There’s a tiresome tendency among Westerners to squeal “wtf japan lol” every time a Japanese film exhibits a minor eccentricity, but sometimes you have to acknowledge a film is very strange. That’s the case with 1977’s House, now released on Blu-Ray by Eureka Masters of Cinema. House was a massive hit in its home country, turning the industry around after some tough years for the Japanese film industry. In the West, its cult has been fuelled in recent years by gifs of its most bizarre moments: flying severed heads, man-eating pianos, dancing skeletons and watermelons a-plenty. It would be nice to report that these images make more sense in the context of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film. They do not.
That doesn’t mean that watching the whole thing is unrewarding, or that you should watch some YouTube compilation of “Craziest Moments From Insane Japanese Horror Film!!!” rather than buy this. For one thing, the film feels like a compilation of bizarre moments anyway. The beautiful and surreal innovations start shortly after the Toho studios logo and keep coming through the end credits. For another, Eureka’s package – which includes a compilation of interviews with cast and crew that’s longer than the film itself – does a great job reclaiming House as something more than a novelty.
Because House is so strange, because it has a candy-coloured aesthetic and teenage girl characters called things like Sweetie, Angel, and Fantasy, there has been a temptation in some quarters to see it as kitsch, to interpret its peculiarities as being as unintentional, or at least something culturally specific that doesn’t translate. This is not the case at all – not least because Isao Matsuoka, the head of Toho, found it as bewildering as anyone. It has some knowingly silly dialogue (“What do you mean, ‘a severed head’?”) but Obayashi is far too talented not to be in on the joke. It was actually a completely ordinary scene of the central characters sat talking to each other that persuaded me that the director knew what he was doing. Rather than move the camera from speaker to speaker, Obayashi uses a modified editing wipe to slide rapidly between close-ups.
Why does he do this, when just tilting the camera would surely have been easier? Perhaps because the effect is subtly discomforting. You understand that something about the scene is strange, even if you don’t pick up on exactly what it is. Another answer would be that Obayashi didn’t want any scene in the film, even the most straightforward exposition scene, to obey the normal rules of cinematic grammar. That interpretation is certainly backed up by the rest of the film, which features superimpositions, iris-ins and -outs, animated sequences, pixilation, cats leaping in and out of frame, floating body parts and a stepmother who seems to be surrounded by a strong breeze that mysteriously affects no other character.
Obayashi started out making experimental super 8 shorts and had graduated to become a successful commercials director when Toho asked him to make their response to Jaws. Uninterested in making a killer-animal movie, Obayashi turned to his pre-teen daughter, who gave him the central concept of a house that eats its inhabitants, as well as urging him to make something imaginatively free. House has a child’s restlessness, as well as an immunity to good taste and subtlety. It’s the sort of film which isn’t content to have a character eaten alive by a piano, it must augment this scene by doodling around the edges of the frame, and cutting away irregularly to a goldfish bowl and a dancing skeleton.
Is House about anything? It doesn’t really need to be: a film this boundlessly inventive needs no other reason to exist. I think you can tease out a commentary on identity and adolescence, though. All of the girls are defined by the character trait that forms their nickname, and as they go through their ordeal they either conform to their stereotype (Mac remains bite-happy even after death) or transcend them. Obayashi’s big statement, though, was the title. Using the English word House for its Japanese release was very unconventional at the time, but it sent a message to the young cinemagoers who made it a hit. This is a film, it said to them, that can challenge Hollywood on entertainment value and win. Watched now, it exists completely within its own erratic, mesmerising orbit.