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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
the way, Katakuri is an apparently quite rare plant whose
roots can be made into starch. Thought you might like to
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Theatrical Trailer is anamorphic 1.85:1 and subtitled and rather fun – it certainly
gives a flavour of what you are in for.
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.