IN THE OPENING scene of Takashi Miike's latest bid for cult status, a young woman screams and becomes a stop-motion animated puppet after digging into her thick soup and pulling up an angelic alien, who proceeds to fall in love with her uvula and eat it. If this sounds like a fresh bit of glee to you, have at it; if it seems an indulgent wank, you'd best head to The Hours with the comfort of knowing that Meryl Streep never turns into a puppet. Either way, you'd be right.
The Happiness of the Katakuris (which runs Friday, Jan. 17 through Thursday, Jan. 23 at the Varsity) has desperate father Masao Katakuri (Kenji Sawada) sweating over the lack of clientele for his guest house in rural Japan, while his supportive wife and troubled offspring suffer the fact that the new family business probably wasn't such a great idea. No kidding: Within minutes, their first guest arrives—a stone-faced man with mysterious goop running out of his nose who heads up to his room and howls an emotive musical solo before his bloody death. Divorced daughter Shizue (Naomi Nishida) meets a crazed impostor who claims he's a long-lost member of England's royal family; further morbidly silly deaths occur; and, naturally, the besieged clan breaks out into choreographed grave digging. Oh, and then there's that climactic volcanic eruption.
Though it's having fun uprooting the dark side of The Sound of Music and other dated, squeaky family musicals, the movie's ludicrous pleasures come from its modern pop knowingness. Karaoke videos and the inanities of television receive gonzo send-ups, and the cast goes after all of it with the feverish, intoxicatingly committed stupidity of '80s products like Xanadu or Walter Hill's rock fable Streets of Fire.
Unfortunately, Happiness' anarchic kitsch has the same draggy frivolousness as those other bits of garish eye candy. It gets a little annoying because you figure out its catchall absurdity long before it acknowledges you do—you're left waiting for yet another odd musical number that comes without any surprise. But Miike's random touches do throw you a curveball when you most need it; there's something sweet about that bunch of decaying corpses chirping happily about the importance of keeping your chin held high.
Sure, if you wanted to, you could poke around in here for some deeper message. Masao is a vigilant patriarch determined to keep his brood together even as the world falls apart around them. ("In the end, it's just a memory," the family sings while marching across a brilliant green hillside.) Miike and screenwriter Kikumi Yamagishi are playing with the sense that theirs is a resilient country not daunted by the horrific beatings of the past.
But you should probably just call it a midnight movie and leave it at that.