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The hills are alive
A region 2 DVD review of THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS / KATAKURI-KE NO KÔFUKU by Slarek
 

In a brightly lit restaurant, a girl dips a spoon into her soup and finds not croutons but a small sprite-like creature. The girl screams, at which point live action switches to claymation and the sprite, looking into her gaping mouth, falls instantly in love with her uvula, which he tears out and flies off with, to the twang of some jovial Celtic folk music. The sprite comes to earth, looks lovingly at the stolen uvula and eats it, and is promptly devoured by a crow. As bits of the sprite fall to the ground, one of its eyes is apprehended by a battered old cloth doll, which turns into a gnarly-toothed predator, enabling it to attack and eat the crow. Meanwhile an egg is eaten then regurgitated by a snake and cracks open to reveal another sprite, who just has time to wonder at the miracle of life before it too is attacked by a crow, and the life cycle moves on. The crow flies off, defecating on an old man's forehead as it passes. As the claymation returns to live action, the man angrily hurls a lump of wood through the air and brings down the crow. And we haven't even reached the opening titles yet.

If this first sequence doesn't send your eyebrows upwards then what follows certainly will, for even in these days of generic cross-fertilisation, Audition and Ichi the Killer director Miike Takashi's brain-battering blend of family drama, horror, animation, love story, comedy and musical is genuinely impossible to categorise, especially as even the generic conventions suggested by these labels are themselves are sometimes turned on their heads.

The plot has actually been lifted from Ji Woon Kim's 1998 Korean black comedy The Quiet Family [Choyonghan kajok], which I've unfortunately not seen so can't make any comparisons. In this version the Katakuris of the title are a family that have decided to abandon ordinary suburban life and run a country inn, but unfortunately have selected one so off the beaten track that it starts to look like no-one will ever come across it. When someone does, it turns out that he has chosen this spot to commit suicide, and does so by stabbing himself in the throat with one of the inn's own room keys. Fearing the negative publicity this would generate, the family bury the body in a nearby wood, but this proves to be just the start of their problems.

Let's get one thing straight: this film is nuts, and one of the most unpretentiously enjoyable I have watched in years. It has been described as a combination of Shallow Grave, Night of the Living Dead and The Sound of Music, but even this doesn't really prepare you for what you get. Once the claymation opening is over, Miike introduces the main characters with a string of effective post-modernist flourishes, firmly establishing a less than perfect family unit in the space of a couple of minutes: son Masayuki has just finished a stretch in jail for theft; daughter Shizue is given to falling in love with the wrong man at the drop of a hat; father Masao dreamt of running this inn and the lack of customers is making him increasingly depressed; and grandfather Jinpei views the whole enterprise with cranky annoyance. Despite this, there's a squeaky clean cheerfulness to everything, which is emphasised by the bright, colourful cinematography and the mountain scenery. But the weirdness soon kicks in. Watching TV one night, the family observe a ludicrously enthusiastic TV presenter fighting to maintain his composure as a large insect crawls up his nose, and a channel change transforms him to a drag act singing a peculiar song about his skull (one of the occasional peculiarities of the subtitles has this incorrectly translated as "Dem Bones..." despite sounding nothing like that particular song).

By the time the first character bursts into song, you've almost forgotten you're also watching a musical. Though the first number is actually delivered by the suicidal guest (played by film critic Shiota Tokitoshi), it's the discovery of his death that really kicks things off, with the investigating family exploding into a rock number that has them running about, hands held over their eyes in theatrical shock and bellowing out their dismay at what has occurred. Coming out of nowhere, this made me laugh out loud so hard I fell off my chair. From here on in the numbers come thick and fast. None of them are going to make many lists of classic musical moments, but are always enjoyable and sometimes unexpectedly catchy (the final song in particular I was singing in my kitchen afterwards). Comically, only about half of the cast can really hold a tune, despite the fact that Sawada Kenji started his career as a singer in a popular post-Beatles pop group and Imawano Kiyoshiro is a rock star of some fame and repute. This all peaks with a frankly insane fantasy karaoke sequence, where the audience is invited to sing along as the Japanese lyrics are presented on screen in the same manner as a karaoke machine in a Japanese bar. When I stopped laughing, I actually found myself joining in – at least it gave me the chance to practice my diction.

And then there's the dancing. Though choreographed, the main actors are not professional dancers, and all of the dance sequences thus have a charmingly improvised quality, with the family rarely in sync with one another, all aware of what they have to do but with no eye on what their fellow dancers are up to. This matters not a jot, and if anything adds to the sense of a family that sticks together no matter what fate may throw at them. Indeed, the strength of the family unit emerges as the central theme of the film, and here we have a family that, despite its troubled past, will live, work, sing and dance together, and will even bury the bodies of dead guests together as well.

Miike draws on a variety of sources, The Sound of Music being the most obvious, but there is more than a hint of Dancer in the Dark about one number and on the commentary Miike suggests that a lot more was borrowed from that film, though its seems unlikely even Lars von Trier would recognise it as presented here. A later dance with zombies recalls John Landis' Thriller video for Michael Jackson, and the animation even has a Svankmajer quality about it in places, something confirmed again by the extra features. In this film, though, the switch from live action to claymation seems less governed by a surrealist sensibility than the impossibility of staging big action scenes on a low budget – on the commentary Miike confirms that the second animated sequence was necessary because "an old man and a rock star with a weak body couldn't possibly do an action scene," and that the claymation finale was the result of having scripted a special effects scene that he simply could not afford to stage effectively with CG. In the end you don't feel cheated because this just adds to both the film's stylistic potpourri and its unwavering energy and sense of fun. And having hit us with so much stylistic, generic and narrative madness, Miike's final trick is to deliver an ending that is both quietly unexpected and genuinely moving, rounding off a unique and rather wonderful work that should be hunted out by anyone with an liking for the cheerfully absurd.

By the way, Katakuri is an apparently quite rare plant whose roots can be made into starch. Thought you might like to know that.

sound and vision

As someone with experience of shooting video for film, I spotted the tell-tale signs of high definition digital video long before I got to the extra features. Video has a far lower contrast ratio than film and the resulting intolerance for extremes of the light results here in some bright white hot spots burning out (Richard's white naval jacket as he runs through woodland, for example). This also tends to restrict how adventurous you can be with the lighting, and the results can look a little overlit or even flat. Here, though, this always seems appropriate to the Alpine Musical look, and if anything tadds to the film's composed artificiality. This aside, the transfer is very pleasing, especially given what looks like an NTSC to PAL conversion – the source appears to have been mastered from a film print rather than the original high def video, as despite those contrast giveaways it retains a nicely filmic look throughout. Sharpness is very good, and colours and blacks are impressive.

There is a choice between Dolby 2.0 and a 5.1 Japanese soundtrack. Hey, wait a minute, this is a Tartan disk isn't it? Well we have had 5.1 before from Tartan, on the NTSC Battle Royale and the special edition of In the Mood for Love, but the latter at least was a bought-in package from a French original. This also appears to be the case here, as the specs are identical to the US region 1 release from Ventura and at least two of the extras are very much targeted at the US market (more of that later), even if the subtitles have the English spelling of 'Arsehole' rather than the more anaemic American 'Asshole'. Anyway, I digress. Both the 2.0 and 5.1 tracks are rather good, the 5.1 obviously having more wallop, though a lot less lower frequency rumbling than I'd have hoped. The musical numbers are very bright and full, however, and reasonable use is made of the rear speakers for atmospheric and weather sounds.

extra features

It's always great to see a film like this getting a decent set of extras. There is a definite sense that this package has been put together specifically to try and sell the film to the American market, even if some extras seem very much targeted at a home audience and adapted to suit.

An Interview with director Miike Takashi is conducted by Shiota Tokitoshi, the critic who plays the inn's first victim and clearly a good friend of the director. This is shot 4:3 on DV with the director often in shadow and with sometimes varying exposure, but runs for 32 minutes and covers a lot of interesting ground. My enjoyment was lessened somewhat by the odd decision to dub both men's voices with American ones, making it impossible to judge how Miike is apeaking, and, if you know a bit of Japanese, if the translations are correct. Fortunately the rest of the extras are subtitled, as they should be.

The Director's Commentary again features the redoubtable Miike Takashi and Shiota Tokitoshi, is conducted in Japanese with English subtitles, and it's a riot. Miike especially has fun with the whole process, suggesting that veteran actor Tetsuro Tamba can really bring down crows with lumps of wood from hundreds of metres away, and that it is this talent that regularly lands him work. "Shall I say something significant about the film?" he asks early on, and indeed does deliver plenty of useful information, especially for those not too familiar with Japanese culture, even about food being eaten in one scene. Both men know their genre cinema and reference some interesting lesser known works, and Miike supplies good detail on some of the influences on his approach to the film. There are a few quiet spots, but Tokitoshi feeds Miike well, and doesn't let him stay silent for long. But it's the comic stuff that makes it such fun, with the opening credits transformed into an impromptu Japanese lesson, and Miike suggesting that Tokitoshi will be playing Yoda in the next Star Wars film and worries that a joke won't work for non-Japanese viewers, only to have Tokitoshi say "Well it's crap, even for Japanese audiences." Like the film itself, things get silliest during the karaoke sequence, when both men join in boisterously, applauding their efforts as the song concludes. There is more than one mention of how the film will play in the US (confirming that this version was targeted for that market), and an unusual bit of international marketing from Miike: "There are many interesting sex businesses in Japan. So come to Japan and try them, by all means." Terrific.

The 'Making of' Video is shot on 4:3 DV, runs for 30 minutes and is an enjoyable mixture of interview and behind-the-scenes footage, showing Miike and his crew at work on a production that looks as if it was as much fun be involved in as it is to watch. Miike particularly, with his hip-hop look and boundless energy, seems to be having the time of his life throughout. This is a really good extra – Miike is a fascinating figure, and it's great to see how this essentially low budget production pulled off some of its more elaborate sequences and gags.

Jamie Russell Film Notes presents an 8 (short) page textual analysis of the film by BBCi film critic Jamie Russell. It's a reasonable enough read and the only extra that seems UK centred.

Interviewing the Katakuris is a series of short interviews with the principal cast members, shot on video in 4:3 and subtitled. The interviews vary from 2 and a half minutes to 5 minutes in length and cover the actors' approach to their roles and how they got or chose the parts. Though short, these are interesting and to the point – a very different story to the ones on Artificial Eye's Dolls disk. The questions appear in Japanese on screen and are translated by the subtitles. Unfortunately the actor concerned is often speaking at the same time, and what they are saying while the question is on is not translated.

Animating the Katakuris is a 5 and a half minute, 4:3 DV featurette looking at the creation of the animation sequences and is centred around Clay Animation Director Kimura Hideki, whose thoughts are delivered as scrolling text rather than voice over. This extra does confirm the Svankmajer connection, but doesn't actually show us much of the process of creating the animations themselves. A longer, more in-depth version of this would have been welcome.

Miike Takashi Trailer Reel features trailers from 6 Miike films: Rainy Dog, Ley Lines, City of Lost Souls, Dead or Alive, Dead or Alive: Final and Audition. These are a mixture of anamorphic and non-anamorphic 16:9 and Dolby 2.0, the exception being Dead or Alive: Final, which is 4:3.

Original Theatrical Trailer is anamorphic 1.85:1 and subtitled and rather fun – it certainly gives a flavour of what you are in for.

summary

The Happiness of the Katakuris is an act of cinematic lunacy and a delight from start to finish. This is a first rate disk, with a fine transfer, good sound and some excellent extras – the commentary alone makes it a worthwhile buy. Miike Takashi is without doubt Japan's most prolific director, having helmed almost 50 films in 8 years, precious few of which have so far made it to these shores, but on the evidence of those that do, he has to be classed as one of the most fascinating of modern Japanese filmmakers. A man who can follow the mad excesses of Ichi the Killer with the very different of extremes of The Happiness of the Katakuris has already earned his place in cult cinema heaven. Highly recommended.

The Happiness of the Katakuris
Katakuri-ke no kôfuku

Japan 2001
108 mins
director
Miike Takashi
starring
Sawada Kenji
Matsuzaka Keiko
Tekada Shinji
Nishida Naomi
Imawano Kiyoshido
Tamba Tetsuro

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Commentary by Takashi Miike and Tokitoshi Shiota
Takashi Miike interview
Cast interviews
Making-of video
Film notes
Animation featurette
Trailers
distributor
Tartan
review posted
7 January 2004

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