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: