THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS

Katakuri-ke no kôfuku (2001)

Directed by Takashi Miike
Writing credits Kikumi Yamagishi screenplay
Ai Kennedy translation

Cast                                

Kenji Sawada Masao Katakuri
Keiko Matsuzaka Terue Katakuri
Shinji Takeda Masayuki Katakuri
Naomi Nishida Shizue Katakuri
Kiyoshiro Imawano Richâdo Sagawa
Tetsuro Tamba Ojîsan Jinpei Katakuri
Naoto Takenaka TV Reporter / Singer
Tamaki Miyazaki Yurie Katakuri
Takashi Matsuzaki Utanômi
Yoshiki Arizono Father of the poor family
Chihiro Asakawa Utanômi's girlfriend
Masahiro Asakawa
Kenichi Endo Kudou
Moeko Ezawa Akiko Hatakeyama
Yumeki Kanazawa Byôki otoko no ko
Maro
Aya Meguro
Yoshiyuki Morishita Policeman Miyake
Yuka Nakatani
Miho Sawada
Tokitoshi Shiota First guest
Produced by Hirotsugu Yoshida
Original Music by Kôji Endô
Kôji Makaino
Cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto
Film Editing by Yasushi Shimamura (as Taiji Shimamura)
Sound Department Yoshiya Obara
Visual Effects Supervisor Misako Saka
Running Time 1 hour 32 minutes

I had absolutely no idea what to expect when this Japanese film first came on the Sundance Channel a few years ago.  I was attracted by the promise of clay animation, but frankly, the clay animation is the least compelling aspect of this wonderful film, which is almost unclassifiable, crossing over as it does between comedy, fantasy, musical and family drama.  It is apparently a remake of a South Korean film entitled CHOYONGHAM KAJOK (THE QUIET FAMILY, 1998) which I subsequently tracked down and found dull and depressing.  Not at all the delightful comedy KATAKURIS is.  From time to time since I discovered this film, I have searched online for a webpage about it, but never found one, so I have reluctantly decided to create one myself. The reluctance stems from the fact that I doubt I can adequately explicate the many virtues of this film, in the hopes of bringing it to wider attention.

The film opens with a prologue that has virtually nothing to do with the central plot, but is eye-catching and humorous.  As some people on a spiritual training trip enter a restaurant, a young lady is served soup.  Her spoon reveals what at first may be a dumpling but turns out to be a winged creature far too big to actually have been in the bowl.  The girl screams and the film turns into clay animation.  The creature pulls her heart-shaped uvula out of her throat and flies off.  The girl passes out, face down in her soup.

The creature flies after the uvula and eats it, and in turn is eaten by a crow.  One of the creature's eyes falls out and is picked up by a hand-made stuffed toy with a zipper for a mouth.  This toy puts the eye in one of its eyeholes (the other is a button).  The toy has Freddy Krueger-like knives for fingers and kills the crow.  The entire scene turns into a paper poster which is rolled up in a ball and eaten by a snake, which in turn is picked up by another crow and fed to its two babies.  The egg shaped ball drops to the ground, and the winged creature emerges from it, and is immediately eaten by another crow.  This last crow flies over a clay animated landscape and poops on the clay image of Great Grandpa Jinpei.  

Now the film proper begins, going back to live action, as Jinpei tosses a small log at the crow, hits it, and exhorts his cute dog, Pochi, to retrieve it.  In the foreground, his young great granddaughter Yurie is burying a goldfish.  Her narration begins, as she speculates on what makes a happy family.  Through her eyes we see each member of the family:

Masayuki and Shizue are unhappy because they've put in a lot of hard work; it's peak season, and not a single guest has shown up or booked.  Masao tries to demonstrate the delights of the place, citing the fresh air, as we see a gorgeous mountain in the background.  He swings on a swing, which becomes loose at the join, and he goes flying into the water, the first of many mishaps that will befall the family.  The people on the spiritual training trip from the prologue arrive just as an eclipse occurs.  The hikers react badly to the darkness and leave immediately.  The opening credits display.

The family except Masao sit down for a meal of stew.  The TV is showing a promotion for another guest house that uses little animals (chiefly pigs) to carry the luggage, serve coffee and do other chores!  (None of this is shown).  A bug goes up the announcer's nose, and he struggles to remove it without using his hands.  Shizue changes the channel to a singer (the same actor who played the announcer, now in drag with a blond wig).  The lights go out.

In this darkness, with rain pouring down outside, the first guest arrives.  Off-screen he removes his clothing and is wrapped in a towel before he even signs the guest register.  He refuses a meal, but asks for a beer to be brought to his room.

Inside his darkened room, the first musical sequence occurs.  The guest sings about his despair.  Suddenly the room disappears, and we are out in space, with Saturn prominent.  The guest starts to fly off, when he is brought rudely back into the room by the arrival of his beer, with a side dish of squid guts.  After closing the door, we see the guest sharpening something, with the lights now on again.

Next morning, Shizue and Yurie set off for town.  Masao and Terue go upstairs to wake the guest but are unable.  Jinpei and Masayuki join them with the key and they open the door to the darkened room, as the next musical number beings, a backlit stylized dance of horrified reaction to the sight of blood, and the guest dead with the sharpened key buried in his neck.  He has left no note or will, and his wallet is missing.  All eyes turn to ex con Masayuki, who protests his innocence.

Masao calls for plastic sheets and a rope.  Afraid of adverse publicity which will put his guest house off limits forever, he wants to dispose of the body quietly and not notify the police.  In another stylized musical dance sequence, Masao, Terue, Masayuki and Jinpei carry the body to a location near a lake, dig a grave (into which Masao briefly falls), lay the body in it, pray over it, and cover it with dirt.

Meanwhile, Shizue is having a romantic fantasy outside the restaurant where Yurie is eating a sundae; she sings about her wish to fall in love.  As she finishes, a Japanese man in an American white naval uniform passes her.  In the restaurant once they are both seated (on different levels), their eyes meet, and Shizue instantly falls.  He makes a paper airplane and tosses it at Shizue.  Inside is a drawing of a woman with the English words "I love you".

The next musical sequence begins, involving everyone in the restaurant, as the Naval officer and Shizue sing and dance (to a South American beat) their love for each other; both rise off the ground on unseen wires, Shizue turns a cartwheel in a giant hoop.  When they kiss, giant flowers float around them in the blackness of space.

Back in reality, Shizue rolls on the ground in ecstasy.  The officer tells her first that he's in the American Navy, then changes this to the British Royal Navy; he compliments Shizue and Yurie, and now changes his story, revealing that he's a British secret agent, and asks for her telephone number.  As he walks away, she asks his name, which is Richard Sagawa.

Back at White Lovers' Guest House, Masao sees what he thinks is the corpse of the first guest at the window, but it's just a nightmare.  When he goes to the refrigerator, the body is in there as well, but this is another nightmare.

A few days go by and the family is having another meal of soba noodles and fermented beans, although Masao has little appetite.  Jinpei gives some of the food to Pochi.  Finally, another guest arrives, a huge sumo looking guy in a kimono, Utanômi, and his teenybopper girlfriend.  Terue thinks she recognizes him from a TV program called ATHLETE'S SINGING CONTEST.  Utanômi is so wide, he can hardly fit up the staircase to the rooms; he can barely wait to get the teenybopper into bed and start shagging her.

As Masao and Terue debate Masayuki's honesty, he is leaning a ladder against the outside wall of the guest house in order to peep at Utanômi in flagrante delicto.  In trying to get a better look, Masayuki falls backwards off the ladder, just as Utanômi has a heart attack from his exertions and dies.

Next day the phone rings; it's Richard for Shizue.  He tells her he's flying over Iraq but we can clearly see he's in a room, using a tape recorder for the background sound effects.  In any case, they declare their love for each other, in typical lovesick fashion.

Shizue finds the body of Utanômi, but where is his girlfriend?  Masao calls for plastic sheets and a rope again, as Jinpei measures the body and the window, suggesting that they lower Utanômi out the window.  Terue suggests chopping up the body, and the family squabbles, with Shizue extremely puzzled because she doesn't know about the first body.  Jinpei discovers the body of the teenybopper suffocated beneath her lover's giant naked torso.

While they are still suffering from the shock of this, Officer Miyake arrives on his bike, with a form that needs filling out, and a wanted poster on Richard Sagawa, which no one sees in their unease over whether Shizue will let slip to the officer there are two dead bodies upstairs.

Four of the family lower Utanômi's body out of the window, with great difficulty, a slapstick scene that has to be seen.  Off-screen, the two bodies are buried.  The family returns, sweaty and covered in dirt, to find some hikers have arrived, requesting to be fed.

Happy to have some ordinary customers, in the beautiful outdoor setting, Masao sings of his dream of living and working together with his family, with everyone joining in except Masayuki, who eventually is convinced by the others and joins in.

Masao gets a phone call that the longed for road will be constructed very soon, but it will necessitate the lake area being dug up, and that's where the bodies are buried.  They'll have to be moved.

Richard arrives unexpectedly, his white uniform dirty from the long walk.  He tells Shizue that he misses her, and when she asks if he would like something to eat, he climbs the steps and positions himself on the landing, declaring he wants to eat her.  Shizue faints at the erotic picture this paints.

Richard is given the room where the first guest committed suicide, which smells strongly of disinfectant.  He picks up an ashtray and puts it in his pocket.  Feeling some intestinal discomfort (possibly from the tainted pond water he drank on his trek to the guest house), he flops face down on the bed and then falls against the wall to the floor, where he discovers the missing wallet of the suicide.  He eagerly removes all the money.

Masao has put a tiny cross on a miniature of the Guest House in the lobby near the reception desk to mark where the bodies are buried.  He and Terue sing a heartfelt song to their love, and their mutual support, during which we see flashbacks of their younger selves, dressed a bit like peasants.  Then they reappear in a fantasy setting with a disco ball overhead, all dolled up like nightclub singers.  There are further flashbacks to their jobs at the department store, into which the image of the peasant Masao is superimposed singing accompaniment.  The audience is invited to sing along and the Japanese lyrics are displayed.

Shizue waits for Richard on a swing outside the Guest House; he emerges with his hair cut, and with Jinpei eavesdropping.  Richard and Shizue walk to an unglamorous area where it appears garbage has been dumped, and sit on a tilted bench, so she is higher than he.  He now confides that his mother is Queen Elizabeth's "youngest sister...they're half sisters, so it is not officially admitted" and that Diana often sought his advice.  He wants to paint like his father, but "Aunt Elizabeth" objects.

In another wonderful musical sequence, Richard sings of how beautiful Shizue is and how he wants to paint her, while she responds, twirling enthusiastically, although oddly they don't look at each other during the song.  As the trash swirls around them, Richard once again rises on unseen wires.  He asks her to lend him some money for airfare so he can ask Queen Elizabeth's permission for them to marry, but at a romantic moment, his nose starts to bleed.  Richard explains about his blood being superior to the blood of normal men and gestures toward his crotch, and this is the cue Jinpei has been waiting for.  Jinpei hits Richard with a small log similar to the one he used to kill the crow at the beginning of the film.  Richard does a back flip and the stolen ashtray falls out of his pocket, further infuriating Jinpei.  Richard tries to hit Jinpei with a rock; Shizue stops him, but Richard pushes her to the ground.

When Richard again tries to attack Jinpei, Shizue kicks him so that he falls into the gully, but he grabs Jinpei and they both go over.  The film now reverts to clay animation.  The two men hang by a long root that sticks out the side of the gully.  Richard kicks Jinpei so he falls further, but still manages to hold onto the root.  Then Richard takes a guitar pick out of his pocket and uses it to saw at the root, so that Jinpei will fall.  This galvanizes Shizue to kick a rock over the edge, which hits Richard on the head, and he falls to the bottom of the gully.  Jinpei makes Shizue promise that this will be their secret.

The film then cuts directly to live action of Masao, Jinpei and Masayuki, weary and mud spattered, returning from reburying the 3 corpses.

Meantime, Richard, his face covered in blood and one eyeball disfigured, manages somehow to climb out of the gully and enters the Guest House where he grabs the phone and, in his delirium, starts apologizing to all the women he has conned.   He then dies with "dial-a-date" promotional material in his hand, and Jinpei discovers his naval uniform is from a costume rental company.  Also, his pocket contains the wallet of the suicide, causing Masao to nod an apology for his suspicion of his son.  The family buries Richard during a thunder storm, which the radio predicts will turn into a typhoon.

Meantime, Officer Miyake gets a telephone report of a dead body.  Is the roof about to fall in on the Katakuris?

As the Katakuris gather for a refreshing cup of tea, the sound of a flute is heard.  They apprehensively approach the front door, where a bedraggled family, mother, father, and two children, enter and ask for the cheapest single room.  The little boy is coughing and the whole family looks very dispirited.  As they mount the stairs to their room, the mother requests a strong cord.  Each member of the Katakuris clutches their respective throats, visualizing a mass hanging.  Jinpei suggests they prepare themselves for the worst.

Next day, Masayuki and Jinpei dig a mass grave for the expected bodies, but just as they finish, the sound of the flute is heard again.  Finally some guests have survived a night at the White Lovers' Guest House!  The strong cord was needed as a belt for the pants of the smaller child.  The father asks what the hole is for, and Jinpei says to bury garbage.  The family move off and someone carrying a bouquet falls into the grave.  Jinpei automatically starts covering him with dirt, even though he's alive, but Masayuki stops him (a mistake, as it turns out).  Some trees fall down, and ominous rumblings are heard.

The Katakuris contemplate the bodies they've buried, who have emerged once again from their graves because of a mudslide.  They all look well deteriorated, slightly blue and bloated.  The family sings and dances a song about always being positive, making very stylized gestures.  The four dead bodies, although they don't sing, also dance along with the family, looking a bit like the zombies from the music video THRILLER, as Shizue covers Yurie's eyes to prevent her from seeing the dancing dead.

The man who fell into the unnecessary grave is recuperating inside the guest house; he wakes up and rips the bouquet to shreds.  He races outside, sees the family returning with shovels in their hands from burying the bodies one last time.  He's obviously agitated and jumps through a window back inside the guest house.

Now several police cars arrive, sirens blazing, leaving the Katakuris to assume that somehow the police have learned about the bodies buried nearby.  The agitated man has also heard the sirens and grabs a big knife from the kitchen.  Masao sends Terue inside (bad move) and debates in song with his son and father which of them will give himself up to the police.  This debate in song finally resolves the contention between Masao, who brought all the family to this remote area to live and work in the guest house, and Masayuki, who all along resented this, and now changes his tune.  While they sing out their arguments, Jinpei settles the debate by walking to the police cars, his arms extended for the handcuffs he expects.

But the police ignore him.  And meantime inside the guest house the agitated stranger has a knife at Terue's throat.  The police tell Masao that down at the foot of the mountain a woman was killed at another guest house, and they suspect her lover.  The police ask the loaded question:  have there been any suspicious guests lately(!)  (Where to start!)  Jinpei, in a delayed reaction, collapses in relief.  Another crow flies overhead, reviving him and he tosses a small log at it, hitting it.

The murderer now emerges from the guest house with a knife at Terue's throat.  He admits killing the woman at the guest house, blaming her (like a typical wife beater).  Although the murderer is extremely crazed, Masao tries to get him to understand how much he loves Terue and asks that the man let Terue go and take him hostage instead.  Overwhelmed by Masao's sincerity and determination, the killer releases Terue, but now comes hurtling toward Masao with the knife.  Masayuki pushes between them and then falls to the ground, injured.  The police subdue the killer, while Masayuki writhes on the ground.

Masayuki's hand is covered in blood, as the family rush to him.  Masao and Terue sing to him of how precious he is and how he has to be brave, while Masayuki sings back that he's sorry he wasn't a better son.  He seems to pass out and they check his body to find only a small wound, no longer even bleeding.  Masayuki revives and they tell him it's just a scratch, so he rises, a bit embarrassed.

The mountain rumbles again and the killer runs off, with the police in hot pursuit.  The film now turns once again to clay animation (except, briefly, Jinpei), as lava starts to flow from the erupting mountain heading toward the guest house.  The family notices Pochi is missing; he is riding on a log in a sea of lava.  Masao sets out to rescue Pochi, hanging upside down by his knees from a tree branch, he grabs the dog as the lava streams by underneath.

The family now join hands and surround the guest house (impossible to do this live action, but in clay they tower over the building).  Horrible faces emerge from the lava only to immediately disappear.  The lava seems to float the guest house to another location.  Jinpei's spirit leaves his body briefly and then it's over; the screen goes to black and then back to live action:  a beautiful blue sky with fluffy clouds.

The family leans over the supine figure of Masao.  Pochi comes running through the tall grass.  But where is the White Lovers' Guest House?  It survived, apparently intact, in a new location and now a beautiful pastoral scene is on their doorstep, with a clear view of the mountain and lake and, surreally, horses and elephants grazing nearby.

In a musical finale, the family links hands and sings about their happiness, making stylized gestures and marching steps which are highly reminiscent of the Van Trapp children in THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  The police and killer gesture with them, as they lie buried in dirt from the eruption.  At the end of this song, each member of the family (including Pochi) gets a close up.

Yurie's narration concludes the film, revealing that next year Jinpei dropped dead, but that's life, isn't it?  Jinpei begins to glow and shoots off triumphantly to heaven, as the family cheers for his long, happy life.

I don't really know where to begin praising this wonderful film.  First of all, I totally believed that these actors were a family, and each one in his or her own way likable.  I was also very pleased that I could not figure out, the first time I saw it, how it would end; it had so many inventive and zany twists and turns.  I'm kind of set in my ways musically, so it's amazing to report that I loved all of the songs, even though they were sung in Japanese.  According to imdb, the music was by Kôji Endô and Kôji Makaino, and it's amazingly toe tapping and catchy.  According to the director's commentary on the DVD, the lyrics were originally dialogue which the composer set to music and a CD was issued, but I cannot locate a copy to see if they provided lyrics in the booklet that usually accompanies CDs (I would love to sing along with the songs as I watched, if anyone can provide me with phonetic Japanese lyrics).

No credit is given on imdb to the choreographer, but obviously a great talent with amazing ideas.  (In the trailer on YouTube, the choreographer is listed as Ryohei Kondo.)  In the documentary extra on the DVD, we discover that Mr. Kondo made up the choreography spontaneously on the set, and none of the performers, including the large crowd of extras during the first love song between Richard and Shizue, were professional dancers (although it appears from her interview extra on the DVD that Keiko Matsuzaka studied ballet).  And yet I don't feel the musical numbers betray this amateurism.  The use of magical realism where walls disappear and you are suddenly in space, or the singers rise into the air, defying gravity, is just breathtaking.  In fact, I am hard pressed to decide which of the songs is my favorite; it's the best of all possible worlds in that each song is my favorite as I hear it, until I hear the next one.  Unlike American musicals which rely on repeating a song ad infinitum, some of these songs are very brief; only a few phrases, and then they're over, but they serve their purpose.

After many funny sequences, the ending turns suddenly dramatic and you become totally caught up in the hostage situation.  Will the murderer kill Terue?  Will Masao be able to rescue her?  Will Masayuki survive his injury?  And just when you think that the film can't possibly have any more twists, comes the volcano eruption, which far from destroying the livelihood of this family leaves them with the blessing of an even better view of the beauties of nature than they had previously.

I came across a book about the films of Takashi Miike, the title of which I can no longer remember (possibly AGITATOR:  THE CINEMA OF TAKASHI MIIKE by Tom Mes, Paul Posse (Photographer) and Makoto Shinozaki), and the text revealed that Kiyoshiro Imawano (who played the conman Richard Sagawa) is a rock star.  A search of Internet also disclosed a record album (in his younger days) by Kenji Sawada (Masao).  The extras on the DVD indicate that Mr. Sawada is considered the Japanese Elvis, and is known as "Julie" (in his youth he fronted a rock group called Julie and the Tigers).  I can't find any information about any of the other cast, aside from their imdb listings.  I have seen Kenji Sawada in HIRUKO THE GOBLIN (1991); and Shinji Takeda (Masayuki) and Tetsuro Tamba (Jinpei) in DEMON POND (2005) also directed by Miike.  Tamba played Tiger Tanaka in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967).  He won a Japanese Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1981 for 203  KOCHI.  He died in 2006 of heart failure after a bout of pneumonia.  According to the director's commentary on the DVD (which includes a lot of joking, so you can't really take what Miike says as gospel), Shinji Takeda plays the saxophone in a band.

If nothing else, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS is a lesson in not judging a director by one or two films, as I had seen AUDITION (1999) and one of the DEAD OR ALIVE trilogy, and not liked them.  You would be hard pressed to find so different a film from either of those (one a sickening horror film and the other a violent gangster film) as KATAKURIS.  As for being based on THE QUIET FAMILY, only the premise of a hard luck family who owns a hotel where terrible things happen to the guests is a similarity between these two entities.  I can recall no likable characters in the Korean film, nor any wit or humor and certainly no musical numbers.  The character of the conman who portrays himself as a member of the British Royal Family is not in this Korean film, nor the Sumo wrestler, nor the poor dejected family who are the first survivors of a stay at the guest house.  On the DVD commentary, Miike himself says the film is less of a remake and more of a parody.

This film is also a lesson to film makers and producers who sink a lot of money into special effects.  KATAKURIS goes to clay animation whenever an effect is required, alleviating the necessity of stunt people during the fall into the gully, or endangering the life of the cast and dog in the lava flow sequences.  It's part of the charm of the film that these have such a childlike primitive quality.

I'm not sure why anyone would seek out a webpage about this film who hasn't seen it, so I'm unsure what I'm accomplishing in publishing this write-up to Internet, but I do hope that the film is discovered by a wider audience and garners many new appreciators.  I checked out some "external" reviews that were available from the imdb listing.  A surprising number of these didn't seem to "get" (that is, like) the film, possibly because they had seen other Miike films and were expecting the equivalent.  A number of these reviewers (including the critic who played the suicide in the film, Tokitoshi Shiota) found the film similar to the Lars Von Trier film DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), which I don't see at all.  A number mentioned that the clay animation was similar to that of Jan Svankmajer, and I agree with this.

I learned this was among seven films that Miike directed in 2001, took 40 days to film, and the idea of the eclipse was improvised because they ran out of time shooting in the day and had to finish in the evening.  The actor who played the Sumo wrestler was picked through a TV audition series, similar to those which have occurred in the casting of West End and Broadway musicals, calling for a big man who could dance.  There are more photos from the film at the following links, some of which contain unflattering reviews which I don't endorse, and some of which are not in English:

The Trailer is available on You Tube.

I haven't been able to track down the CD (or the Japanese lyrics, which I very much want) but someone has uploaded the songs to Internet, so here they are.  I was surprised at what a good voice Kenji Sawada has, when I concentrate on it, without the distraction of reading the subtitles during the film.


Research and commentary by Judy Harris

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