Happiness of the Katakuris Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
The Katakuris – Masao (played by Kenji Sawada – the former lead singer of a rock group known as The Tigers), his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), their delinquent son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda), their newly divorced daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), her child Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), Masao’s elderly father Jenipei (Tetsuro Tamba), and their dog, Pochi – attempt to open a peaceful country inn near a major road that is supposedly going to be expanded. When the roadwork doesn’t commence, they become desperate for guests. To make matters worse, the few guests they find begin to die in bizarre ways and the Katakuris are forced to come together as a family to hide the bodies. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Despite his reputation as the maverick leader of an entire generation of extreme filmmakers in Japan, Takashi Miike began his career as a working-class director in Japan. For the most part, he worked with whatever scripts he was given and is always incredibly modest when discussing his creative talents. In fact, he didn’t even want to be a director – it was, as he has said, simply the more viable choice for a bad student whose only other career option was that of a yakuza gangster. His refreshing lack of artistic identity and mistrust of people that called themselves artists left Miike free to make perfectly intuitive horror stories and cruel exposés of the criminal underworld. While he was ignored in his home country, western audiences discovered his hyper-violent movies on home video. Fans were delighted to discover that this ‘new’ talent had already directed dozens of outrageous, disturbing, and completely anarchic movies.
The two most influential Miike productions were his grotesque romantic melodrama, Audition (Japanese: Odishion, 1999) – a movie he himself does not consider a horror movie – and Ichi the Killer (Japanese: Koroshiya Ichi, 2001), which was a culmination of the gory yakuza flicks he had been churning out since the early ‘90s. Around the same time, Miike slowly began to explore other genres. Some of these experiments, like The Bird People of China (Japanese: Chūgoku no chōjin, 1998), successfully conveyed his lyrical side, while others, like the sci-fi romance Andromedia (also 1998), failed to make the mainstream impact he was hoping for. The same year he shocked audiences with the violent extremes of Ichi the Killer and created an oddly sweet, incredibly perverse mini-masterpiece mockumentary called Visitor Q (2001), he made an unabashedly silly musical adaptation of Kim Jee-woon’s Korean black comedy, The Quiet Family (Korean: Joyonghan Gajok,1998), called The Happiness of the Katakuris (Japanese: Katakuri-ke no Kōfuku, 2001).
Visitor Q tends to be the critical favorite representation of Miike’s obsession with deconstructing/reconstructing family units and it certainly appears to be a more personal exercise (it has basically zero commercial appeal), but Happiness of the Katakuris is accessible in ways that film is not, to the point that some might even consider it a relatable statement on the subject. It wears its heart on its sleeve and takes pains to appeal to a wide (Japanese) audience without ever betraying the director’s cockeyed sensibilities. It’s exceedingly weird, from its category-spanning song & dance sequences (one duet includes karaoke-style sing-along subtitles) to its improvisational absurdity, potty humor, surreal photography, and bonkers claymation scenes (which aren’t only fun, but helped Miike to save a great deal of money during set-pieces that would’ve otherwise required a lot of expensive special effects).
This sentimentality is earned via outrageously adorable performances and cartoonish imagery, but the Miike’s cynical side is never far from the fray. The characters go through the motions of a Hollywood-friendly, feel-good family drama, willfully maintaining their naiveté, while the world around them is saturated with (PG-13) deviances. Towards the end of the film, the duality of the saccharine and cynical qualities is exemplified when patriarch, Masao, pleads with a desperate criminal who has taken his wife, Terue, hostage. The intensity of the scene is real and the performances are stark naked in their emotional capacity. The situation is resolved only minutes later when Masayuki is stabbed while tussling with the knife-welding fugitive. The family gathers around sobbing, as he states his goodbyes, but the similarly poignant beat is cut short when Terue sheepishly notices that her wound is barely skin deep.
In his book, Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (2006, FAB Press), Tom Mes discusses the film’s connection to Japan’s economic recession, pointing to the fact that the Katakuri family unit has been reinstituted due to economic choices and hardship. He argues that the moral of the story is that the source of happiness is found in the family, not in monetary gain. The film ends with the Katakuris finally banding together, at which point a deus ex machina volcano rewards them by situating their house closer to the road (like the Bates Motel, the Katakuri B&B is doomed by highway construction), where more guests will find them. This is a satirical result, of course (Miike heavily implies they are dead with the inclusion of Garden of Eden imagery during the wide-shots), but also an example of the film’s unshakable amiability, because Japanese audiences were given a magically happy ending for this metaphorical recession.
Happiness of the Katakuris stands all on its own beautifully (there’s no need to be aware of The Quiet Family before seeing it, because the two film are so different), but also features the germ of new disciplines that would foreshadow the third phase of Miike’s career, where he expanded his genre scope (the phase itself wasn’t quite initiated until he made Gozu in 2005). In the musical numbers and claymation action, you can see the seeds of whimsical, special effects-heavy children’s films, like The Great Yokai War (2005) and Ninja Kids!!! (2011), as well as genre-bending crowd-pleasers, like Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). The unique personas and subversive, yet affecting romance anticipate his more mature, comic book-themed character studies, like Zebraman (2004), as well as the classy, award-nominated samurai epics, like 13 Assassins (2010). Perhaps the most incredible thing about it is that Miike almost appears to be mocking the increasing seriousness of his future career by ‘having it both ways’ with cute, dramatic resonance and satire.
Happiness of the Katakuris has been high on my personal list of must-have HD releases ever since smaller studios started releasing Blu-rays. Chimera/Ventura anamorphic DVD wasn’t a terrible release (it’s actually the best of the DVDs currently available), but, like just about every Takashi Miike DVD release from the ‘pre-Blu’ era, it was a bit mushy and touched by loads of digital artifacts. This release from Arrow (identical to the UK release) represents the first Blu-ray available in the western world. According to the included booklet, the transfer was ‘remastered in HD’ by Shochiku Co. Ltd. in Japan and given to Arrow via a digital file. There is no further information. My (former) DVDActive colleague Chris Gould then discovered that Happiness of the Katakuris was shot on early Panasonic digital cameras, meaning that this 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer was likely culled directly from a source file.
The results are a sizable upgrade over the SD image, due mostly to the lack of compression on this new 1080p, 1.78:1 transfer. Almost all of the obvious issues with edge haloes, blocking effects, and crusty noise have been corrected, while the overall color quality and gamma remain basically the same. The digital qualities show mostly while the camera is in motion (the handheld shots in particular), but Miike and cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto hide many of the more distracting format artifacts (oddly bright highlights, compression noise, et cetera) by utilizing a lot of soft focus and purposefully over-blown lighting levels. The DVD release had been too bright and over-sharpened, possibly in an attempt to convey these more outrageous format effects without creating more low level noise. Digital grain still makes an appearance, usually in low-light situations (though the darkest night shots are relatively clean) without overtaking the frame. The digital-ness makes for a sort of florescent blue overall color structure, but the eclectic palette is significantly more vivid in 1080p.
DVD versions of The Happiness of the Katakuris featured modified 5.1 soundtracks, but Arrow has maintained the original stereo mix in lossless LPCM audio. The uncompressed qualities ensure a wider range of dynamic sound, cleaner high-end noise, and clearer ambient effects. Even at low volume levels, I noticed a number of subtle musical cues that were lost on the compressed Dolby Digital track. The eclectic music is credited to frequent Miike collaborator Kôji Endô with lyrics by Kôji Makaino. Endô and Makaino’s rock, pop, and classical melodies have a purposeful amateur quality that fits the largely ‘unprofessional’ singing performances (even the famous singers in the cast often minimize their full talents). The oft-ignored, French-infused incidental cues are also fantastic. I suppose the discrete LFE channel may have improved the low end of some of the songs and action scenes, but there is no point where the 5.1 enhancements were missed (the ghost center channel is very effective).
Commentary with director Takashi Miike and actor Tokitoshi Shiota (in Japanese with English subtitles or on a separate English language translation track) – This commentary, borrowed from both the US and UK DVD releases, is typical of the director. There are moments where he hits a rich vein of information, even revealing surprising inspirations for certain scenes, but he also spends an awful lot of time, sitting quietly, describing the on-screen action, or requiring prompting from Shiota (who is a very good moderator).
Commentary with Miike biographer and Midnight Eye writer Tom Mes – This new commentary is especially valuable, not only because Mes is an expert on all things Miike, but because the chapter about [I]Happiness of the Katakuris[/I] in his book is comparatively short. There are a few pauses and some repeated information, but, overall, Mes offers a much more engaging dissection of the film than I could ever hope to here.
The Making of the Katakuris (30:40, SD) – A behind-the-scenes EPK that was shot for promotion in Japan and previously appeared on both the US and UK DVDs. It includes cast & crew interviews and raw, on-set footage.
Interviews with Miike and the cast (except where marked, these were also taken from Tartan’s UK DVD) – Takashi Miike (39:00, HD, The only non-archive interview was recorded in 2015 and sees a slightly more mature director looking back at this bygone era of his career), Miike (5:00, SD), Kenji Sawada (5:00, SD), Keiko Matsuzaka (2:50, SD), Kiyoshiro Imawano and Shinji Takeda (4:30, SD), Naomi Nishida (2:20, SD), Tetsuro Tanba (4:00, SD)
Animating the Katakuris (5:30, SD) – The final Tartan featurette is a look at the creation of the film’s stop motion effects with Miike and animation director Hideki Kimura.
Dogs, Pimps and Agitators (23:50, HD) – A brand new retrospective look at Miike’s career hosted by Mes.
Trailer and TV spots
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