Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) has moved his family--his wife, his divorced daughter, her child, his formerly criminal son and his father--to the country, near Mt. Fuji. He purchased a large old home with the intention of converting it into a kind of bed & breakfast, since the road running nearby is supposed to be expanded, which would bring tourists. But the road hasn't been expanded yet and the Katakuris subsequently have no guests. When one finally shows up, mysteriously, he commits suicide during the night. They hide the body to avoid bad publicity. But they seem to be in a patch of bad luck, and more things begin to go wrong. Through it all, however, the family sticks together and sings happy songs.
Oh how I wanted to give this film a 10! It has so many elements I love. It's an absurdist mix of horror, surrealism, a musical, claymation, a black comedy, and one of those progressively "going to hell in a handbasket" films ala After Hours (1985), Very Bad Things (1998) or My Boss' Daughter (2003). Unfortunately, Happiness of the Katakuris suffers a bit from being unfocused. All of the individual elements are superb, but director Takashi Miike simply abandons too many interesting threads and the film ends up feeling more like a loose collection of skits. If it were tied together better, this would easily be a 10.
Happiness of the Katakuris, which is a "mutated" remake Ji-woon Kim's Choyonghan kajok (The Quiet Family, 1998), begins with a restaurant scene that ends up being unrelated to the rest of the film. While a woman is eating, a strange creature appears in her soup. This initiates a long sequence of claymation. The creature is a small, skinny, albino, white-eyed "demon" who wakes up from being stabbed in the neck with a fork and proceeds to rip out his would-be-consumer's uvula, which he turns into a heart-shaped balloon. The claymation has a strong Tim Burton feel ala The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and provides a wonderfully surreal and somewhat gory version of a "circle of life", also known as a food chain. At this point I was completely loving the film.
Oddly, Miike drops this material and we go back to a standard live-action mode as we learn about the Katakuris, initially from narration by toddler Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki). I kept thinking that the claymation demons would return somehow, but they're forgotten about, even if claymation eventually makes a return later in the film, with a style more reminiscent of Bruce Bickford, who did the claymation in Frank Zappa's Baby Snakes (1979).
Fortunately, the Katakuris are intriguing in their own right, and for a long time the film settles into more of a quirky art-house drama style, albeit with a darker edge due to the fate of the hotel's guests. During this period, a romance subplot enters as we meet Richado Sagawa (Kiyoshiro Imawano), who is courting Katakuri divorcée Shizue (Naomi Nishida).
There are a few interesting musical numbers, and the love song between Richado and Shizue has attractive, bright production design. Although some of the songs were a bit bland to me--I prefer the music of, say, Jisatsu saakuru (Suicide Club, 2002)--they are all intriguingly staged, ranging from spoofs of rock videos to The Sound of Music (1965). Miike keeps a wicked sense of humor going throughout the film--there is something funny about most of the characters, most of the ways the characters relate to each other, and most of the scenarios.
All of the technical elements in the film are superb. Miike treats us to a lot of interesting cinematography, the location/setting of the Katakuri home is wonderful, and the performances are good.
Later, Miike shoots for more of a madcap Monty Pythonesque style, complete with "zombies" nodding their heads and toe-tapping to a song (ala the Camelot dungeon prisoner in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975, or the group of people being crucified in Life of Brian, 1979). The latter reference is particularly apt, as the "message" of The Happiness of the Katakuris, insofar as there is one, ends up being remarkably similar to the message of the song "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" from Life of Brian. Namely, life is short and often brutal, so we should focus on enjoying ourselves and having a good time with others while we're here; and once we're gone, others should celebrate our life and the time we had on the Earth rather than mourning our passing--somewhat like the funerals in some Caribbean cultures, which involve joyous singing and dancing rather than dour moping and tears.
Those are messages that I couldn't agree with more. It's just too bad that Miike couldn't have made the film a bit tighter, but even as loose as it is, you can't afford to miss this one if you have a taste for anything more unusual/surreal.