The audacious, prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike ("Dead or Alive," "Audition") has watched his underground audience shift from the cultists to art-house denizens. But his "Happiness of the Katakuris" attests that this is one director who will never be accused of selling out his vision.
If anything, Miike remains a snarling, perverse artist, adopting an acid style in pillaging his country's social and cultural manners. Shooting in digital video, Miike achieves some startling pictorial affects, blending deadpan, surreal live action with the claymation effects of Misako Saku - replete with images of bodies turned into X-rays, skin lacerated, eyes bulging.
Though the result is a distant, hyperstylized exaggeration of form and movement, the film itself turns repetitive and exhaustive.
The story (narrated from the perspective of a beautiful young girl) pivots on the declining fortunes of Masao (Kenji Sawada), the patriarch of a middle-class Japanese family. After Masao loses his job in the economic downturn, he puts the family's remaining assets in a remote private guesthouse. In this dysfunctional family, the mother (Naomi Nishida) is vacant, the brother (Keiko Matsuzaka) a sullen punk, and the daughter (Shinji Takeda), the young narrator's mother, is a romantic dreamer desperate to escape her suffocating surroundings.
Complicating matters, the private inn is virtually inaccessible, and the absence of guests only further depletes the family's perilous finances. The guests who finally turn up, including a sumo wrestler and his underage girlfriend, have a propensity to wind up dead.
The opening hour is often spectacular, set off by Miike's deranged use of movement, color and space. Miike turns the guesthouse into a centerpiece of death, disfigurement and destruction (while the family, as in "The Sound of Music," breaks into pop songs and ridiculous dance numbers). But it is emphatically not kitsch, as the complicated family dynamics create a giddy pull and loopy rhythm.
Unfortunately, by the second hour, Miike's story fails to punctuate its powerful setup, and the work, much like the family itself, ends up a tangled mess.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Happiness of the Katakuris"
Directed by Takashi Miike; written by Kikumi Yamagishi; produced by Hirotsugu Yoshida; cinematography by Hideo Yamamoto; music by Koji Endo and Kouji Makaino; edited by Yashushi Shimamura; visual effects by Misako Saka; opens Friday at the Landmark Century Theatres. Japanese subtitled. Running time: 1:53. Not rated by MPAA (not for children - cartoonish violence, language, sexual situations).
Masao - Kenji Sawada
Shizue - Naomi Nishida
Terue - Keiko Matsuzaka
Masayuki - Shinji Takeda