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Did you know Takashi Miike made a musical in 2001? Me neither!
Honestly, I’m surprised it took me so long to hear about The Happiness of the Katakuris. It’s the ideal genre for his typically outré style, a film framework where exaggerated emotion and absurd physicality are par for the course. Musicals have broader tonal palettes and looser behavioral guidelines. Emotions are so powerful, they can bend the fabric of reality. After all, if characters can burst into song at any moment, who’s to say they can’t do anything else?
Katakuris didn’t have to be a musical to work. The story, of a family-run bed-and-breakfast where guests keep mysteriously dying, is perfect fodder for a zany comedy all on its own. But its in the attempt at zaniness where the film falters a little. Miike struggles to maintain a manic atmosphere for the entire runtime, leading to the occasional dry setup or standard composition. It feels at times as though he’s reverting to more familiar techniques in order to get to the stuff that really interests him — namely, the music sequences. Compared to a film like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, the 1977 horror-comedy explosion of filmic technique from which Miike took clear influence, Katakuris can’t quite keep pace. Though when you work as frequently as Miike (he made SIX other feature films in 2001) it’s hard to blame you for not being at full capacity 100% of the time.
Still, when this film is on, it’s on. Opening with a suitably bizarre claymation sequence, the film takes its time revealing that it’s a musical at all. It’s not until the death of the first guest, the first moment of real emotional outburst, that the characters begin to sing. The film seems to be asserting that it isn’t a musical just for the sake of it, that its songs aren’t arbitrary. When they sing, it’s because somewhere deep down they know they have to.
The film really shines in its musical scenes. The songs are boisterous and catchy, and the accompanying visuals are enjoyably silly. I particularly enjoyed the scene wherein the film became a karaoke music video, as well as a Thriller-inspired zombie dance break. At times the songs feel more theatrical, with sung dialogue rather than more metaphorical lyrics. It contributes to that feeling of an over-boiling pot. The characters’ tensions and fears bubble out uncontrollably.
There are also a handful of moments where live action becomes claymation. This seems to be a cheeky way of getting around using special effects and stuntwork for certain scenes. Whatever the reason, these scenes are so much fun that I wanted the entire film to make use of the medium. It really needed a heavier dose of that cartoony vibe.
I just wish the entire film was as blissfully and hilariously expressive as the musical and animated moments. Had Miike applied the rhythm and tempo of a song to many other scenes, perhaps they wouldn’t drag quite so much. Had he gone further in the direction of animation, perhaps certain scenes wouldn’t seem so drab. The momentum of Katakuris too often grinds to a halt in gag sequences that just don’t quite work for me. That being said, I’ll fondly remember the parts of Katakuris that do.