Happiness of the Katakuris


posted to www.marxmail.org on September 18, 2003


Takashi Miike is a Japanese director who seems to make films based on William Blake's precept "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom". His "Dead or Alive" concludes with a cop and a gangster blowing up the world at the climax of a "High Noon" type duel. (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/dead_or_alive.htm). "Audition" is a tale of a beautiful but needy young woman who tortures the men who love her insufficiently. Audience members often not only stagger out of theaters during the final grizzly scene, but vomit in the aisles.


His latest, now available in DVD, is titled "Happiness of the Katakuris". It is the story of the Katakuri family who opens up a bed and breakfast in a remote mountainous area only to discover that each new guest finds a way to die in their rooms. The first is a depressed middle-aged man who stabs himself in the neck with a room key. The next is a famous sumo wrestler who dies of heart failure during a marathon lovemaking session with his petite lover, who then dies of suffocation beneath his massive body. Since the Katakuris are afraid of bad publicity, they decide to secretly bury the unfortunate guests.


If this suggests a combination of "Fawlty Towers" and the Addams Family, that's not the least of it. When things take a particularly discouraging turn, the Katakuris break into a charming if somewhat inept song and dance reminiscent of Bollywood movies. Since Miike is utterly lacking in sentimentality, the effect is more in line with Brechtian alienation or the jarring performances in Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective".


And even then, Miike is not satisfied. At key moments, he switches to claymation which allows him to fully realize his surrealist vision. For example, grandfather Katakuri discovers that a guest has not only falsely represented himself as an American jet pilot and the nephew of Queen Elizabeth, but has stolen an ashtray. After the two men begin to fight in the nearby forest, they roll over the edge of a cliff and hang by vines. At this point Miike switches to claymation and allows the thief to tumble down into the ravine like Wile E. Coyote. Eventually the battered (but non-claymation) figure shows up again in the hotel only to be dispatched for good.


"The Happiness of the Katakuris" is based on the Korean comedy "The Quiet Family," directed by Ji Woon Kim. The Katakuris keeps reminding the audience and themselves that they are a typical Japanese family. There is the respected grandfather (played by veteran actor Tetsuro Tanba), his failed shoe-salesman son and his wife, and their two adult children, one an ex-convict and the other an sex-starved single mother who falls in love with the ashtray thief. Her young daughter provides voice over narration for the film's unfolding action, such as it is.


If there is any consistent thread in this director's work, it appears to be a determination to challenge the Japanese self-image. A profile in the June 2, 2003 Guardian sums this up nicely:


Against traditional national values like honour, order and emotional restraint, Miike sets excess and exuberance. Where Japan has maintained an isolationist stance towards its Asian neighbours (much as Britain has towards its European ones), Miike's Japan is a melting pot. His films regularly include immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea; one of them, City of Lost Souls, has a Brazilian-Japanese hero, as skilled with a football as he is with a gun.


Even his most apparently banal films, like the aforementioned Visitor Q and his recent horror/musical/ comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris, address the breakdown of traditional family values. There are personal dimensions: some of Miike's family emigrated to China, and his grandmother was a war orphan who was abandoned in Korea during the second world war. "Am I proud of being Japanese? Yes and no," he says. "Many people advised me to go to Hollywood after Audition was well-received in the States, but I am happy, and feel fortunate to be making movies where I was born."