House (Hausu)

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Screenplay: Chiho Katsura (story by Chigumi Obayashi)
Stars: Kimiko Ikegami (Gorgeous / Gorgeous’s Mother), Kumiko Ohba (Fantasy), Yôko Minamida (Auntie), Ai Matsubara (Prof), Miki Jinbo (Kung-fu), Masayo Miyako (Sweetie), Mieko Satoh (Mac), Eriko Tanaka (Melody), Kiyohiko Ozaki (Mr. Togo), Saho Sasazawa (Daddy), Haruko Wanibuchi (Ryoko Ema)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1977
Country: Japan
House Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
HouseTo truly appreciate Nobuhiko Obayashi’s bizarro experimental horror-fantasy trip House (Hausu), you have to appreciate how it upended virtually everything about Japanese cinema at that time. The legendary Toho Studios--which, like the other major Japanese studios, was in a period of significant economic transition and uncertainty--had bought the rights to the screenplay two years earlier hoping it could be turned into an indigenous Jaws-style blockbuster, but it remained unproduced because they couldn’t find a director willing to take it on. Meanwhile, Obayashi was cleverly preselling the film by releasing a host of ancillary products (a soundtrack album, a novelization, comic books, a radio adaptation) to feed audience desire and put pressure on the waffling studio.

Obayashi was eventually allowed to direct the film himself, even though he had never directed a feature before (his experience was in short experimental films and television commercials, of which he had directed hundreds throughout the 1970s, including ones with American stars like Charles Bronson), and once he was handed the reins, he never looked back. Unlike most aspiring directors, he went against the grain by refusing to follow in the footsteps of avowed masters like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu (the former of whom was considered unemployable at the time and the latter of whom had passed away almost 15 years earlier); in fact, his basic approach to directing the film was to ask himself what the masters would do, and then do the opposite, which made him even more radical than the pioneering New Japanese filmmakers who had helped turn the tide in the 1960s. Obayashi’s unconventional (if not directly confrontational) approach extends to both the film’s visuals, which are composed of a dizzying mash-up of eclectic, highly artificial styles, and the soundtrack, in which the pop group Godiego mixes a beautiful, haunting piano score with sudden explosions of guitar- and synthesizer-driven rock music that sound like outtakes from an Emerson, Lake, & Palmer concept album. He even went so far as to give the film an English-language title, something that was never done in Japanese cinema.

Obayashi had the benefit of working during a time of great upheaval in the Japanese film industry, with flagging ticket sales and an influx of raucous young filmmakers who were more than happy to thumb their collective noses at rigid Japanese cinematic conditions and traditions. Yet, even when judged against that backdrop, House is still a supremely bizarre and, in many ways, ahead-of-its time experiment that takes postmodern absurdity and bricolage to its narrative extremes. There is nothing that Obayashi is not willing to try, and House plays as a wild compendium of kooky cinematic techniques, all of which are designed to draw our attention to the artifice of it all without sacrificing our involvement. It is an irreverently playful film, audacious in the way it refuses to take anything seriously even as it impresses with the scope of its visual and aural ambitions.

The screenplay by Chiho Katsura was based on original story ideas by Obayashi’s daughter Chigumi, who was only 11 years old at the time. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the film has a decidedly child’s point of view and is reflective of a young imagination that has yet to be made cynical by experience. The story centers around a teenage girl named Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami) who takes six of her friends to spend spring vacation at the rural home of her beloved Auntie (Yôko Minamida, the only professional actress in the film). Gorgeous’s friends all have names as silly and obviously indicative as hers: Fantasy (Kumiko Ohba), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Kung-fu (Miki Jinbo), Sweetie (Masayo Miyako), Mac (Mieko Satoh), and Melody (Eriko Tanaka). Gorgeous’s desire to go to her Auntie’s house is fueled by a deliciously Freudian subplot involving her widowed father (Saho Sasazawa) dating a beautiful young woman (Haruko Wanibuchi) who threatens to displace Gorgeous as the apple of her daddy’s eye.

Once the gaggle of giggling schoolgirls arrive at Auntie’s house, it becomes clear that all is not well. In fact, they soon learn that the house is a haunted deathtrap that proceeds to devour them one by one in strange, but oddly compelling ways (one girl is literally buried in bedsheets and futon mattresses while another is dismembered and consumed by a grand piano). Foregoing recent develops in special effects technologies, Obayashi insisted on shooting the film’s many fantasy sequences with old-school techniques, most of which were done in-camera. Thus, deliberately unrealistic touches like painted backdrops, cheap optical tricks, rotoscoping, and stop-motion animation dominate the film’s visual schemes, turning it into a mix of the cartoonish and the surreal. It is compelling in its own right, even if it is impossible to take seriously as anything more than a delirious, envelope-pushing experiment.

House Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
House is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD (SRP $29.95).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • Japanese PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “Constructing a House” documentary
  • Emotion, a 1966 experimental film by Obayashi
  • Video appreciation by director Ti West
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Chuck Stephens
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 26, 2010

    Criterion’s 1080p high-definition transfer was made on a Spirit Datacine from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative and digitally restored. It is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, although unlike most recent Criterion releases of Academy aspect ratio films, it is not windowboxed. For its age and budget, the image looks absolutely fantastic. There is a strong presence of grain throughout, and the film was clearly shot with various filters that soften the image, often giving it a slightly hazy appearance that precludes a great deal of super-sharp detail (although the increased resolution does highlight the film’s heavy use of mattes, some of which are better than others). However, Criterion has maintained its integrity in presenting the film as close to its originally intended look as possible, and in this regard we have no complaints. Colors are bright and strong throughout, whether it be gushing red blood or the green glow of the demonic cat’s eyes, giving the film a decidedly cartoonish appearance. The original monaural soundtrack, which was transferred at 24-bit from an optical track and is presented in lossless linear PCM, also sounds great, with no ambient hiss and a good level of depth and detail for a mono track.
    For those not familiar with House and its intriguing history, Criterion has put together an excellent 45-minute video piece titled “Constructing a House,” which features extensive new interviews with director Nobuhiko Obayashi, story scenarist Chigumi Obayashi, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura. There is also a brief new video appreciation of the film by horror director Ti West (The House of the Devil) and the original theatrical trailer. And, fans of Obayashi’s work will be thrilled with the inclusion of his trippy 1966 experimental film Emotion.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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