A coming-of-age story about a clique of teenage schoolgirls who will never grow old and a demon spirit in the guise of a spinster who was never young, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s eye-poppingly demented, jaw-droppingly inventive House is 1970s Japanese pop culture at its most delightfully unhinged extreme—a midnight movie about nubility and dismemberment marketed to a matinee audience of adolescents and “office ladies,” a predigital maelstrom of cinekinetic visual ingenuity produced during one of the most tepid seasons in late twentieth-century Japanese filmmaking, a modern masterpiece of le cinéma du WTF?!, originally released on the bottom half of a double bill with a treacly teen-idol romance called Pure Hearts in Mud and sporting a tagline that exhorted viewers to witness “How Seven Beauties Were Eaten!”
Disney had his seven dwarves, Kurosawa his seven samurai. For Obayashi (with the help of his eleven-year-old daughter, Chigumi, who provided many of the story ideas), it was seven teenage damsels in distress—Carrie raised to the seventh power, Suspiria spiraling ever upward into some psychedelic seventh heaven. House is a film that must be seen to be believed, and then seen again to believe that you really did see what you think you saw. A haunted and apparently hungry piano devours a girl named Melody, first finger by finger, then chunk after jagged chunk of her naked teenage torso; a Louis Wain–like portrait of a fluffy white bakeneko (ghost cat) redefines pussy power when it begins spewing more blood in a tiny four-mat room than The Shining’s elevator does in the entire Overlook Hotel; a chubby chick nicknamed Mac (short for stomach) seduces a watermelon away from a watermelon-shaped watermelon vendor (who’s actually the composer of the film’s soundtrack, and the voice behind the lower-than-Lurch enunciation of the film’s title, spoken aloud over the animated opening credits as if announcing, through a ragged loudspeaker, the beginning of a haunted-house ride at the fair); and before you can say “Sigmund Freud,” the girls’ favorite hunky schoolteacher is transformed into a man-size bunch of bananas. And that’s just for starters: in Obayashi’s House, there are many, many rooms . . .
What Toho Studios was hoping for when it hired Obayashi was a homegrown Jaws: a locally produced summer movie roller coaster sufficiently thrill-chocked to at least partially deflect the ongoing onslaught of Tokyo-box-office-topping New Hollywood hits from Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas—something fast and loud, with tons of fun packed between screams. In the Japanese cinema of the mid-1970s, “fast,” “fun,” and “homegrown hit” were in short supply. Adults-only pinku eiga (pink cinema) had taken over, and even master genre filmmakers like Kinji Fukasaku found themselves struggling to sustain the successes of the yakuza and other action flicks that had proved so lucrative earlier that decade. The radical glories of the country’s 1960s New Wave had managed to last well into the early 1970s (thanks mainly to the independent funding and screening initiative known as the Art Theater Guild, where Nagisa Oshima would produce such form-shattering works as Diary of a Shinjuku Thief and The Man Who Left His Will on Film), but by 1976, the most trailblazing new Japanese film was the one no one in Japan was allowed to see: Oshima’s sexual-passion-as-radical-politics treatise In the Realm of the Senses, whose shameless thickets of pubic hair ran head-on into the nation’s final visual taboo and which remains to this day banned in its country of origin. (Meanwhile, former Nikkatsu action director Yasuharu Hasebe’s ultrasadistic rape fantasia Assault! Jack the Ripper!—which strictly adhered to that quaint follicular technicality—went on to become a major pinku eiga box-office success that year.)
The year 1977 came and went without a feature film from Oshima or Shohei Imamura. One voice from the past made a not particularly successful return to the screen: Seijun Suzuki, with A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness, a decade after Nikkatsu had famously fired him; another, Akira Kurosawa, continued his forced retirement, having been deemed unemployable. For the mainstream, it was two more in director Yoji Yamada’s seemingly endless succession of Tora-san films, which had come to typify Japanese cinema of the era: homely homilies to the country’s small-town verities, told in heartwarming vignettes about the resilient cheerfulness of their titular traveling salesman, the indefatigable Tora, forever clad in fashionless polyester and trademark stingy-brimmed fedora, his salt-of-the-earth wooden geta tapping out a blocky clippety-clop as he sets off once again down some rustic highway for places all too well-known. And to top it off, Yamada had managed to fortify his Tora-san quota that year with the Japanese Academy Award–winning tearjerker (and pan-Asian box-office triumph) The Yellow Handkerchief—a film as far from any rebellious youngster’s definition of hip as On Golden Pond is from Easy Rider.
But unbeknownst to most of the audiences packing theaters early in 1977 for Yamada’s dramas—or for the only other surefire box-office hits on the local horizon, a string of teen-o-centric romances starring seasonal sensations Momoe Yamaguchi and Tomokazu Miura (so identified with their status as a silver-screen couple that they were known simply as Momo-Tomo)—Nobuhiko Obayashi was already very much a filmmaker in their midst and of their moment, even if his first feature wouldn’t be released until later that year.
A pioneering figure in the Japanese experimental film scene that sprang up at the end of the 1950s, Obayashi (born in 1938) had begun making short Super 8 movies in 1956, and soon became closely associated with fellow cineastes Donald Richie and Takahiko Iimura, with whom he would cofound the experimental film collective Film Indépendant in 1964. Obayashi’s 8 and 16 mm short films almost always centered on young women emotionally stranded between skipping rope and the skipping heartbeats of first love: sprightly and painstakingly pixilated visions of female longing, of adolescents forever distracting themselves from their imminent coming-of-age with quasi-carefree (and, under Obayashi’s percussively pianistic editing strategies, graphically dazzling) games of hopscotch and hide-and-seek, at once bewitched and bewildered by the mostly peripheral (though, as in his 1966 masterpiece Emotion, often somewhat comically and ominously vampiric) men hovering in their midst. Today, Obayashi remembers mainly the impact that seeing the first films of the French New Wave, particularly Godard’s Breathless, had on his and his compatriots’ sensibilities, although on the evidence of as early an Obayashi film as 1960’s Dandanko, Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren, who’d been similarly experimenting with mixing hand-drawn and collage animation with live-action, often quirkily pixilated footage since the 1940s, seems equally to have had his (perhaps secondhand) influence. Whatever its inspirations, Obayashi’s implementation of a variety of “handmade” filmmaking approaches (not unlike some of A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester’s pop art stylings) seemed custom-designed for a certain strain of somewhat less than radical 1960s youth culture: his was a sensibility steeped in a romanticism far more Truffaut than Godard, and as politically and aesthetically muted when compared with contemporaries like Oshima as a Peter Max might seem in comparison with Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns.
No wonder, then, that Obayashi wound up in advertising—hired by a producer from the Dentsu Agency, after a screening of the filmmaker’s experimental works, to bring some of their giddy visual invention to the world of television commercials. (See writer Paul Roquet’s lengthy discussion of Obayashi’s career at midnighteye.com for further details of the director’s formative years and more.) What followed were among the most striking examples of celebrity-buoyed surrealism in the history of Japanese advertising: a succession of spots featuring stars as once glittery as Kirk Douglas and Sophia Loren, pitching everything from Hondas to hand lotion, and climaxing in the kitsch-classic collection of commercials for Mandom men’s deodorant starring a buckskin-clad Charles Bronson on horseback, galloping across John Ford’s Monument Valley, stopping only for a shirtless cool drink or to pinch his leathery squint toward epic sunsets, while American country singer Jerry Wallace confirms that “All the world / Loves a lover” with a saddle-smooth campfire croon. Both the Mandom song and the series of Bronson commercials became huge hits in Japan in 1970, long before House brought Obayashi mainstream fame, and it was a lesson in marketing synergy the filmmaker would never forget.
Obayashi spent nearly two years preparing the narrative and commercial particulars of his feature film debut, first concocting House’s script from the collection of frights his preteen daughter suggested, then conspiring with the pop group Godiego (pronounced go-die-go, like the fourteenth-century Japanese emperor Go-Daigo) on the film’s assortment of pop ballads and searing synthesizer boogie, all in time for the soundtrack album to be released well in advance of the film. Care was taken, too, to season the film with timely cultural touchstones: here an appearance by a Tora-san look-alike, there a ringer for actor Bunta Sugawara in his then popular Truck-yaro (Bastard Trucker) guise; there’s even a reference to Pure Hearts in Mud, the Momo-Tomo romance to be released as the surefire A feature to House’s marketing gamble B. As for the myriad stylistic flourishes (faces that melt into flame, a disembodied head hungrily nibbling on an unwary butt) that make Obayashi’s film so visually overwhelming, it was as if the director had been preparing for them his entire experimental filmmaking and advertising careers. The story of a motherless teenage girl named Gorgeous (Oshare: “fashionable”) who, disappointed by the imminent remarriage of her soundtrack composer father (“Leone said my music was better than Morricone’s”), precipitously cancels their planned summer vacation together and instead sets out with six of her schoolmates (Melody, Mac, the bespectacled Prof, the ever dreamily fantasizing Fantasy, the soft-spoken Sweet, and the fit and fearless Kung Fu) for a visit to her long-unseen maternal aunt’s house in the countryside . . . But who cares about the story! House is a film far more focused on the telling than the tale, haunted by more formalist freak-outs, sudden excursions into time-warping slow motion, and ludicrously lysergic, analog-age matte effects than any other twenty Japanese films released that or any other year.
The narrative, in its essence, is in fact a rather well-worn one in Japanese folklore and horror movie culture, familiar from such films as Kaneto Shindo’s kabuki-bound Black Cat and Nobuo Nakagawa’s lurid Ghost Cat Mansion. Gorgeous’s aunt (played by veteran screen actress Yoko Minamida, who’d appeared in Kenji Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-fei and Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships) turns out to be a cross between a Kanto Plain Miss Havisham, left to wither at the wedding altar when her betrothed (played in flashback by Tomo himself) went off to war, and a classic half-feline, half-harridan Japanese monstrosity—a kaibyo—a vengeful soul capable of constant transmigration between the handy vessels of woman and cat. What makes Obayashi’s film so thoroughly extraordinary is twofold: first, the virtually limitless visual variations and sound design fever schemes (cocks crowing, babies wailing, piano glissandi and thunderous waves crashing on an unseen shore) with which he transforms the story’s traditional elements (which go beyond those bakemono/kaibyo components to include, among other things, various evocations of ukiyo-e illustration master Hokusai’s famous ghost-headed Oiwa lantern), to such a startling degree that Japanese audiences in the 1970s, as do audiences around the world today, found the film fresh and utterly new; and second, the obvious glee Obayashi takes in pushing the roricon (Lolita complex) richness of his subjects—a bevy of tender beauties, most of whom appear in increasing stages of undress as the film progresses—as he torments and terrorizes them. Not since the work of outsider artist Henry Darger, who ransacked children’s books to create epic collage tapestries depicting armies of oft-naked girl warriors in battle, have so many magnificently demented possibilities for simultaneously empowering, imperiling, and eroticizing pubescent young women been gathered so dazzlingly together in one place—and never at such a speed-demon pace!
House was a hit in Japan, and though it never attained Jaws-size success, it did secure Obayashi’s place in the Japanese filmmaking firmament, where he remains to this day, a still popular director of best-selling-novel and manga adaptations, many of which center on schools full of superpowered students who can warp time or swap bodies with a best friend of the opposite sex, all in the interest of a more magical coming-of-age. (So recognized are Obayashi’s successes in Japan that in 2009 he was honored with the badge of the Order of the Rising Sun, an imperial recognition for distinguished Japanese and non-Japanese alike; Clint Eastwood was so honored that same year.) He even made a version of the Abe Sada story, upon which In the Realm of the Senses is based—though in Obayashi’s simply titled Sada, our heroine’s sexual extremism naturally finds its roots in a melodramatically charged manga moment of teenage trauma, which leaves the famous emasculatrix scarred for life. But even if, over the forty-odd features he’s made during the past thirty-plus years, Obayashi has yet to again attain, or sustain for the length of an entire film, the heights he reached in House, the creaking door he so creatively opened onto an even creakier genre—that hoariest of chestnuts, the kids-in-a-haunted-house teen pic—can never be shut: Obayashi rocked the House.
Chuck Stephens lives and teaches in Nashville, Tennessee.