It’s long been considered that Jaws, released in June 1975, was the film which established the phenomenon of the “summer blockbuster” which now dictates the budgets, release schedules and marketing of Hollywood product years in advance, but the ripples caused by that great white shark travelled farther still, arriving on the shores of distant Japan.
Inspired to emulate the huge success of that film, Toho, the studio best known worldwide for the long running Godzilla series, sought a suitable vehicle and after a long and complicated process eventually agreed to finance production of a proposal by established commercial director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi insipired by the musings of his young daughter Chigumi.
A series of abstract and surreal nightmares bursting with ideas and inventiveness and technical daring, House (Hausu) went through a prolonged pre-production process before principal photography finally began with a cast of relative unknown performers, only Yōko Minamida and the then-teenage Kimiko Ikegami having significant prior experience.
A deceptively simple premise wrapped in an outrageous and exuberant stylistic package unshamed of the broad influences of cinematic technique far beyond the Japanese tradition and consciously aimed at a commercial market to counter the strong inroads American film had made into domestic box office revenues, during production Ôbayashi considered using the pseudonym “Baba Mario” in honour of Mario Bava to whose work he pays homage.
It is the end of the school year, and best friends Angel and Fantasy (Ikegami and Kumiko Ōba) plan their holidays, but Angel is distraught to find that her widowed composer father (Saho Sasazawa), recently returned from working on a film in Italy, has remarried and she has a new stepmother, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi).
Changing her plans, Angel contacts her mother’s sister and requests that she visit her in the countryside to stay, bring with her, Fantasy, Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Sato) and Sweet (Masayo Miyako), and by train, by bus and by foot they set off to the remote house of Auntie (Minamida).
With broad performances and a cartoon style which makes no pretence at realism, animated interludes and glorious painted backdrops consciously presented as such, from the opening scenes there is a haze permeating House which conveys the dreamlike quality of the fractured narrative even before the fantastical elements are presented.
With slapstick editing and transitions, superimpositions, slow motion and rapid intercutting, Ôbayashi deploys every trick he mastered in the two thousand commercials he directed prior to this genre-defying feature, an eccentric musical comedy fantasy horror where the constructed artifice means no ridiculous development seems out of place because everything is.
Each of the girls introduced by their nicknames which indicate their personalities and each given a unique style, House being one of the first Japanese films to employ a stylist in such a fashion and it is a colourfully coordinated visual treat whose good nature means the horror is always safely contained, never threatening.
At times it may test the tolerance of those who have limited patience for giggling schoolgirls but with dismemberments, killer pianos, martial arts, demonic cats and hungry spirits, the film is unable to sit still for a moment, and in setting out to break the tradition of the Japanese ghost story Ôbayashi establishes his own precedents.
Whether by coincidence or design, specific images in the film will be familiar from later echoes in works by other directors, the cracked mirror of The Watcher in the Woods, the giant face emerging from the wall of Poltergeist, the bathtime hair horror of The Grudge and Ring.
Release by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range, the disc also features an informative video essay by David Cairns exclusive to this edition and an extensive and somewhat meandering interview with Ôbayashi and others involved with the production carried over from the 2002 25th anniversary edition.