ON DVD & BLU-RAY
House aka Hausu (1977) dir: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi Blu Ray (Eureka!)
A strange summer vacation
This Japanese horror comedy focuses on a group of seven adolescent Tokyo schoolgirls: Angel (Kimiko Ikegami), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Satô), Sweet (Masayo Miyako) and Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) who make plans to go on their summer vacation at the end of term. Angel had originally planned to go with her father, a film score writer (played by Saho Sasazawa). However, she is still reeling from the loss of her mother and becomes upset when he unexpectedly introduces her to his new fiancee.
The rest of the gang, meanwhile, were planning to go on a school trip with their teacher named Tôgô (Kiyohiko Ozaki) whom they all have a crush on. However, the when the latter’s sister becomes pregnant this falls through. Suddenly, Angel hits upon an idea: the seven could go to visit her aunt (Yôko Minamida) in the countryside. With that, the group goes to Tokyo station and catches the train.
On the train they discover Angel’s aunt’s white cat sitting in their carriage. Presuming it has got lost, they let it sit with them for the rest of the journey. Angel decides to tell the rest of the girls the story of her aunt, who lost her husband during WWII and has subsequently spent her time teaching piano to the young girls in her nearby village.
When they finally arrive, they discover that their aunt is wheelchair-bound and that the house is in a decrepit state. They agree to help her out by carrying out various long-overdue household chores. However, things become increasingly bizarre and dangerous as various items in the house take on a life of their own - and put their own lives in danger.
Watch a trailer:
A film hard to pin down
House is a bona fide cult oddity. Believe it or not, the original idea that Toho studio suggested to director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi was to create the Japanese answer to Jaws. However, beyond the fact that both films are vaguely aligned to the horror genre they are about as disparate in their respective approaches to film as it is possible to get. While House is hard to pin down, it could most closely be described as being a mixture of the psychedelic horror of Suspiria (1977), the slapstick gore of Evil Dead (1981), the pop art influence of The Monkees’ Head (1968), the campy musical elements of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and various Shaw Brothers martial arts fantasies from this period - all after about half a ton of magic mushrooms is ingested.
It’s nothing if not rich in pure audiovisual creativity. If anything, the approach is so incongruously bright and upbeat that, despite its subject matter (a group of girls are offed by a malicious spirit) it’s less horror than anti-horror. It’s a riotous candy shop of colour: unashamedly artificial and garishly-painted backdrops, surreal collage animations, a scene shot from underneath a transparent floor, cheesy montages of youthful innocence, basic but bright rotoscoping work, the gothic-influenced interiors of the titular house, dancing fake skeletons and so on. The music consists of an incessant piano motif, a wildly overdone synth theme that kicks in during the action sequences and a happy-clappy pop song (courtesy of the band Godiego who also created the theme song to the Monkey TV series) with lyrics that go something like this:
“As sure as cherries were made for eating, and fish were made to swim in the sea, you were made to be loved a lot by nobody else but me.”
Add to that a fluffy white cat and the whole thing is about as terrifying as an episode of The Teletubbies - and intentionally so. Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi had taken many of the ideas from his (then) 13 year old daughter Chigumi. He deliberately made the film feel like it was taking place in the naive and fun-loving imagination of a child rather than the comparatively grimly realist one of an adult.
When approached in the right frame of mind (and, preferably, a group of friends to savour the insanity with) House is a lot of fun. Nonetheless, there really isn’t much to it beyond a succession of insane happenings. The girls all have their own strange nicknames, some of which reflect their respective talents: Kung Fu, for example, uses martial arts skills to fend off the various supernatural threats, Prof (who, naturally, wears glasses) uses her brains to work her way out of situations and Melody has a knack for playing the piano. However, despite this they largely seem to be interchangeable personality-wise. There are also various plot points and characters set up early on which never really pay off in a satisfying way. The way in which the schoolgirls are sexualised, while this has long been a part of Japanese popular culture, may also seem a little icky when viewed in a modern context.
At the end of the day a little bit of surrealism goes a long way and 88 minutes of it running virtually non-stop is a bit much, especially without the aforementioned accompaniment of a few friends to chow it down with. Mind you, any film with a semi-animated scene where a girl gets eaten by a piano has to have something going for it, right?
Runtime: 88 mins
Dir: Nobuhiko Ôbayashi
Script: Chiho Katsura, Chigumi Ôbayashi
Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Miki Jinbo, Kumiko Oba, Ai Matsubara, Mieko Satô, Eriko Tanaka, Masayo Miyako, Kiyohiko Ozaki, Saho Sasazawa, Asei Kobayashi, Yôko Minamida
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The film’s colourful look is particularly appealing here on Blu Ray. Some of the darker sequences, however, could have done with a little more clarity. Still, it’s certainly nothing to be sniffed at.
Nobuhiko Ôbayashi interviews
A series of interviews created for the film’s 25th anniversary in 2002. There is an hour and a half worth of interview material here, largely with the director but also with some brief contributions from his daughter Chigumi, producer Shogo Tomiyama and actress Kumiko Oba. He discusses his career prior to making this film (which was in commercials and experimental films) and shows us various press clippings from the lead-up to its release. He also reveals that the story was initially turned into both a comic strip and a radio play prior to being made as a film.
The most interesting sections here are when he discusses how innovative the film and its production were in Japanese film at this time: the recurring promotional image (of a house with a giant tongue) was an unusual way of advertising movies in the country during this period, as was the fact that it brought such young audiences to see it.
David Cairns video essay - Unheimlich Manoevres in the Dark
An entertaining and remarkably literate dissection of both House and its director. Cairns points out the film’s post-modern aspects such as one of the film’s characters making reference to another Japanese film (whose English title is Hearts in Mud) which it was double-billed with! This excellently put-together featurette was created by Eureka! in 2018 specifically for this release and thus deserves special kudos.
A trailer and accompanying booklet round out the extras.
House feels more like a filmed pop art exhibition than an actual movie and, as such, is definitely a “love it or hate it” effort. Nonetheless, it is such a unique beast that it should definitely be experienced at least once.