Film and Television Features

House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)

“We’re lost in another world.”  Watching Nobuhiko Obayashi’s zany House [Hausu] (1977) for the first time seems to prompt a series of inquisitive one-line comparative taglines as in the case of Criterion Collection’s apt promotion for the recent stateside release:  “A psychedelic ghost tale?  A stream-of-consciousness bedtime story?  An episode of Scooby-Doo as directed by Mario Bava?”  (I’ll throw my own onto the pile: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House as re-imagined by eccentric video game developer Suda51?)  House is a creative dwelling of imagination, a kinetic progression of hyperbolic logic and funhouse trickery that comes to resembles a bizarre feature-length television commercial; camera wipes, fast cuts, superimposition, shifting points of view, washed out colors paired with glowing animation, black and white projector footage, painted backdrops, and sugary synthesized pop music (from Asei Kobayashi and Godiego) are implemented with heightened flair.  If overstimulation wasn’t Obayashi’s intention, he certainly achieves a unique mood through his artistic amalgam; however, the manipulations drowned in excessive blood in the latter half of the film feel a bit gratuitous and confusing, and House devolves into a lampoon of its own purposeful parody.  Still, it’s hard to deny the genre-pushing weirdness and abandon of self-important seriousness of a film that was ahead of its time, a precursor to the hyperactive animation and editing techniques of the modern era.

As if establishing a jam-packed twenty-two minute show instead of a feature four times the length, Obayashi instantly unleashes a fury of expositional cuts from the onset of the film.  In the absence of a credits sequence, a short title animation prefaces the overlaying camera frames that expound a teenage fantasy universe.  In a memorable montage, a team of seven high school friends -- Fantasy, Gorgeous, Kung-fu, Mac, Melody, Prof, and Sweet (named to predict their tendencies and assigned roles in the film) -- visit the hilltop mansion of Gorgeous’ aunt (Yōko Minamida) after an invitation arrives during summer vacation.  Following a series of peculiar and surreal experiences, they come to learn the house is haunted by the spirit of her aunt who died while waiting for her husband to return from the war.  Clearly, this sort of absurd horror premise financed by major Japanese studio Toho was repudiated even when it rose to success from the support of its younger audience.  Fellow Toho director Tom Kotani as well as Toho crew members and distributors all offered disheartening comments about the “unfortunate” fame (or infamy) of House, and instead encouraged Obayashi to embrace a more realistic and tonally consistent film in the future.  In House: the Housemaidens,” essayist and teacher Chuck Stephens attributes those sentiments to the studio’s expectation of a replication of Spielberg’s Jaws and the creative stagnation in Japanese art cinema as it shifted from the prior decade’s yakuza pictures (from directors like Kinji Fukasaku and Seijun Suzuki) and the New Wave (Kaneto Shindō and Hiroshi Teshigahara) toward uncertain realism.  As a definitive outlier, Obayashi imbued his own creative spirit in House by employing intentionally artificial special effects; his philosophy was to “turn (technical) experimentation into expression,” thus creating his own language.  Reigning as the first film in Japan to incorporate television images, the director combined emerging techniques with the medium’s preexisting standards in what could be called a collage of new media.

Most integral to the creation and successful development of House was actually Obayashi’s daughter Chigumi (credited as ‘story scenarist’), a grade school student at the time of the film’s pre-production.  Father Nobuhiko utilized the vivid unbridled perspective of a child and her relationship to the world that needn’t have rational explanation, like a house that sequentially eats girls, for instance.  This honest adoption of youthful imagination is largely responsible for its great resonance with the fifteen-and-under audience (despite parental disdain for its nudity and blood) through critics’ and the studio’s lambasting.  Today Chigumi notably recalls a conversation with her father where she proposed her own reflection in a mirror that morphed into an attacker.  She also adds the memory of a strict music teacher slapping her hands on piano keys inspired the dizzying sequence with Melody and the carnivorous piano.  The origins of these scenes and more in House are particularly interesting, because they don’t dismiss ideas based on premise but rather demonstrate a rare fusion of the adult and child worlds.  This fosters an innovative appreciation of the film medium in general.  Even though Nobuhiko Obayashi’s name is inseparable to House as its visual experiments, the film is a stark re-discovery and collaboration of possibilities.  Because it fully embraces anything and everything, the film builds a strange tone throughout its unrestrained eighty-eight minutes that can easily be seen as indecisive.  House is propelled toward a continuous discovery through a literal brainstorm.  Stephens complements this visual evolution by writing how it is “far more focused on the telling than the tale.”  True; it’s pure storybook entertainment... with buckets of blood and all.