House (the Japanese film, not the US TV series)

Just as there were seven samurai, in House, the 1977 commercial debut from director Nobuhiko Obayashi, there are seven schoolgirls; and just as there were seven dwarfs named Happy, Sleepy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, Doc and Sneezy, the seven schoolgirls are named Angel (who’s always doing her makeup), Fantasy (who’s always imagining things), Prof (who wears glasses and reads a lot), Kung Fu (who does kung fu), Sweetie (can’t remember why), Melody (who plays the piano) & Mac (which is short for Stomach, because she likes eating).

After learning that her father is to remarry, and so as not to have to go on holiday with her new stepmother, Angel writes to an aunt she hasn’t seen in years and arranges to spend the summer with her in her large, ramshackle house on an isolated hill. Taking her six schoolfriends with her, they arrive to find the aunt wheelchair-bound and in poor health, though she recovers remarkably — once the girls start disappearing.

House (whose title in Japan is in fact the English word “House”), was initially commissioned by Toho films to cash in on the popularity of Jaws. Reasoning that a film about a shark that eats people was popular, so a film about anything else that eats people would also be popular, Obayashi wracked his brains for something that wouldn’t be too boringly derivative — at the time, he says (in the excellent hour and half long interview on the DVD) there was a spate of people-eating creature films in response to Jaws, but he wanted to do something different. In the end, he asked his daughter what she would find scary, and from the list she came up with, he got the idea of a house that eats people.

The result is one hell of a weird film.

Is it a horror film? There’s certainly plenty of blood, severed limbs, and people dying in protracted, macabre ways. But the style is a sort of madcap sixties runabout comedy. Prior to making this film, Obayashi was a prolific maker of adverts, as well as, in his spare time, a maker of experimental films, and House seems to be the product of an awful lot of experimentation, wild imagination, and free thinking. Some scenes are deliberately artificial, with a Hollywood musical feel, painted backdrops, and so on. There’s a pop music soundtrack and a lot of playful cutting between shots, pausing of the image, and so on. There’s stop-motion animation (of a man skidding around stuck in a bucket). There’s a severed head that flies around and bites a girl on the bum. There’s a piano whose keys glow in psychedelic colours, and which eats the girl who plays it (though her severed fingers keep playing). Another girl is eaten by a clock, another by a mirror, another by a bath, another is smothered by futons. So, yes, it is horror, but not in the way that, say, Hostel is, or Saw III.

Just as good as the film itself is the long interview with the director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, that comes as an extra on the DVD. Before House was made, Obayashi says, there was really only one way to become a film director in Japan, and that was to join one of the two big corporate studios, Toho or Shochiku (home of Kurosawa and Ozu, respectively), and hope to get apprenticed to the film-making department. You were just as likely, though, to be sent to work in one of the company’s hotels and never get anywhere near a film-set. Even if you did get apprenticed as an assistant director, you weren’t likely to work your way up to actually directing a film till your mid or late forties. As a result, Obayashi says, Japanese films had stagnated, playing safe in both style and content, sticking to tried and tested corporate methods, and dying commercially. Meanwhile, he was working in the boom industry of advertising, and frequently found himself commanding greater budgets for a 60-second commercial than film directors had for a 90-minute feature. People started saying that if only Obayashi were allowed to make a film, he would change the face of Japanese cinema. But even when Toho approached him to discuss the idea, and he pitched House, he realised it would never get made because of the sheer inertia of the juggernaut studio system. So he set about a remarkable media campaign, promoting the film as if it were going to be released by Toho, but before it was even made. He managed to get magazine articles, a novelisation, a radio drama, and even a soundtrack album released in the two years prior to Toho finally green-lighting the project. In the interview extras, Obayashi sits there, smiling modestly, as he thumbs through a stack of scrapbooks showing all the promotional work he did for a film that only existed as a script. It’s a remarkable, and quite inspiring story. By the time House was finally released, it was a storm of a hit.

Nowadays, it’s the sort of film you could imagine Alex Cox enthusing about (whatever happened to Moviedrome?) on some late-night Channel 4 cult film slot. It seems very much a product of the free-thinking sixties (or the generation that grew up in the sixties), but also it’s a teen movie, which seems curiously up to date, as if everything that dated it (like the occasional crude bit of animation) were some postmodern imitation of the movies of the past, knowingly referenced. It’s fast-moving, bizarre, loud, brash, colourful, gruesome, funny, bewildering, and undeniably Japanese.

Just remember that all these stills are from the same film:

Haze

Haze is a short (40 minute) horror film from Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto, who also perpetrated that most harrowing of Asian horrors, Tetsuo (1989) about a man whose flesh sprouts metallic tentacles.

haze

Haze has a similarly nightmarish quality. A man wakes up to find himself incarcerated in a subterranean concrete maze in almost complete darkness. The maze he works his way through is made up of a series of tortuous (and torturous) crawlspaces, which force him to contort himself claustrophobically, often at danger of injury. In one sequence, for instance, he has to shuffle sideways through an extremely narrow corridor. Barbed wire has been laid where his heels would naturally fall, so he has to do his shuffling on tiptoes. And, as if this weren’t enough, a thick metal pipe runs along the corridor, and the only way he can fit into the space is by opening his mouth as wide as possible and grinding his teeth along the pipe as he moves.

This last detail seems a bit forced, as surely all he’d have to do is turn his head? But the best way to watch a film like Haze is discard logic and accept it, just as you’re forced to accept one of your own nightmares till you wake up. At various points the man catches glimpses, through small apertures, of a room where people are being chopped up. He finally meets a woman who’s also trying to get out and the two are forced to make their way down a corridor almost fully submerged in water and floating body parts.

As a brief nightmare, the film works, but is let down by its attempt at an ending. The man speculates on why he’s in this horrific situation, wondering if he’s being punished after some terrible war, or if a millionaire has constructed this underground dungeon for his own perverse amusement. This speculation just serves to get the viewer expecting some sort of satisfying explanation, but in the end (if I’m interpreting the very brief & tacked-on ending right) it turns out to be a sort of pain-induced semi-conscious dream as the man struggles his way back to consciousness having been injured. So it was all “just a dream”, which is hardly satisfying. But I think the best way to enjoy (if enjoy is the right word) a film like this is to forget the ending and just accept it for the Pit & Pendulum-style nightmare that it is.

Kwaidan

More Asian Horror, this time not part of the post-Ringu era, but a classic from 1964. Kwaidan is an anthology film, collecting four of the folk-tale-inspired ghostly horrors of ex-pat writer Lafcadio Hearn, all set in pre-modern Japan.

kwaidan

The Black Hair (from which the 2006 anthology-film, Dark Tales of Japan, got the title and idea for its Blonde Kwaidan segment) tells of a poor samurai who abandons his faithful wife for a new bride from a wealthy noble family. Later, regretting the unhappy match, he goes back to his old home to find it ruined but his wife still there, still spinning on the same old wheel. He spends the night with her but wakes to find himself lying next to a withered corpse, then goes mad as its long black hair comes to life and pursues him through the crumbling ruin.

In The Woman of the Snow, an apprentice woodcutter sees his master frozen to death by the breath of a pale, demonic woman, but avoids a similar fate by promising never to speak of what he has seen. Some time later he marries, though of course doesn’t notice how remarkably similar his bride looks to that very same ice demonness. Inevitably, he breaks his promise and tells his wife what happened that night.

Hoichi the Earless is the rather bleak tale of a blind biwa-player whose skill brings him to the attention of the denizens of the underworld. To stop him from being snatched, nightly, to play before an undead court, a local priest covers Hoichi from head to foot in holy writings, missing only his ears. That night, when a ghostly messenger comes once more to summon Hoichi, all he can see is a pair of ears floating on their own in the air. The next thing we know, Hoichi is screaming, clutching where his ears once were, blood pouring from between his fingers. Lovely.

The last segment, In a Cup of Tea, is a story-within-a-story, as we learn why one writer failed to finish one particular story about a samurai who inadvertently drinks a man’s soul.

kwaidan_eyes

Throughout, Kwaidan makes no attempt at realism, but uses very theatrical sets, sometimes with fantasticated backgrounds, as with the Dali-esque eyes-in-the-sky of the Woman in the Snow segment, which adds to the superstitious feeling that all of nature is alive with a threatening demonic presence.

The most striking aspect of the film, though, is its soundtrack. Kwaidan uses a minimal set of traditional instruments, one of which, at times, sounds almost like an eerily extended human scream. The moments of supernatural horror are made all the more effective by the way natural sound effects drop into silence, as if the characters have fallen into another order of reality, while the sparse music twangs and grunts and screeches.

Pulse

Pulse (2001, Japan) is the first addition to my Rough Guide to Asian Horror, and it’s a strange one. For the first hour or so, you might think it’s a standard J-horror about a ghostly menace lurking inside The Forbidden Room, a website that causes people to become depressed, then either commit suicide or fade away into nothing but a dark stain on the nearest wall. But as the meandering storyline follows its various characters’ growing awareness of the threat, you start to realise this film isn’t going to resolve itself like your standard horror. The depression-plague spreads and begins to depopulate the world. One character asks what if there was only limited space available for the ghosts of the dead, and what if that space was now full? In an echo of the “Crevices” episode of Dark Tales of Japan, rooms sealed with red tape act as incubators in which ghosts of the dead can re-form and return to our world. It’s their touch that spreads the depression-curse.

pulse

Pulse has its share of scary moments, including that Japanese standard, the spook stalking its victim in slow, surreal, jerky steps. In one Birds-like moment, while the camera focuses on one character making a phone call, in the background a young woman casually throws herself off a tower. But in the main, Pulse is not about the sort of scary thrill-fears you expect from Asian horror. It’s a more pervasive, less focused, but far more real, fear of isolation. The graduate student who speculates on there being limited space for the souls of the dead has developed a computer program. The movement of a series of blobs on a screen are controlled by two rules: they cannot get too far apart, and they cannot get too close together. This sums up the film’s rather bleak view of its characters’ attempts to overcome their feelings of isolation in a world where, as one character says, “Words said in friendship with the best of intentions always wind up hurting your friends deeply.”

As a film, Pulse is let down by its opening, creepy J-horror gambits, because they led me to expect something quite different. (The title, of course, doesn’t help. Having watched the film, I still have no idea why it’s called Pulse.) Although marketed in a similar way, this film is less along the lines of Ringu‘s pass-it-on-before-it-gets-you curse or the haunted house scenario of The Grudge and closer, by the end, to something like Day of the Triffids as the horror reaches worldwide-disaster proportions, and a truly bleak feeling at the end which even the most nihilistic of horrors (Audition, for instance) don’t manage. Not entirely successful, but certainly original.