When talk turns to Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, it’s usually to exclaim how weird it is, how mind bogglingly, singularly eccentric its take on the haunted house story is. And for once you really can believe the hype. From the very start, this is a strange film (the opening title is the English word “House” which squirms around the frame, the “O” sprouting fangs and a voice growls “hausu!”). Beneath the weirdness it’s a fairly straightforward, even mundane story but it’s the battery of visual trickery that Obayashi unleashes on it that makes it so memorable.
Teenager Angel (Kimiko Ikegami) – named Gorgeous in some prints – is hoping to spend the summer with her father (Saho Sasazawa), a film composer recently returned from Italy. But her plans are dashed when he returns home with a new wife, Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi). Angel is devastated and decides to spend the summer at her aunt’s house in the country with a group of school friends instead. Along with the brainy Prof (Ai Matsubara), musician Melody (Eriko Tanaka), martial artist Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), the always hungry Mac (“it’s short for the American word stomach”) (Mieko Sato), the bubbly Sweet (Masayo Miyako) and daydreamer Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) she arrives at the house where they are greeted by her aging Auntie (Yoko Minamida). But it isn’t long before strange things start happening – Mac disappears while trying to retrieve a watermelon from a well, Fantasy is bitten by Mac’s disembodied head when she goes looking for her and Auntie disappears into the refrigerator. Soon the girls are fighting for their lives against mirrors that possess those who look into them, futons that smother Sweet and a piano that hacks off Melody’s fingers…
House is the sort of film where it’s next to impossible to even begin unravelling the director’s thought processes as he was making it. Obayashi had been hired by Toho to make them a film in response to the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) but in the video Constructing a House, included on the Criterion blu-ray release, Obayashi revealed that he’d consulted his pre-teen daughter on what kids wanted from a horror film and she told him that “adults only think about things they understand… everything stays on that boring human level.” So the director swore off the rational and mundane and studiously avoided anything that smacked of the “boring human level.” Indeed the script he co-wrote with Chiho Katsura was deemed so off-the-wall that Toho had trouble finding a director willing to take the film on and it took the company two years to agree to let Obayashi take a crack at it. Writing in Sight & Sound in March 2010, Jasper Sharp notes that Toho vice-president Matsuoka Isao told Obayashi ““This is the first time I have seen such a completely meaningless script. But maybe it’s a good thing I don’t understand. Please don’t try and make it into something I can comprehend.”
The result is certainly an energetic film that should keep you hooked throughout even if you hate the one-dimensional characters (largely played by a cast of newcomers, the younger characters so thin they’re simply named after some character attribute/stereotype) and struggle with the blandness of the underlying story the constant barrage of visual tricks and treats and moments of inspired insanity will see you through. There’s a singing and dancing cat, a hungry piano, killer futons, a giant set of flying, disembodied lips and so much more. Auntie occasionally breaks the fourth wall, grinning knowingly at the audience and dances with a living skeleton that pops up from time to time. “It’s unscientific,” one of the girls says of their predicament. “Irrational. Unnatural. Unreasonable. Absurd.” Obayashi is pretty much writing every reviewer’s copy for them not that the film was widely reviewed in Japan at all. It was pretty much ignored by the mainstream when it was released on an unlikely double bill with the teen romance Dorodarake no junjou/Pure Hearts in Mud. But young audiences loved it and although the double bill was released with Obayasji’s film as the support feature, Toho quicky swapped the films around when audiences started reacting more favourably to House.
The film developed a cult following in the west based on the awed reviews of those lucky enough to have seen it at rare screenings or festivals though it didn’t get an official theatrical release in the USA until 2010 and appears never to have been released to cinemas in the UK. DVD and blu-ray releases brought it to wider attention, and we were finally able to see what all the fuss was about. There’s rather too much slapstick that doesn’t travel particularly well and you won’t be scared by it or even care one jot about the characters, but you will have a wild ride for 88 minutes. The BFI, who at the time of publication were hosting the film on their BFIplayer streaming service) describe it as “a rollercoaster ride without brakes” and that’s as accurate a summation of it as any.
Whether House is actually any good or not seems a moot point – what would you compare it with anyway? It’s just what it is, a one-of-a-kind art experience that defies logic rather than a traditional narrative. That will be enough for some and a massive turn-off for others. Revel in its weirdness, its deliberately cheap effects (at one point a matte fringe becomes a weapon) and rock band Godiego’s sappy score (they also scored the hit television series Saiyuki/Monkey (1978-1980), performing the theme song Monkey Magic) and you’ll find much to enjoy here. Beneath the hysterical, colour-saturated surface lurk a few semi-serious issues. Obayashi wrote the wartime flashback with his own experiences in mind – as a child, he’d lost most of his friends and family in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima – and there’s a teen-friendly subtext about the older generation preying on the young – Auntie becomes notably younger and more vibrant following each death.
It’s a notably female-led film. Hardly any male characters appear and when they do they’re either useless, objects of ridicule or both. There’s a weird – and not a little creepy – roadside fruit seller and the school teacher, Mr Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki) who one of the girls has a crush on and who has agreed to join them on their holiday (don’t even start trying to make sense of the moral issues that one raises…) who spends the entire film trying to get to the eponymous house aboard a variety of vehicles and constantly gets lost before transforming into… bananas. It’s entirely consistent with the fact that House came originally from the mind of an 11-year-old girl who probably would have seen adult males as absurd and essentially useless.
Obayashi came from a background of advertisements (made for Japanese television and featuring the likes of Kirk Douglas, Charles Bronson and Ringo Starr) and experimental short films before he made his feature debut with House. It was the start of a long and interesting career that also saw him take on the less frenetic ghost film Ijin-tachi to no natsu/The Discarnates (1988) and the live-action manga adaptation Toki o kakeru shôjo/The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), later remade several times, perhaps most notably by Mamoru Hosada as an animated film in 2006.