Time for a quick catch up with our old friend Takashi Miike with a look at Yakuza Apocalypse and an over due viewing of The Happiness of the Katakuris. A variety of deranged pleasures can be found in both of these, from a director whose work is often as unhinged as it is diverse. But how else to describe a vampire gangster movie and a story about a series of unfortunate deaths which is also a musical? I can only try to discuss some of the madness you can expect to find here, but I will give it my best shot.
So while it's hard to say either one of these films has a synopsis less strange than the other, I'll go with Happiness for an opener. A man from the city moves his whole family out to the countryside to start a new life running a guest house for travellers, and things soon start to go wrong for them in a variety of ways... I don't just mean the total lack of business because of the location. The premise is taken from a Korean film The Quiet Family, though I suspect it probably has less pop songs. One particular incident involving characters striking poses and singing their dialogue after finding a suicide victim on the premises stands out to me for just how bizarre things are about to become as it all unravels.
Cult films from Japan are rarely surprising any more, but every so often things like this manage to appear as fresh and off the wall. Entire scenes are dedicated to dancing around as the family members go through both strange and mundane situations. Odd side characters show up pretty frequently from a con artist trying to seduce one of the daughters to a sumo wrestler trying to have an affair with a school girl; of course none of this ends well. Weird visuals and weird acting are all par for the course here, and while some scenes feel like detached scenarios which breaks down the pacing a little too much it's consistently amusing.
A lot of the publicity material seems to focus on zombies that appear for only one scene, and are actually some kind of vision of horror after things have started to get out of hand. Presumably nobody knew how to advertise this in the West, and who can blame them. It's completely uneven and changes gears fairly often, but it's hard not to find it all likeable. It's not a top tier level of crazy or quality in Miike's back catalogue or in terms of strange world cinema releases, but it's a good time most of the time. I haven't even mentioned little things like all the claymation effects and transitions in style the film takes every so often, but I think it's best left for a first viewing discovery like so many other things here.
So about those vampire gangsters. Yakuza Apocalypse has the opposite problem here in that the pacing and structure are all pretty conventional, but by the end the weird elements are piling up so much it doesn't know what to do with them all. There's the out of town syndicate enforcer who dresses like a priest from the middle ages and his side kick; a bespectacled foreigner with a backpack full of manga posters... who's a martial arts assassin. The latter is played by Yayan Ruhian from The Raid films which adds to the surreal nature of all this. Later there are creepy basement knitting groups, natural disasters and creatures from Japanese folklore. The best one of these is a guy they hire to clean things up in the third act. It's definitely a frog mascot suit, but it is also definitely a monster of some kind... and it's also another martial arts expert. And all of this is meshed together in the guise of an action crime thriller.
Kageyama, a young man who admires the local crime boss and his followers, joins their ranks as a low level enforcer. Despite not being able to get the traditional tattoo because of a skin condition he tries to uphold their code and do the right thing. In this opening section things are pretty bland, but luckily the vampires get unveiled early on. When the boss refuses to comply with an out of town faction things go badly wrong, and Kageyama finds himself acquiring new blood sucking powers as well as being stuck between his former colleagues and the syndicate members. But this isn't Anne Rice we're talking about here. He drinks from the locals with a pointed tongue rather than fangs, and the word "suck" briefly appears on their faces. Soon they revive as surly yakuza thugs themselves - as do their own victims.
To describe how this all comes to a conclusion isn't a simple task but the real problem is the anti-climactic nature of the final scenes. This begins to tease a spectacle somewhere between The Muppets and Godzilla but it doesn't really deliver on standard unarmed combat either. Which is a big shame considering the build up and the casting I mentioned earlier. Plot strands are left unfinished or unexplained, and I guess that's not a big surprise at this stage but it feels pretty underdeveloped and once the credits rolled I wasn't too sure how much of this delivered. Maybe they didn't know what to do or this is all intentionally cut short. What youre left with is various strange fantasy stuff, some action and enough blood to satisfy those urges. But the frog suit, have I mentioned the frog suit? Those sequences alone might give this all a pass, but only just.