a musical just embraced the fun silliness of it all. It’s yet another aspect that gives The Happiness Of The Katakuris its unending charm and lovability.
The acting in The Happiness Of The Katakuris is top-notch, as seems to be the norm for Takashi Miike films. However, this seems to be quite a new turn for Takashi Miike as, apart from a minor role from Kenichi Endo, I don’t recognize any returning actors in The Happiness Of The Katakuris. However, there is a very famous face in the role of Great Grandpa Jinpei Katakuri: Tetsuro Tanba, who was best known for his role of Tiger Tanaka in 007: You Only Live Twice. Nonetheless, each actor portrays their character perfectly, with each character having their own clear and identifiable personality. Its hard to say if any actor stands out amongst the rest because every actor because they all fit their role perfectly with a great understanding of physical comedy; Kenji Sawada, Keiko Matsuzaka, Shinji Takeda, Naomi Nishida, each actor gives a fantastic performance that embraces the weird, wacky, yet sensible nature of the characters they portray.
In terms of technicality, The Happiness Of The Katakuris is the greatest, most creative production I’ve seen for a Takashi Miike film. The film blends incredibly creative and effective cinematography with fantastically absurd lighting, 4th wall breaking elements, and Claymation and hand-drawn animation. The cinematography is very intelligent, and works in clever tandem with every scene. Slower scenes utilize slower and longer shots with pans and tilts, whilst frantic scenes utilize a hand-held camera fix-zoomed to create a very erratic and shaky aesthetic to reflect the erratic, frantic nature of those scenes. The musicals use a lot of cuts, short shots and wildly creative camera movements that usually reflect the beat of the song and the choreography of the dancing. The most interesting element, however, is the Claymation techniques. Claymation plays a huge role in the film, and although it’s incredibly uncanny, its nonetheless fun to witness, and it helps put a spin on the narrative angle of the film as it takes certain scenes and plunges them into the surreal. All in all, I think The Happiness Of The Katakuris is the most creatively made film that I’ve seen from Takashki Miike.
In conclusion, The Happiness Of The Katakuris is one of my personal favourite Takashi Miike films. I love it for its creativity, satire on the musical genre, and its sentimental story that’s incredibly easy to relate to and enjoy whole-heartedly. It’s a memorable, charming film that’s more reminiscent of Hausu then anything else Takashi Miike has directed. This is Miike at his best and I believe it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film that can be seen again and again. I whole-heartedly recommend this film to anyone and everyone because it is so wildly enjoyable.