Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema series takes us on an unexpected diversion into the confounding byways of Japanese cult cinema with this, the first ever UK release of Obayashi Nobuhiko's mind-boggling, genre defying cult classic "HOUSE" — a 1970s Toho Studios-financed exercise in bringing wild, experimental avant-garde filmmaking sensibilities to a popular viewing audience, that simply has to be seen, but even then, probably still wont be believed!
Imagine an episode of "The Brady Bunch" segueing into the world of Dario Argento's "Suspiria"; think of Godard and Truffaut ganging up to make a teenager-orientated comic-book musical; imagine what the results would look like if Mario Bava had made cheesy '70s perfume commercials — and you're still only a fraction of the way to visualising the utterly bewildering onslaught of bubblegum-whimsy spiked fantasy horror that is Obayashi Nobuhiko's debut feature film. It's an unusual success story that appears to demonstrate what no one would believe possible these days — that uncompromising, experimental visual and narrative ideas can be, not just simply smuggled into a mainstream feature film, but displayed proudly upfront as a selling point. Obayashi's bizarre tale of a possessed, man-eating house that targets a gigglesome bunch of Japanese schoolgirls as its lunch, was attracting crowds of excitable teenagers to the studio doors on its very first day of shooting, so cleverly had the director, with the clout of the publicity department of the mighty Toho Studios behind him, managed to whip up a storm of expectation in the preceding years, way before the production had even got the green light. Obayashi had already overseen a mixed media campaign that had resulted in a novelisation, Manga comic-strips and even an acclaimed one-hour radio play helping to seed the huge amount of interest in his strange little project; a project that had started life as Toho Studios', probably misconceived, attempt at replicating the success of Steven Spielberg's "JAWS"!
Yet it had all originated in the mind of Obayashi's eleven-year-old daughter ...
Obayashi had long ago rejected Japan's rigid, hierarchical studio-based system of filmmaking. Having grown up pursuing his interest in cinema, making his own 8mm animated films during his childhood before moving into experimental filmmaking while at University in the '60s (where he became quite a recognised figure in the field), the director had taken his restlessly inventive style, with all its avant-garde techniques, and forged a successful career making Japanese commercials, which occasionally afforded him the opportunity of working with Hollywood stars like Charles Bronson and Kirk Douglas. Already then, Obayashi was successfully combining the twin worlds of the underground film community and the values of the glossy feature films being produced and screened by Japan's big film studios. His work in commercials enabled him to reach as wide an audience as he would have had had he been a conventional studio director, while still retaining a similar degree of control to his experimental films. It was the best of both worlds; but when Toho executives saw "JAWS" they decided to take the unprecedented step of bringing in an outside talent — Obayashi — in order to try and produce something comparable of their own. The thinking was that since that film's young American director, Steven Speilberg, had started out making his own 8mm films before gradually working his way into the Hollywood system, Obayashi would be better placed to create a film with the JAWS appeal, since he had had a very similar career trajectory.
After considering various scenarios on a similar man-versus-animal theme, with little luck or inspiration, the director eventually consulted his young daughter, asking her what kinds of images she considered to be scary. She gave him a number of ideas and scenarios which found their way into the finished screenplay; one involved a reflection climbing out of a mirror to attack its possessor, another featured piano keys biting at the fingers of the player. Realising he couldn't compete with the typical Hollywood blockbuster mentality armed only with a screenplay based on the ideas of his eleven-year-old daughter, Obayashi resolved to bring all the cinematic bells & whistles he had habitually used in the making of his commercials and in his life as an experimental filmmaker, to bear on his first big studio-financed feature film, and the result is a marvel of pure cinema, looking exactly like you'd expect a small-scale avant-garde film like Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou would look if you supplied it with all the financial resources of a major Hollywood studio.
The story is deceptively simple, displaying the prominent fairy tale elements of stories like Hansel & Gretal or Snow White mixed in with sugary spoonfuls of teen melodrama and given a whimsical cartoon-like presentation that gradually turns more and more darkly Gothic. Beautiful and fashion-conscious Angel (Ikegami Kimiko) leaves school for the summer holidays, eager to join her widower father for their annual break away together. But, horror of horrors, daddy has found himself a new girlfriend and this wistful-looking new beau (who wafts about in her own perpetually rose tinted slow-motion breeze, even when indoors!) is very keen to get to know her potential stepdaughter, proposing to join Angel and her dad on their break.
The spoiled Angel is having non of it though, and decides to take a trip to see her Aunt instead, running away in a fit of pique to her relation's rambling house set deep in the Japanese countryside. Meanwhile, Angel's one-dimensional schoolfriends, all of whom are known only by their cutsey character-defining nicknames, are forced to change their plans at the last minute after their hopes of going off to summer school with handsome teacher Mr Togo, fall through. So why not join Angel in her country adventure, instead?
By this point in the narrative, the viewer will be more than aware that this movie doesn''t play by the same rules as most others. The sheer scope of its melange of colourfully divergent visual styles, and the relentless barrage of in-camera trickery, composite shots, process shots, matt paintings, not to mention a range of animation styles that include having the images hand-drawn straight onto the film, and the endless succession of genres being parodied — all of which seem to be tripping over each other's heels to get onto the screen; all this and more, soon lets you know that you're in for a tumultuous cinematic joyride and your only option is to sit back and surrender to the madness of it all.
In just the first few minutes, the film has already metamorphosed several times, from "Gone With The Wind" sunset illuminated melodrama, to zesty comic-strip teen romance, to children's storybook parody — complete with pure blue skies and big fluffy white clouds painted on the backcloth scenery. The train ride to the aunt's house is interrupted by Angel's reminiscing portrayed in the style of a sepia tone silent movie, which, it turns out, her friends can all see too, since they then proceed to commentate on the visuals! Other sequences play like they're straight out of a cheesy, choreographed comedy teen-musical, with the background characters maniacally bobbing in time to the '70s pop sounds that fill the soundtrack. Oh yes ... the music! A crazy mosaic of themes — some, overly romantic piano motifs, others completely bonkers pop excerpts. Each of the seven girls seem to get their own theme tune so the audio track gets pretty crowded at times. Apparently the soundtrack by then-newly formed band Godiego is itself now a cult item.
The seven young girls eventually make it to the aunt's house and if the viewer isn't already completely exhausted by this point, they certainly soon will be as the movie veers into territory that appears to anticipate by ten years Sam Raimi's animated slapstick approach to "Evil Dead 2". The ramshackle house is your typical Gothic pile, familiar from countless western horror movies: the dim interior is festooned with cobwebs and the occupant, angel's white-haired aunt, appears to be rather more sinister than you'd normally expect. It turns out that she is merely a Poe-like manifestation of the house itself, which now wants to consume anyone who comes near it because of the history of emotional trauma that has previously plagued its walls. She also likes to boogie down with a plastic skeleton that springs to life every now and then! The visual style is almost a perfect re-creation of the look of Mario Bava's great Gothic classics, and since Obayashi was originally keen to use the pseudonym Mario Baba for his director's credit, I think it is safe to assume that this is no coincidence! When the on-screen insanity really begins, however, the wash of green and phosphorescent red lighting gels that flood the screen is inevitably going to invoke comparison with "Suspiria", though this definitely must be coincidental since Argento's film was only released in the same year "HOUSE" was being shot.
The second half of the film is a crazed cacophony of set-pieces with the house dispatching each of Angel's friends in a dizzying and relentless array of bizarre sequences involving, among many other things, a decapitated head flying out of a well and biting one unlucky recipient on the bottom; face-smothering futons; murderous grandfather clocks; and, in probably the film's most insane and memorable sequence, a piano that chops up the only musical member of Angel's troupe of teenage friends, leaving just five of her fingers free to continue plink-plonking a tune all by themselves! The audio-visual onslaught is both cartoonish and grotesque as the stylised bloodletting and the animated insanity reaches a fever pitch of inventiveness, the house filling up with a schoolgirl-dissolving blood-red tidal wave of liquid by the time we reach the momentous climax.
"House" was a huge smash in Japan when it was originally released there, although it has rarely been seen abroad since. This new Masters of Cinema release is sure to bring the film to a whole new audience of fans, not just of cult Japanese cinema in general, but anyone who enjoys the lurid, the bizarre and the strange in their viewing. It may be a little too quirky for some tastes but this is pure cinema just as surely as was "Suspiria" — with all other considerations bowing before the visual and audio experience; it just happens also to play well to fans of Nippon TV cult favourite "Monkey" (the involvement of Godiego not withstanding), with unashamedly cardboard cut-out characters (as well as scenery!) and an amazing array of crazy supernatural action sequences.
This Eureka DVD presentation is very pleasing. Presented anamorphically in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.55:1 (with thin black bars visible down the side of a widescreen monitor), the transfer may look a little soft in some places and a little dark in others, but overall the preserved film grain and the texture and colouring of the image gives it a very nice film-like feel, that enhances the viewing experience. You get the original theatrical trailer included as expected, but there is also a 90 minute documentary produced by Toho studios for the film's 2002 25th Anniversary Japanese DVD release. This mainly consists of Obayashi talking directly to camera in what looks like a video cassette-lined study, with a pile of House-related scrapbooks at his side. A calm and quietly spoken man, Obayashi's mellifluous tone of voice and easy manner reveal him to be someone who evidently has a great deal of pride in the film under discussion. The director takes us right through the entire production history of "HOUSE" from his early days making experimental films against a background of the rigid studio system then operating in Japan, right through to the publicity campaign he instigated before the movie was even shot. His scrapbooks reveal a meticulously ordered collection of materials, from journalistic articles, publicity stills and artworks. He even has a perfectly preserved copy of the script; and a business card he had drawn up at the time, with the HOUSE logo! Obayashi is an accomplished and engrossing speaker and the viewer's attention never lags for a second as he talks us through the whole amazing story of the film's inception. But this footage is occasionally interrupted by a charming conversation between the director and his grown up daughter and co-screenwriter Chigumi Obayashi, as well as an interview with one of the Toho publicity executives, Shono Tomiyama, and the actress Kumiko Oba, who plays daydreaming schoolgirl, Fantasy. Obayashi, meanwhile gives an interesting account of the production, including the friendly atmosphere he tried to generate on set by addressing even the lowliest crew member by their first name, and how the use of a lighter style of Panavison camera enabled him to indulge in some of the film's wilder, acrobatic camera manoeuvres. This is an insightful and enthralling look at just about everything to do with the creation, the shooting, and the marketing of this outrageous film.
The DVD will also include a luxurious booklet with writing by Paul Roquet, stills and promotional material. This was unavailable for review, but is sure to be of excellent quality if the usual quality of Eureka's Masters of Cinema series is anything to go by. This comes very highly recommended to all.