Forgotten Films: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House
Reaching a few decades into the past I unearthed the outstandingly bizarre and beautiful Japanese horror film House that was directed and (partially) written by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Frankly, it is truly difficult to attempt a clear description of what makes House so strange, yet so worthy of screenings and discussion. The film was extremely successful upon its 1977 release in Japan and has recently gained a notoriety and cult-status within the United States (somewhat due to the Criterion Collection DVD/Blu Ray release). To Western audiences, House is both culturally accessible (clear nods at specific haunted house horror tropes) yet strikingly foreign. The way in which the tone and pacing change on a moment’s notice can be jarring, but also adds the surrealist quality that the film attempts to attain.
The film’s premise can be broken down into a simplistic plot: A young girl named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) is distraught over her father’s choice to remarry and is beckoned to the isolated country house of her distant relative (Yoko Minamida) to stay for the summer. Gorgeous is accompanied by her six classmates whose names all relate to some aspect of their identity (ex: Mac—short for stomach—enjoys eating, while Prof wears glasses and reads). The house is haunted by the vampyric spirit in the form of Gorgeous’ Auntie whose wish is to feast on the young girls one-by-one. This may seem simplistic, however, House incorporates a wide range of cultural motifs from Japanese folklore—the house is possessed by a cat-demon known as a bakeneko—Western pop-culture, and historical subtext surrounding the atomic bomb and World War II. There also is a floating head that bites a young girl’s butt before projectile vomiting blood.
For some historical context, House was greenlit by Toho Studios (Godzilla, Seven Samurai) and was intended to be billed as the Japanese Jaws. Much like the film industry in America, the Japanese saw some decline in theater attendance for traditional Japanese cinema. Popularity of pinku eiga cinema in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s had left studios scrambling to compete (Pinku or “pink” Japanese films is a term referring to erotic cinema that does not have a clear Western translation. Early pinku cinema seems closest to early sexploitation films in the United States. Pinku is a general term used toward sexually explicit Japanese films). After seeing the success of American directors Steven Speilberg and George Lucas’s summer blockbusters Jaws and Star Wars in 1975 and 1977, Toho was willing to allow Obayashi to experiment with technical effects and film structure; hence, what viewers witness in House.
In an interview Obayashi confirmed that upon conceiving the film he referenced his eleven-year-old daughter on what would be truly terrifying to her; therefor, some of the scares and plot are literally derived from the mind of a child. There is a man who turns into a pile of bananas with no explanation, a strange smiling and dancing skeleton that makes several appearances, and two choreographed musical sequences harkening to Scooby-Doo cartoons. At the same time there are truly horrific and terrifying images. As the house starts to literally eat the characters blood spews from clocks and walls, the floors open to a sea of frothing blood, and inanimate objects graphically (and somewhat surreally) dismember the teenagers. It also is apparent that Obayashi threw every experimental technique at the film: there are elaborate matte-paintings that match cut to the environment the characters traverse, hand drawn animation sutured into frame, and nightmarish lighting that gives the entirety of the film an otherworldly quality.
It is true that House is not for everyone. The tone is unorganized and jarring, the mixture of fantasy, comedy, slapstick, and graphic-gore laced violence may be too much for casual viewers. What makes the film so interesting is the effect is has on the viewer. After viewing House it is difficult to accurately explain what is so great, yet outright bizarre about the film. In my opinion it is this tonal relationship between nightmarishly surreal film technique and (literally) juvenile narrative that strikes such a chord. The soundtrack is haunting and there are numerous cultural and folkloric references (both Japanese and Western) that keep the narrative entertaining and bewildering. For instance, the connection between folkloric fairy tales and horror is seen most prevalent through the naming of the seven girls and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At the same time historical connotations between the Japanese loss of World War II and the use of the atomic bomb makes several appearances (while traveling to the house Auntie’s story is given a visual flashback in which her fiancée is forced to join the Emperor’s army and dies in the Pacific. There is a quick cut to the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima paralleled against Mac proclaiming: “Ooh, cotton candy.” An adherence to cultural amnesia in relation to the destruction of World War II is palpable throughout the film).
House is something to be screened at least once (perhaps more for cult-film/horror fans). For the horror fan the film produces great sequences of grizzly terror, yet distances somewhat with sequences of slapstick, synthesized folk-pop infused comedy. To be frank, it is strange. There is a startling sequence in a bathtub in which strains of thick, black hair trace up a young woman’s back from beneath the water that harken to the later Ringu and Ring films of the 1990’s.
Technically bizarre and exciting, House ceases to amaze even in our current age.
In case you weren't convinced, here's the trailer: