Hausu (House), Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi, Special screening at the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival (June 25, 10 p.m. at the IFC Center)
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu (1977) is one of the most coveted cult films to emerge from the fantastic realm of Asian cinema. Those who’ve seen their fair share of flying guillotines, lysergic Thai spaghetti westerns, and schoolgirl-with-machine-gun movies understand this is no easy feat. Hausu (phonetization of the word “house”) is a haunted house movie (surprise!). It’s also a comic teen romp about seven preternaturally happy and charming high school girls on summer vacation. Obayashi displays an obvious love of horror films, pumping up the tropes to a level beyond self-parody. Hausu features a bright, shiny veneer that might seem incongruous to the genre if the film weren’t so ecstatically deranged. There’s Vaseline on the lens for idyllic moments à la vintage Ivory Snow adverts, and before you can say “schizophrenic” there’s a disembodied head biting a girl on the ass. Janus Films now has United States rights and a nice HD master. If you’re lucky, you caught one of the sporadic airings on IFC. Now there’s a chance to see it on the big screen: Subway Cinema will feature a special screening of Hausu in this year’s imminent edition of the New York Asian Film Festival (June 19th – July 5th).
The first clue of Obayashi’s agenda slaps our face at the very beginning. An animated title card spells out “A Movie.” The name of the film then appears in English. The letter : “O” has fangs (and bites off a hand), and a creepy Igor voice ominously utters “Hausu.” Obayashi employs every cinematic device to dispel any plausible connection to reality. Sure there are schoolgirls in sailor suits, just like real life. But what about those painted backdrops and facial superimpositions? As our young heroines walk through a pastel field that appears half-natural and half-pre-fabricated, one of them comments, “It’s as if we were in another world.” Indeed, Hausu proves the most purely cinematic experience since George Méliès landed on the moon.
While this was Obayashi’s first feature, he emerged from a successful career directing popular TV commercials (preceded by a background in experimental filmmaking). He has been credited as one of the first to use American celebrities in ad campaigns, like the infamous spots for Mandom (a line of male cosmetics) featuring Charles Bronson. Hausu not only quelled Obayashi’s thirst to make a feature-length scary movie, but also served as a portfolio of the flashy cinematic techniques he learned in the blindingly fast world of television advertising. Even if no salient meaning can be gleaned from Hausu’s litany of severed heads, carnivorous pianos and Technicolor daydreams, it is telling how the pervasiveness of the media had fragmented our collective attention span. Much of Hausu is cut into 30-second segments—a constant commercial for itself, pulling out all stops to grab our attention every step of the way.
Reportedly the idea for the film’s story came from Obayashi’s then seven-year-old daughter Chigumi. That might explain a few things. The plot centers around a pretty girl nicknamed Oshare—the Japanese word for “fashionable.” Oshare’s a slightly vain, ultimately sweet daddy’s girl, always conscious of looking good. No wonder she’s the lead character, since Obayashi’s film centers on, lives and breathes style. She’s looking forward to a vacation with her father. When he returns a day early from a business trip in Italy, Oshare asks, “How’s the score going?” Daddy responds, “Leone says it’s even better than Morricone’s!” That’s only one of the more overt “nudge nudge, wink wink” moments in the film.
Turns out dad’s got a new fiancée and vacation plans fall through. A dejected Oshare, still mourning her dead mother, decides to visit her auntie in the countryside. Meanwhile, the summer camp run by the sister of hot teacher Mr. Togo gets cancelled, conveniently allowing Oshare’s six wacky school friends to accompany her. The girls are named after their special traits—like the assassination squad in Kill Bill: Kung Fu is athletic and good at martial arts, Melody plays music, Gari (Japanese slang for “studious”) wears glasses and has a brain, Fanta is a dreamer, Sweet is cute, shy, and likes to clean, and Mac—as in stomach—likes to eat. If only real life were so easily categorized.
Obayashi’s playfulness with cinema constantly blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. The girls arrive at Tokyo Station, ready to embark on their journey. The heavenly blue sky and modern cityscape above the grand train station are obviously painted. The set appears as artificial as the cutting camera techniques that have led up to the scene in quick succession: crazy wipes, zooms and irises, not to mention stop-motion slapstick wherein Mr. Togo falls into a metal bucket and slides down the street. The shot of the girls at the station cuts to another obviously fake blue sky background which is quickly revealed to be a mural on the station wall. Ah, so the painting really is a painting this time. Obayashi forever teases us, revealing that everything is not as it seems. This is accompanied by the most sugary bubblegum theme song this side of the Evolution Revolution. Imagine if 1970s Disney recruited Dario Argento to direct a Jodie Foster tween/teen vehicle.
Once the girls are on the train there’s another savory “wink wink” moment. A man (Obayashi in a cameo?) is shown reading a book titled “Horror Movies,” (replete with Frankenstein on the cover) only to be obscured by an iris focus on Oshare’s phantom white cat Snowflake sitting next to him. Before we have a chance to absorb the diegetic meaning of the kitty, Obayashi cuts to a little boy passenger looking at a children’s book about a train. The pages of the book turn into a colorful animated sequence that melds back into the girl’s window view of the passing scenery. It’s simultaneously kid-friendly and psychedelic—a pretty fair barometer of the film’s style as a whole. Not including the morbid bits, of course.
Oshare tells the girls the story of her auntie’s doomed love: a romance shattered by the war. The tale appears as a silent movie flashback, with Oshare and the girls acting as gossipy narrators. At first we see the sprockets of the tinted film. At one point the celluloid catches fire. Certain items (a letter, a rose) are suddenly colored red. Title cards appear; frames skip as an old worn print would. All the while the girls’ distracting comments give the feel of looking at a photo album or a really strange home movie. It’s a perfect example of how Japanese cinema has honed the art of meta-narration. Obayashi also manages to throw the image of the mushroom cloud into this sequence, maintaining an odd balance of bright, light, dark, and absurd tones.
The girls’ adventure, culminating in their long night in auntie’s disheveled, curio-cluttered mansion, is one of the more perverted Campbellian odysseys this side of The Wizard of Oz. Once inside the house, the trickley sweetness emphasized in the set-up gradually gives way to phantasmagoric terror. As the house comes alive, the girls find themselves in a desperate fight against supernatural forces. Accentuating the creepiness are (literally) steamy scenes of the girls bathing before the gruesome proceedings begin—a weird juxtaposition of forbidden titillation and cruel punishment.
The special effects are mesmerizing, fascinatingly analog: Colors and shapes drawn on the film itself, cat’s eyes that glow translucently green, stilted matte work, and, of course, a dancing skeleton. The piano sequence that escalates to a crescendo of wild effects is not only a discomforting exercise in Grand Guignol, but also creates mise-en-scène akin to paintings by Dalí and Bacon (picture a goldfish bowl superimposed over a piano with a chomping mouth). Hausu was a box office success in Japan. Obayashi went on to direct numerous popular films of varied genres, though never quite as insanely magical as his feature debut. Hausu is early evidence of the strange effects of globalization: a movie obviously hatched from a bizarre alternative universe where candy-coated acid dreams are the status-quo of popular culture.
David Wilentz dreams in color.