Friday, March 18, 2011

Takashi Miike Fest 2011(#3) THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS

Now for a review of what was (and probably, though needs a re-watch, still is) my favorite Miike movie.  A crazy-surreal musical that is like a horror movie doused with cute and song!

This movie is a lot of fun, in the best tradition of any musical I've ever seen (truth be told, I'd rank it as a Japanese equivalent to Signin' in the Rain). It's hard to say that it would rank up there with my favorites, but then again why carp? The Happiness of the Katakuris, directed with the full vigor and passion for film-making and fantastical-realism by Takashi Miike, has a simple premise that gets the best kind of imaginative treatment that could never really be expected, even as a fan of Miike's.

It's about a family who start an inn in a secluded location, right next to a volcano. When the guests need to be 'taken-care-of' after kicking the buckets, so to speak, the family has to deal with the pressure of possibly having to close the inn. Meanwhile, there is a sweeping romantic sub-plot Naomi Nishida's Shizue, who is hoping to be together someday with a man who, while looking Japanese, says he's apart of the royal British family (in full garb no less). But then things start to get stranger still, leading up to a certain development with the volcano, among other things...MANY other things.

But once that simple tact of the story is laid out, the question comes up for one who's seen films like Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q and Imprint- how in heaven's name will Miike take on this material? All you need to know about that is the opening scene, much like with Gozu, sets up the tone perfectly (though unlike Gozu it's kept intact with what it intends), in showing something very, very screwy where a woman eats soup, but then a figure comes out of the soup, takes the uvula of the woman as she screams, snips it off, and goes flying away with it. Hard to believe?

care for some... head?
In its in-and-out claymation, like a much more demented but just-as-playful Gumby, that's the point, and it isn't necessarily the highest peak of weirdness in the film either. However this is handled with a great deal of hilarity and sweetness, and even an endearing way around the family. For a moment we might think we're seeing a 'normal' scene, but this is something that is never held onto for too long. A song gets broken into with the same insane glee and determined 'wtf' feeling like South Park did, only here perhaps even more whacked out in its Japanese form.

And all the while, through the satire that is of course ingrained in many of Miike's best work, and even with a kind of Bunuel feeling to their being a fine mix of straightforward main characters with a bunch of loony, odd, intriguing and real 'character' supporting characters, the tone never gets lost or mired in itself. It doesn't even really mark as a comedy in scenes that aren't enveloped in song or claymation or other (not that there aren't funny bits, to be sure). After a while one comes to expect lines of sorrow or happiness or both in music- wonderfully done by Koji Endo and Koji Makaino- to spring out of grave diggings, past loves, current loves, zombies, the conflicts of the future of the inn, and of course great-grandpa's fate. What I loved about the picture as well is that the jokes, both aural and occasionally with the dialog, are not too constant, making it overbearingly campy or dumb.

It's very smart actually about what it is, and Miike directs with confidence that his melding of standardly shot scenes, wildly filmed and choreographed musical numbers (one of which, the courting of Richard and Shizue, is maybe one of my top favorite musical numbers ever), animation, and real horrific or dramatic moments, will work. It also ends on notes (the final song and the final line particularly) that had me laughing my head off, but also realizing how it's well-earned. There's almost something of Busby Berkley to the film, if Berkley was into the life of, uh, cover-up inn-keepers who only want to be happy.

But that last part, about seeking happiness, is apart of many musicals, usually the best ones, and it's with that in mind that this practically deserves the comparison. It's lush with fantastic cinematography, a keen and talented cast, and a sense of humor that covers more than one part of ground. It might be my favorite Miike so far, and if in the right kind of mind- mostly for a pick-me-up- it's a real treat for fans of Japanese cinema who may have not even seen a Miike film yet.

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