The inside of Takashi Miike's head must be like a cinematic scrapyard, where the front end of a musical comedy can be bolted onto the back end of a Coen Brothers-like thriller. That's more or less what he's done in The Happiness of the Katakuris, a sort-of-a-remake of a Korean film, The Quiet Family (which I've not seen), apparently just as darkly comic in its approach. Miike's port of the material adds singing and dancing, almost in the vein of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, but not always to an explicitly satirical (or coherent) end.
Next to Takeshi Kitano and Shunji Iwai, Takashi Miike is Japan's most consistently interesting and daring filmmaker, cranking out an absurdly large number of movies a year, each stamped with his own oddball (but often brilliant) outlook. Not all of his films hit the target for me, but they are never less than fascinating even if because they're just so far off the beaten cinematic paths. Katakuris is no less odd than some of his other projects (his most recent movie as of this writing, Gozu, mated his usual yakuza territory with David Lynchian dream-world symbolism), but it's decidedly an acquired taste. If you're already interested in acquiring the taste, however, don't let me stop you.
The Katakuris themselves are an extended family with a dream — rather, it's the father (Kenji Sawada), a shoe salesman with no future in his job, who has the dream. He's convinced the rest of the clan to buy up an old bed-and-breakfast inn on a mountainside somewhere, fix it up, and do their best to make it a fine place for travellers to stop off for the night. Trouble is, there's no road (save for a diminutive hiking path), and no customers. The ex-convict son (Shinji Takeda, of Kairo and Gohatto) finds the whole thing farcical, but their single-mother daughter (Naomi Nishida) is willing to put her all into it.
Finally, one day, a guest shows up — a weird, owl-eyed recluse who holes himself up in his room and kills himself in the most outlandish way possible (although in a movie like this, that's not saying much). The family panics — the scene of them discovering the corpse is hilariously done — and decide the best thing to do would be to bury the body. The last thing they need is bad publicity, you see. Can't have that ruining business.
Not that it helps, because the next guest (a sumo wrestler) shows up and drops dead as well — in bed, while having sex with his girlfriend. It also doesn't help that she was underneath him at the time, and … well, now they have three dead bodies to deal with instead of one. It also doesn't help that the local bicycle-mounted policeman is nosing around a little too much for their comfort, and a charlatan (Kiyoshiro Imawano, in an absolutely hilarious performance) who claims to be half-British royalty starts putting the pinch on their daughter. And then the mountain starts delivering some ominous rumblings…
Katakuris works like a lot of Miike's other movies — he loves to tunnel under and into existing movie genres and conventions, and explode them from the inside. It's touch-and-go work at times, but I admire him for trying to get his arms around something so slippery. The musical numbers themselves are not going to have most of us singing along or rushing out to get the soundtrack, but as exercises in over-the-top style, they're hysterical. I loved a husband-and-wife duo that's done karaoke style (complete with subtitled follow-the-bouncing-cursor lyrics!), and there are a couple of key scenes — an opening segment and a climax involving a volcano (!) — that are done as Claymation.
All of this is, of course, very funny — at least for the first hour or so. Unfortunately, the second half of the movie isn't quite as inspired, despite being equally graced with song 'n dance — and that's also when Miike tries to deliver the movie's not-so-buried emotional payload. It doesn't quite work, if only because Miike's approach this time around pitches the original volume level up so high that when he finally does dial things back down a bit, we're already deafened.
Not long ago I saw Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, which also used fantasy-musical numbers courtesy of Bjork (who also starred in the film) as a wrapper for a movie of such astounding emotional cruelty that the music only made it feel all the more sadistic. Katakuris is the obverse of that film — bright and unabashedly uplifting in its own oddball way, even when it's dealing with such fetid subjects as re-exhumed dead bodies. If the film wasn't so obstinately good-natured in its own whacko way, I wouldn't know what to make of it. Maybe that's exactly the idea.