The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) — Music, claymation, and zombies

“My uvula!”

Shalen’s rating: Three out of four uvula-eating claymation imps.

Shalen’s review: This review is dedicated to mrshady, who requested it on our forum request thread.

I’m not sure I’ll forgive him for suggesting I watch Ichi the Killer, but that’s beside the point. We’re a cult film review site. We review all kinds of films, some more cultish than others. I don’t know that I’ve seen a movie this outright weird in a really, really long time, and bear in mind that I have seen at least the first half of Naked Lunch.*

The film is about the Katakuri family, whose idealistic Mom-and-Pop Masao and Terue moved away from the big city and made an investment in a small guest house in the mountains. With them they bring Grandfather (whose father he is is unclear, at least in the subtitled translation), their son, who is a convicted thief, and their single-Mom daughter with her child. Their first guest walks into his room, asks for a beer, and then stabs himself in the neck with a motel key for no apparent reason. The family hides the body to prevent financial ruin, and then the next couple of guests also bite it, and they hide those, too. The rest of the plot, such as it is, revolves around the morbidly comical attempts of the Katakuris to keep things afloat while burying and reburying an increasing number of inconvenient corpses.

But “morbidly comical” is actually very inadequate to describe this movie. Because The Happiness of the Katakuris is a musical. Every so often the characters burst into song and start dancing, doing a stiff not-quite disco sort of thing that is occasionally punctuated by breakdancing moves from Masayuki (that son I was talking about). There’s a nightclub karaoke number featuring words on the screen so that viewers can sing along, with little pink and blue hearts next to the male and female parts of the song. There’s also one broadway chorus-type number in which the exhumed corpses of the movie’s four casualties jump up and join in. The song is about looking on the bright side.

The film is also punctuated with claymation sequences, some making more sense than others. The one that opens the film seems unconnected with anything else that happens in it. Expect that to be a recurring theme. Some of the lines, even some whole scenes, are just random and don’t go anywhere. And don’t expect any big explanation for all the deaths, because there isn’t one. There’s a bizarre little tag on the end of the film that doesn’t seem necessary, either.

All this isn’t necessarily meant to be critical. I’m trying to convey the feel of this movie and I’m not quite succeeding. Sometimes it’s very funny, sometimes it’s slightly gross, and it’s always really, really strange. Take, for example, the little conversation in which Masao and Terue debate where to put the little cross marking the location of the buried bodies on the lovely miniature of their hotel. Totally aside the fact that everyone will see it, there’s also the fact that it’s a cross. Aren’t most Japanese Buddhist or Taoist? Why would they use a cross to mark a grave? And then there’s the con man who tries to seduce the daughter Shizue by claiming he’s related to England’s royal family. He adds verisimilitude to this by punctuating his conversation in Japanese with stiffly pronounced English words, which sounds hilarious.** She also falls for it, and has to be rescued by Grandfather, whose other hobby is throwing logs at animated birds.

Also, the movie starts and ends with voice-overs from Shizue’s small daughter, who isn’t much of a character in the film otherwise.

The whole movie is that way. Parts of it drag a little, but the musical numbers are always very funny and worth watching (the one with the zombies is of course my favorite). If you’re having a film night and you’re in the mood for something, well, different, The Happiness of the Katakuris is an excellent choice.

*I don’t recommend it. Gay sex and typewriters are a bad thematic combination.
**He can’t sing. All his song parts are sort of halfway spoken, like the male lead in My Fair Lady, only in Japanese. This is all the funnier when you find out that actor Iwamano Kiyoshiro is, in reality, a singer.

Didja notice?

  • Good throwing arm there, Grandpa.
  • Shizue really is not very bright, is she?
  • Englishmen have more blood than Japanese? Where’d they get that from, watching Tarantino movies?
  • Masayuki is a darn good dancer.
  • That little girl is going to grow up to be really skewed.
  • The volcanic eruption of… mud!
  • Dead men may tell no tales, but they dance just fine.
  • They serve the cake with sugar. Is this a cultural thing?

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