Melodrama and The Happiness of the Katakuris


“With my family, I know I’ll grow up to be really cool.”

Families fall apart. All of them. No wedding provides enough champagne-soaked inertia to keep the party going forever. No repeated rituals from a union’s glory days can overcome its ultimate dissolution. In this way, Tolstoy was dead wrong. Even happy families are falling apart in their own, unique ways; unhappy families are only more spectacular in how they burst into flames.

What keeps a family together?

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), by Takashi Miike, portrays a happy family in uniquely unhappy circumstances. A loose adaptation of the Korean film The Quiet Family (1998), The Happiness of the Katakuris relates a hapless patriarch’s doomed attempt to move his family and run a rural guest house for tourists. The guest house, called “White Lover’s Inn,” is nestled in an abject dump not far from Mt. Fuji, jutting against a fetid lake. Even at peak season, nobody comes, and the family is on the brink of utter ruin. However, just as all hope seems lost, people suddenly start to check in. They just as suddenly begin to die. 

The top-line descriptions of the film inevitably highlight its wild, chaotic character, emphasizing its shambling amalgam of horror, comedy, music, and animation. Anything can happen! Loose, frenetic pacing and incessant shifts throughout the film evoke a collective “Wha?!” from audiences and critics alike, with wondrous and/or disgusted intonation here depending upon your susceptibility to The Happiness of the Katakuris’ odd charms.

For me, the charm is born of the film’s grotesque, dreamlike nostalgia, and uncanny ability to capture a luckless family trapped in a spiraling disaster. But with singing! And dancing! Miike, a prolific director tempered by his start in V-Cinema (Japanese direct-to-video), exudes scrappy, low-budget determination; he goes all out to pursue the melos (or melody) and drama of the Katakuris. While Miike is most notorious for ultra-violence and shocking gore, The Happiness of the Katakuris shimmers with almost Muppet-level cheer and earnestness, even as cadavers pile up and zombies skulk. Most reviews knocked the film for its over-the-top madness and sudden developments. These reviews miss the point. In all its seeming randomness, The Happiness of the Katakuris stems from a very specific vision and clear intention. It’s a perfect family melodrama, characterized by epic gesture and strategic interruption, taken to an appropriately extreme degree.

The film opens with a closed set of doors to an elegant dining room. Operatic music swells as we meet a young diner, eager to eat her soup. This expectant patron could be an avatar for the film’s audience, seated and ready to consume a fine film. However, the young woman hits a hidden encumbrance in her dish and the operatic music begins to skip. She pulls out a little creature from the soup and begins to scream as the film slips between live action and animation. The creature sees her uvula, swoons, and rips it out. The woman falls face first into the soup and the uvula (resembling a heart) flies away. The creature darts to catch it while an earthy, jovial jig reels in the soundtrack. The Happiness of the Katakuris will not be consumed; it will consume you.

A samsara sequence follows in which the creature devours the heart, gets devoured, and then triggers a cyclical series of mutual devouring, which ultimately ends in a bird shitting on Jinpei Katakuri (Tetsurō Tamba), the great-grandfather, who then throws a log and knocks the bird to its death. The Katakuris’ ever-glum grandchild, Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), watches the family dog accost the bird’s carcass while she buries her dead goldfish in the ground. 

Via voiceover, she says, “Around then, I started to wonder. What makes a happy family?” 

The Happiness of the Katakuris serves inevitable death and the threat of annihilation not only as an apéritif, but also as the shadow that spills over the entire meal, even before the blood-soaked titles officially introduce the film. This surreal, animated opening (which owes more to Jan Švankmajer than to Monty Python) begins to teach us exactly how doomed we really are. While I sound heavy-handed here, stark threat is the urform requisite of melodrama, the unyielding force pitted against the perceived frailty of family.

What keeps a family together? The linchpin of the cast is Kenji Sawada, who plays Masao Katakuri, the family’s deflated and bumbling father. Masao has very soft, flabby features and wears drab cardigans. While he dreams of an illustrious retirement, he’s unceremoniously laid off from his job as a shoe salesman, the same job where he met his wife, Terue Katakuri (Keiko Matsuzaka), who worked as an attendant. He takes his severance, and, in his most desperate moment, purchases a run-down house that is to become White Lover’s Inn. He moves his entire family to pursue the dream of health, happiness, and a good life in the face of failure.

The casting of Kenji Sawada proved a major stroke of luck for Miike. Sawada is a Japanese music legend and plays completely against his image in this film. His iconic career as a glamorous musician captivated millions with androgynous beauty in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, fronting bands like the Tigers and Pyg, and eventually enjoying a solo career. Sometimes he’s compared to David Bowie, both because of his status as a bishōnen, or beautiful youth, as well as his relationship to proto-glam music in Japan. His performances and aesthetic were the precursors to the Visual Kei movement, which in turn was a clear influence on Bowie’s interpretation of Jareth the Goblin King. Sawada’s anti-glam move as he inhabits his Katakuri role cannot be understated. Imagine if Bowie played Hoggle instead of the Goblin King.

Miike purposefully plays this deglamorization for subversive and alienating effect. The sight of an aging icon can be disturbing. For example, after a significant hiatus, Flight of the Conchords open their Live in London show with a great bit about this phenomenon:

Bret: Thank you— 

Jemaine: Thanks, London. Now you see the lights have come up, but you see it is us, and you probably noticed that we’re a bit older than we were formerly. We’re not ill…

Bret: We’ve been trying to stay young; we’ve been trying to preserve ourselves like those sexy man-boys that you saw 10 years ago on the TV.

Jemaine: ‘Cause we know that people don’t like good characters that they know from television to get older; I think to them it’s disturbing.

Bret: I mean it’s difficult for us to see you, ‘cause you’re older as well. But the lights are quite dark so it’s quite flattering on you guys. But, yeah, no, us being up here and we remind you of your own, I guess, your own mortality.

Jemaine: Sorry about that…Having said that, let’s enjoy the fleeting moment—

Bret: The time we have left.

Through effective casting, Masao likewise reminds the audience of their own mortality—emphasizing the precarious state of the family, and building a foundation for the film’s melodramatic effect. 

Sawada’s playing against type not only works for The Happiness of the Katakuris’ narrative; it also helped attract the rest of the cast to the project. As a member of the Tigers, Sawada performed “Julie” because of his confessed love of Julie Andrews. Who better than “Julie” to helm your fever dream horror-comedy-musical? In fact, in interviews the rest of the cast recalls how thrilled they were for the chance to work with “Julie.” In one included on the comprehensive Arrow Blu-ray/DVD release of the film, Miike admits that having Sawada in place allowed him to attract the other artists, including Matsuzaka.

If Sawada is the linchpin of the cast, Matsuzaka’s Terue is the linchpin of the Katakuri family. She acts as glue, most often paired in scenes with other members one-on-one to talk them through their troubles. She gets introduced in the film by the hilariously sullen grandchild, Yurie. Via voiceover, as before, “Sometimes, for the sake of her husband or children, an ordinary housewife can do the most unexpected things.” While the film boasts a subversive air, it actually has a very conservative bent towards family roles and expectations. This arc toward traditionalism cloaked in an anarchic texture also reveals and underpins the film’s melodrama. Terue plays to gender-normative feminine expectations of a mother—that is, she is often pulling the family back together after arguments, coaxing her husband and kids to stay together and maintain focus on their shared endeavor. Her maternal aura is most completely expressed by Terue’s exaggerated gestures and graceful movements; Matsuzaka trained in classical dance, allowing her to fully inhabit the choreography while the rest of the cast struggles to keep up.

The gooey center and molten core of this melodrama is a karaoke number between Masao and Terue, which unfolds during a late-night conversation the two have as they realize that they must dig up the bodies they’ve buried and find a new location for the graves. They learn that a new road is going to be installed by the lake: a stroke of good luck for the guest house, but also a threat to the family’s already tenuous plan to hide the bodies and save their reputation. As detailed in Bruce McConachie’s Melodramatic Formations, a key driver of moral melodramatic theater is “the need to protect one’s respectability and, at the same time, to maintain the moral transparency of one’s actions.”

What keeps a family together? 

This karaoke number is another in a series of direct interruptions of tone and style. Terue addresses the audience directly and invites everyone to come together and sing for the first and only time in the film. Subtitles are displayed on the screen as the couple performs: lines in blue with a ♠ for Masao, and in pink with a ♥︎ for Terue. The song is a lush, ‘70s Latin pop ballad, dripping with nylon string guitars and sparkling, lavish synths. As the song progresses, the guest house melts away, and Masao and Terue transform into hyper-glam versions of themselves, much closer to their iconic status as performers than the drab existence they have together as Katakuris. Not only does this song absolutely express their love for each other—“All the hardships are long forgotten / Dreams and joys and so much more / But your gentle, true heart is my solace / Our true gentle hearts are our solace”—but it also features epic gestures, more apt at conveying pure feeling and impacting the audience.

Miike mines authenticity in this elevated, hyperbolic style, and is able to develop his melodramatic narrative on multiple levels. In this moment, the audience gets a reprieve from the ever-present threats around the family. We see the infinite strength of the Katakuris’ bond freed from the limits of failure. While the style has a silliness from the vintage sheen of the karaoke fantasy, we can imagine that this scene is their shared, authentic vision for what is truly glamorous and beautiful. Masao’s extremely glossy lips and Terue’s loosely permed hair complement their formal wear, which is set in contrast against their uniforms from the shoe store, as well as peasant garb they wear in a scene as they trudge along with a heavy cart. 

When I watched this film at Central Cinema in Seattle, an intermission followed directly after the song ends. Masao says, “We have to dig them out,” and Terue replies, “We have to rebury them.” While the intermission was the theater’s own addition to the screening, it played well with the spirit of the film. Miike uses all sorts of interruptions to provoke the audience. Bertolt Brecht employed these effects to get the audience to reflect—to consider the action in the piece from a distance and to make something of it, instead of being drawn in and passively consuming it. Each song, tonal shift, or bizarre animation is laid out to extend and amplify the drama of The Happiness of the Katakuris. There is no pretense of naturalism at play. Each interruption is meant to be felt on an emotional level.

And Miike does this so much better with the Katakuris than, say, Baz Luhrmann does in Moulin Rouge!, another hyperactive musical melodrama from 2001. While Miike emphasizes rawness and subversion in his purposefully ramshackle production, Luhrmann burnishes the edges into a too-shiny spectacle that fails to hit home. As brassy as Moulin Rouge! gets, it only paints by numbers. Ewan McGregor plays an ultra-Ewan McGregor character, Jim Broadbent is as broad and bent as he gets, and Nicole Kidman, well, you know. Even the jukebox musical of Moulin Rouge! is saccharine in a gross way that the truly bizarre Katakuri musical numbers avoid. Both productions reek of desperation, but Luhrmann’s is the over-eager drama kid needing to be seen, while Miike’s is the actual punk loser. Both stab at meta-storytelling, too: while Luhrmann’s show-within-a-show drives the plot, Miike’s layers of interplay in, out, and around the film are much more fun to think about.

It’s also just more fun overall.

What keeps a family together?

The main task of melodrama is to pit a vulnerable family against a villain. One of the film’s main villains is laughably paper-thin, a burlesque of a rakish swindler, decked out in a rental navy uniform. He claims to be an American, no, British pilot—related to the Queen, no less—and his is name is Richard Sagawa, played by Kiyoshiro Imawano, another glam musical legend. Imawano lends a stiff charisma to Sagawa that reeks of amateurism and strutting machismo. His target is the Katakuris’ daughter, a divorcée and single mother named Shizue, played by Naomi Nishida. On the morning that the other Katakuris find their first body in the guest house, Shizue is out at a bright plaza with her daughter, Yurie, to get sundaes. Shizue sings a short lament, essentially proclaiming that she’s ready for the magic of love, even if it hurts. Richard Sagawa walks in and Shizue is smitten.

Their song, “The Feeling of Love,” is a shimmering slice of limerence; it expresses the pure intoxication of urgent wanting and feeling wanted. Its island vibe percolates, and the sheer joy of the song is a welcome contradiction to the utter pall otherwise surrounding the Katakuris. “The Feeling of Love” unfolds like a psychedelic Busby Berkeley number and highlights the choreography of Ryohei Kondo. Kondo worked with Miike to choreograph quickly, to respond to the moment and to teach the non-actor/dancer/musicians their parts. The whole cast tries extraordinarily hard, which communicates to the audience as earnest effort even as they struggle to coordinate. This earnestness contrasts with the absurdity of the movie and counterbalances it. Everyone believes in what they’re going for, and there’s no cynical winking at the audience, even as the audience is being continually reminded that they’re watching a ridiculous movie. Fittingly, Richard and Shizue’s song ends with Shizue rolling on the ground in exaggerated paroxysms of bliss, with her ever-sullen daughter eating her ice cream in the sun and staring in disbelief. 

The exuberance of “The Feeling of Love” is only matched by the closing song, “That’s Happiness,” a romp through the fields that yields the film’s iconic imitation of The Sound of Music. “Julie” is finally home. At the end of the closing song, it’s revealed that great-grandfather Jinpei ultimately dies. The family celebrates again, especially as it falls apart bit by bit. And that is the point: life with family is meant to end eventually. While stability is endlessly threatened, happiness springs from burying the bodies together, sticking up for one another, and having some fun along the way, despite the threat of terror in the face of overwhelming absurdity. Movies have a way of finding you at the right place at the right time, and in this melodramatic moment, I’m grateful that the Katakuris found me.