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Wednesday, March 6, 2002

These are a few of Takashi Miike's favorite things

Katakurike no Kofuku

Rating: * * *
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Takashi Miike makes a musical! When I heard this news some months ago, my first thought was that someone had to be joking. My second was that, if Miike was indeed remaking the Korean hit "The Quiet Family" with songs and dances, it wasn't going to be "The Sound of Music."

News photo
Keiko Matsuzaka and Kenji Sawada (middle row, left and center) in "Katakurike no Kofuku"

In such shock-cult items as "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer," Miike had produced the cinematic equivalent of gaman taikai (tough-it-out contests). His images of demented torture and depraved sex had wiped smirks off the faces of even hardened deconstructionists -- types who thought they celebrated "irony," until "irony" came straight at their eyeballs.

Miike, however, is not a dull obsessive, but a cool dude with an antic streak, who delivers his gross and gruesome effects with the sort of screw-you cheek that is the essence of rock/punk/rap rebellion, as interpreted by everyone from Alice Cooper and Johnny Rotten to Eminem. Call his bad attitude adolescent if you will, but Miike, who has said his second career choice after film director was being a lead singer in a band, has the performer's instincts to make his brand of outrageousness work. He may not always play in key (and couldn't care less), but he gets the crowd moving and, in this business, that's all that counts.

Making a musical, even one like Miike's "Katakurike no Kofuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris)" is not like standing on a stage with a chain saw, however; you have to be able to choreograph all those leaping and strutting bodies, while segueing from speech to song. It helps, in other words, to have a bit of Stanley "Singing in the Rain" Donen in your soul, even if several of your performers are zombies.

Miike may not be the most obvious choice for such an assignment, but he is far from the worst. The story -- about a hapless family running a failing pension, whose guests mostly end up dead -- is right down his outlandish alley. Also, his staging of the songs by Koji Makaino and Koji Endo, which range from comic rap to uptempo numbers with sentiments straight from a motivational tape, is always energetic and occasionally inspired. He has made what could have easily become a mess into a film that is unmistakably Miike. That said, those who come expecting campy, light entertainment may get more than they bargained for. This is Miike, after all, who has a way of slamming nihilistic shivs into his most life-affirming moments.

The aforementioned family are the Katakuris: patriarch Nihei (Tetsuro Tanba), dad Masao (Kenji Sawada), mom Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka), daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida), son Masayuki (Shinji Takeda) and tot Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), Shizue's offspring from a failed marriage. They live in a pension that looks like a Swiss Alps reject, but is many lonely kilometers from civilization (i.e., the nearest convenience store).

Why are they there? Restructured from his job as a shoe salesman, Masao fulfilled an old dream of running a pension with the whole family pitching in. He bought this place because he had heard that a highway would be built nearby, but he was misinformed.

Finally, the first guest arrives, a weary little schlump who goes straight to his room. When Masayuki brings him a beer, the guest glumly asks him what he would do if he knew this night were to be his last. The next morning the Katakuris find him lying dead on the floor -- and immediately burst into song. Like I said, folks, a Miike musical.

Terrified that reports of this untimely death will kill his fledgling business, Masao decides to bury the evidence. After overcoming opposition from Terue, the others agree to dispose of Mr. Loner, with all the appropriate rites.

If only it was an isolated incident . . . but it isn't. Next to arrive is an enormous sumo wrestler and his diminutive girlfriend, who promptly set the floorboards squealing with their enthusiastic lovemaking. Suffice it to say that Masao is soon confronted with a logistical problem that makes airlifting Special Forces to Afghanistan look like mailing a birthday card to Mom.

Speaking of which, when ditzy Shizue makes an excursion to Karuizawa with Yurie, she falls head-over-heels for Richard (Kiyoshiro Imawano), a guy in a blazing white uniform who says he is a half-British, half-Japanese fighter pilot with the American Navy -- and claims that Queen Elizabeth is his aunt. She and her new sweetheart then sing a love duet, with the long-haired, wispy-bearded, utterly devious Richard floating up into the sky like Zhang Ziyi on wires. Shizue is in seventh heaven. Too bad about all those bodies piling up back home . . .

This sounds funnier on paper than it is on the screen, at least for the first hour. Never the most subtle of directors, Miike pumps the shock level too high for real laughs. The chuckles stuck in my throat when the first victim appeared, a knife rammed in his jugular and his neck splattered with gore. Wes Craven couldn't have done it better.

In the second hour, the comic momentum builds as the family accepts its peculiar fate (even digging holes for prospective victims), while plot complications start to bear absurd fruit. Several of the songs, such as Masao and Terue's karaoke hymn to marital love and the final all-family dance number, are both hummable and funny. And the claymation scenes, including a cliffhanger battle between Richard and Nihei, add a bizarre spice to the already strange goings-on.

I wonder, however, who Miike's producers thought they were making this movie for. Though Kenji Sawada and Keiko Matsuzaka have strong vocal and comic talent, to Miike's mostly young fan base they are relics. Meanwhile, the film's tone is too sardonic and strange for the oldies who can remember when Sawada was Japan's answer to David Bowie. Miike, though, seems to have had a swell time -- and that's all that counts, isn't it?

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