by Jason Suzuki
You can tell how old a Japanophile is by what their first exposures to Japanese culture were. For me it was the films of Miike and Kitano along with stuff like Battle Royale. And my pop-idol crush was Aya Matsuura. I have a cousin whose pop star is Hatsune Miku and whose anime jam is Wolf Children Ame and Yuki. The only constant seems to be that Nintendo will find its way into there. My exposure to Japanese cinema was happening around the same time as the Korean New Wave which was a major focus for many years, eventually I would see Kim Jee-woon’s The Quiet Family (1998). It had the dude from Oldboy, the father from The Host, and was by the director of A Tale of Two Sisters (don’t worry, I know all their names know). It was a dark comedy, with political undertones, and an amazingly eclectic soundtrack with a range that includes old school rap and The Partridge Family. With Miike’s remake he keeps the comedy dark, loses the politics, but keeps the quality of the music as it is now a musical. He also adds zombies and claymation sequences making for something that gets harder and harder to call a remake with each passing scene of Miike’s amazingly eclectic sensibilities.
A peaceful bed and breakfast sitting on the edge of Mt. Fuji is owned and operated by the Katakuri family. A family of four generations, they celebrate when guests finally start to arrive. Unfortunately each guest winds up dead through different, unlucky circumstances. This black comedy base is built upon by scenes of claymation and musical moments. Miike really wants to portray the Katakuri family as the average Japanese family. They are optimistic despite their lack of economic stability with the inn. Even the dance numbers are meant to convey their average qualities as the Katakuris are just so-so when it comes to both singing and dancing. It is a film where you really feel like anything is possible both in terms of narrative thanks to the claymation sequences which allowed certain things to be done on the film’s small budget and in terms of style also thanks to the opening claymation sequences. But beyond these elements of the film is a great family story at its heart, the granddaughter narrator realizing that just as long as they are together life is good as opposed to economic prosperity.
Probably one of the things I love the most about this definitive edition of Miike’s film is how much discussion there is about Kim’s original film as well. In the two interviews with Miike included on the disc, one recent and one archival, he talks about his exposure to Kim’s film and how he wanted to make it his own. The recent interview done for this disc is the more informative one as Miike plays it too cool in the archival one. This coolness is brought up in the essay included in the booklet on the two films. All this special attention to the Korean original makes me wonder if we’ll ever see Kim’s first two films on HD in the states (The Foul King).
Also included on the disc is a half hour behind the scenes and older interviews with the cast and animation director Hideki Kimura. Some of these interviews dip into redundant territory when talking about how great a time they had making the film. But still, it’s nice to hear from some other people who worked on the film. Veteran actor Tetsuro Tamba is easily the highlight here out of these short interviews that run about 4min each.
But the other fantastic feature unique to this disc is the half hour essay on the work and themes of Miike by Tom Mes entitled “Dogs, Pimps, and Agitatiors.” Mes also supplies the other commentary, Miike doing the other. It’s a great continuation of what he brings up in the video essay but this time able to specifically talk about Katakuris. He’s also able to give us more background to the people in the film for those of us not as familiar with various facets of Japanese pop culture. Mes does let some gaps of silence of creep in but you can tell he loves the film and sees quite a bit more in it than just the basic level of the film’s wackiness.
Sometimes you sort of brush off the films that you watched when you were first getting into something. Arrow’s release of The Happiness of the Katakuris reminded me of the excitement I first had when I dived into the world of Japanese cinema. To say this is top 5 Miike is special when considering that saying this is even top 25 Miike is already high praise. And it’s all the more clear how fun this film is now that it’s been given the treatment it deserves. Hopefully future Japanophiles can include this as one of their first films they saw on their weeaboo journey.
Jason Suzuki is the co-editor of Cinema Adrift.