Sunday, August 23, 2009


Title: HOUSE (ハウス)
Distributor: Toho (1977)
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Screenplay: Chiko Katsura
Genre: Fever dream horror

Japanese cinema played by a different set of rules 30 years ago. While the past decade has seen unknown directors breaking into the industry via V-cinema, during the 70’s it was unheard of for an independent to receive big studio distribution. Directors were bound to their company, more senior staff than creative visionaries.

This makes Nobuhiko Obayashi’s work on House all the more groundbreaking. Obayashi started his career directing commercials featuring foreign celebrities and music, which was visionary in it self. Check out his Mandom commercials featuring Charles Bronson as a professional outlaw/professional beefcake or Thomas the Tank Engine chugging along to Ringo Starr.

Colleagues begged Obayashi to create a film that could compete with big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. With Jaws as the baseline, he dreamt up the story of group of girls who visit an old house in the country, only be devoured in turn by the house itself! The execs loved it, but the in-house directors didn’t want their names to be associated with such a ludicrous concept. After a two year marketing blitz including a radio play and novel, the studio broke down and made history by allowing Obayashi, an outsider, inside their closed system.

For those of you who gauge their horror by the body count, House provides a full cast of seven girls to be minced and mangled in increasingly creative ways. Our young idols include Fancy, the spoiled heroine; Fanta, the romantic; Melody, the musician; Kung-Fu, the sporty one; Brain, the studious one; Mick the stomach; and Sweet, the girl-next-door. Going by the characters' names alone you can see why no one was willing to step up and direct. Our first clip starts out slow but establishes the victims and Obayashi’s unique humor.

Once the girls arrive in the countryside they are greeted by Fancy’s aunt, whose health has been deteriorating since her fiancé was lost in WWII and is now confined to a wheelchair. It soon becomes apparent that something is amiss as the girls begin to disappear one by one.

The other girls laugh off Fanta’s story and return to the joys of simple country living. Still, as the bizarre occurrences escalate they can’t shake the feeling that something is watching them, and notice it odd that the aunt is beginning to reclaim her youthful vigor.

All bets are off as the house enters full-on murder mode. Director Obayashi treats the film as a stream of vaguely interconnected commercials, making sure that each scene is packed with the same amount of visual pizazz as a 30-second TV spot. The computer effects in House are laughable by today’s standards, but at the time they provided Japanese audiences with a horror fantasy land never before captured on film.

Pouring over the aunt’s diaries, Brain puzzles together the house’s terrible secret: That the aunt actually died long ago and is trying to possess her niece, Fancy! The omnipresent white cat Snowball is the source of the house’s power, but does this knowledge come in time to save the girls?

Is House a haunted house film? Slapstick comedy? Teen idol romp? Obayashi was more concerned with making an enjoyable film than a cohesive narrative, and his unorthodox vision shines through in every schizophrenic cut and maniac effect. House is a labor of love and a perfect example of ingenuity born from technological limitations. If you don’t dig the animation overlays and hokey blue screen graphics, you’re as bananas as Mr. Togo!

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