Saturday, 20 March 2010

House (1977)

Even by the standards of 1970s Japanese cinema Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu) is one very very strange film. But it’s strange in a good way.

It was based on an original idea by the director’s 12-year-old daughter Chigumi. I can’t even begin to guess to which genre to assign this film. It’s sort of a horror movie. It does have a witch in it. It’s perhaps more a fantasy. It’s also a zany comedy. And a teen movie for teenage girls. And an exercise in surrealism. And a comic-book inspired romp. And a fairy tale.

Angel is a high school girl whose father has announced his intention to remarry. Angel takes this very badly, and instead of spending her holidays with her dad she decides to go to visit her aunt, whom she hasn’t seen for many years. And she decides to take her friends along. Her friends’ names are Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Sweetie, Kung Fu and Melody. There are seven girls, because as the director explains it’s a fantasy movie and seven is the correct number for a fantasy movie. Especially for a movie about a house that eats girls. Before she leaves Angel discovers a cat on her doorstep, who more or less adopts her. And when she boards the train with her friends she discovers the cat has stowed way with them. By now you’re probably guessing this is no ordinary cat, and you’re absolutely right.

The girls are hoping that their favourite teacher will join them at some stage, since they’re all madly in love with him. He drives a dune buggy and is generally the kind of teacher that girl students fall in love with.

The aunt’s house is a rather forbidding gothic structure, but the aunt seems friendly. She has somewhat surprisingly glamorous blonde hair and is confined to a wheelchair. Everything goes well until Mac goes outside to the well to retrieve the watermelon they left there to cool, and she doesn’t return. Things take a decided turn for the worse when auntie’s piano eats Melody. The girls now realise they’re in big trouble. But teacher is on the way, and he’s sure to rescue them, because he’s handsome and that makes him a hero.

The plot is weird enough, but the visual style is beyond bizarre. There’s amazing use of colour, and some very innovative editing that still looks cutting edge even today. The film has a deliberately artificial look. This is not the real world, it’s a fairy tale fantasy world.

The acting is just right - it’s totally over-the-top and breathless and tongue-in-cheek all at the same time.

The real genius of Nobuhiko Obayashi undoubtedly lay in the fact that he was prepared to trust his 12-year-old daughter’s instincts and to go with her ideas. This is not an adult’s idea of a movie that kids will like. It’s a kid’s idea of a movie that will appeal to other kids. And some of Chigumi’s ideas are delightfully weird - like the girl who plays the piano, and then gets eaten by the piano.

It’s also interesting in that it’s a horror movie for girls. It’s very girly and very giggly, but since so many horror movies are so obviously aimed at adolescent boys it actually makes a refreshing change. It’s not afraid to be cute. And it captures the dark spirit of fairy tales wonderfully well.

Right up until the time that the cameras started rolling Obayashi didn’t believe Toho would actually give him the go ahead, but to their credit at a very difficult time for the Japanese film industry they were prepared to take a huge risk with such an unconventional property.

Eureka’s Region 2 DVD includes more than an hour-and-a-half of interviews, mostly with Obayashi but also including an interesting discussion between the director and his daughter 25 years after the movie was made.

This is a seriously weird but totally entrancing movie. You’re not likely to see another movie like this one. And it’s also enormous fun.

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