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April 20, 2010


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Nobuhiko Obayashi - 1977
Janus Films 35mm film

Mentioned first by the Denver Post's Lisa Kennedy, and again by Keith Garcia of the Denver Film Society is that House was released in the same year as Dario Argento's Suspiria. Both are horror films about young women trapped by supernatural forces beyond their understanding. What also ties the films is that the stories are rooted in a dream logic that needs to be met on its own terms to be appreciated, if not necessarily understood. In both films, that dreamlike quality starts at the beginning, in Suspiria when Jessica Harper walks out of the airport to a gust of wind, and in Hausu during the scene introducing the high school girls as comic characters with names like Gorgeous, Kung Fu, Prof, Melody and Mac.

The house of the title belongs to Gorgeous's aunt, unseen for ten years. Yet even before that journey, the film exists in an idiosyncratic universe. Gorgeous's bedroom at home is decorated by a pattern of oversized flowers that are unnerving. This is also an environment informed by movies, with Gorgeous's father writing music for Sergio Leone, pointedly artificial exteriors, black and white flashbacks that appear to have made use of some older Toho movies, a moment when the movie appears to burn in the projector, and the projection of a red movie frame. The woman who is to be Gorgeous's stepmother is introduced with her scarf waving in the slow motion wind. Well before we get to the house, House establishes itself as taking place in another world with only a tangential relationship to our sense of reality.

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Is there anyone who doesn't know the basic premise of House by now? For anyone who missed it, six high school girls, their original plan for a summer excursion cancelled, join with another girl, Gorgeous, who has decided to reconnect with her aunt. Gorgeous's motivation is nostalgia for her late mother, brought to the forefront with her father's announcement that after eight years, he plans to marry again. The letter from the aunt inviting Gorgeous to come visit coincides with the appearance of a white cat on the mail box. Gorgeous, her friends, and the fluffy white cat all visit the aunt's house, in a very remote location in the country.

Even though House was produced by Toho, I am convinced that Obayashi was doing his own version of a Shin Toho horror film. Glimpses of films by Nobuo Nakagawa on Youtube have me certain that Obayashi was reworking bits from such films as The Lady Vampire and Black Cat Mansion. House could well have been titled "White Cat Mansion". Some of the special effects and artifice are as wonderfully cheesy as might by found in the space operas directed by Shin Toho's other top house director Teruo Ishii. It's a supposition on my part. Yet, looking at the obviousness of the special effects, especially the piano that eats Melody, is part of a deliberate design. Rather than attempting to create special effects that are meant to be accepted at face value as realistic, and do it badly, Obayashi has taken the opposite tack of not trying to appear realistic with the superimposed animation and color. A more conventional filmmaker would try to make make the unreal look real within the confines of a low budget, and hope that the audience doesn't feel too cheated. Obayashi has chosen to have fun with the obvious fakery with the goal that the audience will go along with the gag.

Beyond what interests Obayashi has in the genre of the fantastic, House also incorporates seemingly disparate styles from his previous work. Primarily working as the extremely prolific maker of television commercials, Obayashi also would make experimental films for over fifteen years. Some of the foolery consists of the kind of sight gags found first in silent comedies, such as the prone body of a male teacher falling head first down a flight of stairs through frame by frame cinematography. There is also the fact that House marked the beginning of Obayashi's career in commercial, narrative filmmaking, a career that is in serious need of greater evaluation.

While the story is credited to Obayashi's then young daughter, the screenplay was one of the first by Chiho Katsura, whose next job was collaborating with Kon Ichikawa. For myself, the real star of House is Yoko Minamida. It is fitting that her last screen performance was again with the director of what may become her best known role. Even those who might not remember her name will be unable to forget the woman with the eye that peers out of her mouth.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 20, 2010 12:33 AM