House (1977)

House first published by Little White Lies

It is the second half of the ’70s. Single, middle-aged salarymen are still eating up whatever exploitative sensationalism Japan’s movie studios will feed them, but the all-important under-thirties market has been all but lost to the attractions of television. So Toho turns to Nobuhiko Obayashi, then a trend-setting director of commercials and experimental shorts with no prior experience making features. Hoping to pull the youth ticket back in, the studio asks Obayashi to deliver them a horror movie in the mould of Steven Spielberg’s recent runaway hit Jaws (1975).

In a bizarre nod to his original remit, Obayashi has inserted a sequence into House (or Hausu) where a terrified naked woman is shown thrashing about up to her neck in blood-stained water – but this Jaws-like scene unfolds entirely within the flooded rooms of a secluded rural mansion. Here it is not some shark, but the house itself, that has teeth – and a giant pair of disembodied lips seen earlier suggests that in the cannibalistic game of cinematic influence, Obayashi has also gleefully assimilated the cultish sensibilities of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Besides all the usual creaks and bumps in the night that one expects from the haunted house genre, there is also kung fu, a singing-and-dancing cat, a ravenous piano, futons with minds of their own, a septet of heroines each named for the particular stereotypes that they represent (Angel, Fantasy, Melody, etc.), and – in case anyone somehow missed the sheer craziness of it all – a character shown quite literally going ‘bananas’. Indeed, apparently the only things that have been debarred from this accommodating structure are the rational and the real.

A heavily stylized mishmash of in-camera trickery, multiple filmstocks, luridly painted backdrops, split screens, iris effects and ingenious editing segues, House never lets the viewer forget that there are outside forces at work, manipulating (perhaps malevolently) everything that is seen to happen in the house – and the soundtrack (by popular Japanese rockband Godiego, best known in the West for their work on TV’s Monkey) endlessly ironises the weird proceedings with its upbeat mix of lounge, pop, rockabilly and sentimental love songs. House is too smart and funny, too self-aware and post-modern, to be truly scary – but its trippy energy and surreal unpredictability make it a film that takes up long-term residence in your consciousness anyway. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, it would indeed prove a huge success with young Japanese viewers…

© Anton Bitel