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Okay, there’s a bit of a stereotype when it comes to Japanese films: they’re strange, hard to follow, symbolic and ambiguous and confusing to Americans.
And while that might not always be the case (My Neighbor Totoro is just about the most charming film ever made in any country) no movie exemplifies that idea better than the 1977 horror(?) mystery(?) romance(?) film House (aka Hausu).
Oddly enough, we have Steven Spielberg to thank for the movie, at least in part. It followed on the heels of Jaws, with the film studio Toho seeking a similarly ominous exploitative thriller. The studio turned to Nobuhiko Obayashi, already well-known in the avant-garde and experimental film-world.
More recently, Obayashi had directed a series of commercials with American stars, and was known for employing strange imagery, like in this one below where Death Wish action hero Charles Bronson gets chummy with an over-enthusiastic doorman before throwing his dress shirt into the air (it never comes down), dousing himself in eau d’toilette and repeatedly shooting a revolver, just because.
To develop the story of House, Obayashi turned to his pre-teen daughter, asking her to share stories of her childhood fears. A house that ate girls, a deadly mirror, fingers caught between piano keys all made it into the film, blended with more adult anxieties about atomic bombing and separated lovers.
He submitted the script to Toho, and every single in-house director refused to direct the strange story. Eventually, executives gave Obayashi permission to bring it to life, thanks in part to pressure exerted by fans of his experimental film work.
Perhaps that’s why the final product came out so strange: Obayashi must have felt empowered to create something truly unique. The special effects are deliberately obvious, meant to look as though they were made by a child. And indeed, many of the effects look like finger-paintings, or crudely superimposed like something cut out and pasted together in a book.
The plot follows a group of school girls vacationing in the countryside with a reclusive aunt. One of the girls, Gorgeous, feels resentful that her father has married a new woman; all the other girls are stock characters: there’s the one who loves food, the bookish nerd, the sensitive music lover and the tough martial arts expert.
Soon enough, the girls start getting picked off: a girl loses her head while retrieving a frozen watermelon, a supernatural closet buries another girl in mattresses; a piano literally eats one of them; another one becomes trapped in a deadly clock. Ultimately, a literal bloodbath awaits the survivors, and the film concludes with a message about the importance of telling one’s own love story. Yeah… bizarre.
Few people at Toho expected the bizarre vision to be a success, but to their shock it was a hit — particularly with young viewers. Critics, on the other hand, hated it. Obayashi went on to direct such beloved films as School in the Crosshairs and The Drifting Classroom, both of which are quite strange — including students with supernatural powers and themes of post-apocalyptic fascism — and a little difficult to follow.
School in the Crosshairs features a visitor from space who invades a school to recruit a student army;The Drifting Classroom is about an international school that becomes unmoored in time and stuck in a desolate, deadly landscape.
The movies make little logical sense, but the pleasure isn’t in understanding the story. It’s in sitting back and let the confusion wash over you.
Previously published February 6, 2016.