A day later, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of The Happiness of the Katakuris, a musical parody directed by Takashi Miike. I'm not an expert on Miike, who is uncommonly prolific (IMDB credits him with 50 films just in the last ten years). I've seen his Gozu, which seems to aim at being a less coherent David Lynch film, and Audition, easily one of the most surreal and horrifying stalker films ever made. The temptation is to try and generalize in order to sound sophisticated and cultured ("Well, Miike's use of static angles is both a tribute to Kurosawa and a symptom of Japan's post-war film culture"). I'm going to resist that as best I can, and instead just treat Happiness as a relatively straightforward text.
To its credit, the movie lends itself well to this analysis, because it doesn't really seem terribly deep. The plot concerns the fractured Katakuri family, which has moved to a remote boarding house in order to repair their bonds. Unfortunately, it's very remote and a promised highway has yet to materialize, so business is slow. When boarders do begin to trickle in, the family is horrified to discover that they keep dying overnight. While struggling to cover up the evidence, the Katakuris are confronted with escalating absurdities, leading up to a massive (but oddly localized) volcanic eruption.
Ostensibly, this all takes place as a parody of the musical genre, with random performance numbers interrupting at regular intervals. But in my mind, a successful parody usually includes a hint of whatever made its subject worth the effort, and Happiness seems too tongue in cheek to capture that spirit. Part of this is undermined by the constantly changing aesthetic of the film: it opens with (and sometimes reverts to) elaborate claymation sequences, and the song interludes vary wildly from music-video schlock to seemingly sincere efforts of ridiculous subjects to Broadway-esque excess. It's unfocused.
You could probably try to claim that Happiness of the Katakuris is weird because Americans lack the cultural context for the jokes, but frankly I doubt that's the case--in fact, I think it's usually a copout argument. The impression I get is of a director trying for simultaneous homage and mockery of classics like The Sound of Music, but losing interest halfway through, thus requiring injections of non-sequitor weirdness to rescue the project. Too often, that weirdness feels forced and flat. Maybe Miike just doesn't love musicals as much as he thought he did. Maybe he needed to spend more time with this one. It isn't a bad movie, and at 90-odd minutes, it's not a lot of time wasted if you don't like it. With that said, I simply don't think that the few inspired moments scattered throughout are enough to elevate a quirky but ultimately unenthusiastic film.