House (1977)
By: J.R. Gregory on August 1, 2011  | 
Criterion Collection (USA) | Region 1, NTSC | 4:3 | Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 | 88 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Yoko Minamida, Masayo Miyako, Eriko Tanaka, Miki Jinbo, Haruko Wanibuchi
Screenplay: Chiho Katsura
Country: Japan
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Even by Japanese cinema standards, House ranks as a distinctly weird film. Partly a coming-of-age tale, part Japanese pop-cultural stew, part haunted house horror but mostly it's a lets-throw-everything-we've-got-up-on-the-screen-and-see-what-happens experience. House is a film that is greater than the sum of its parts and epitomises what is so great and confounding about Japanese cinema. Recently House has been given the Criterion treatment so that every lurid colour, sound and crazy effect can be experienced by a new generation in eye-bursting and ear-shattering detail.

The story opens with two Japanese schoolgirls having fun taking photographs as they discuss the upcoming school holidays. This introduces Gorgeous (the suitably attractive Kimiko Ikegami), the lead girl, where she plans to holiday with her father. The other girls whimsically talk about their plans to travel with their favourite school teacher to his sister's hostel in the country.

Upon returning home, Gorgeous is disappointed that her father (Saho Sasazawa) has brought a new woman, Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi) into their lives, introducing her as Gorgeous' new mother. Disenchanted with the notion of going on holiday in this new arrangement, and with circumstances arising that mean her school friends holiday plans have also fallen through, Gorgeous resolves to contact her aunt in the country to see if she and her friends could stay with her instead. Assisted by a mysterious white cat, the arrangements are made for an adventure to the aunt's house. With her six school friends (wonderfully named after their particular skills and interests: Melody (Eriko Tanaka)-a lover of music and plays many instruments; Mac (Mieko Sato)-short for StoMACh and who lives to eat; the studious and logical Professor (Ai Matsubara); dreamer Fantasy (Kumiko Oba); the perpetually cute Sweet (Masayo Miyako); and the ever active Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo)) in tow, off to the country and the mysterious aunt they go.

The aunt (Yoko Minamida) greets the girls from her wheelchair, dressed in a white gown, with white hair, white teeth and a wide smile, looking all the world like a Japanese Ms Havisham. Indeed, the aunt's fiancée was lost during the war and she has been alone since then, awaiting his return. Aunt invites the girls into her house, and as the front gate and night close behind them, strange, supernatural events threaten to overwhelm the innocent girls.

This synopsis does nothing to convey the strange and unique experience that this movie represents. House is much less about plot and more about the telling of the tale. House is about the possibility of what you can put on film, of how you can confound and overwhelm the viewer. House is about letting go of logic and just going with the feel of the movie. Through the mixture of filmmaking styles, visual effects, a hypermanic soundtrack and sheer imagination, House is a unique viewing experience.

Every possible effect and film-making technique is evident and is utilised in virtually every scene. Obayashi utilises numerous film-making trickery with on-set special effects, effects generated via an optical printer, from irises and wipes to skipped frames and split screens, imaginative and unexpected camera moves. Obayashi uses slow motion and time-lapse effects, animation that blends into live-action, newsreel footage, freeze-frame, strobe light and matte effects, all overwhelming the senses leaving the viewer breathless. Virtually every shot of the sky is a painting or backdrop; (for instance, when the girls get off a bus, the background is revealed as a billboard that is in turn in front of a painted background-fakery on top of fakery). Characters commence dancing to the soundtrack, a random skeleton jives away in the background (in a nod to House on Haunted Hill) reflections and artworks come to life in lurid reds. All this is done in a frenzy of editing and primary colours that would make Argento proud. The combination of all these effects creates a feeling of artificiality and that nothing is truly what it seems. House genuinely exists in a strange parallel universe of its own creation.

Along with the visuals, House possesses a soundtrack that is suitably hyperbolic. Manic, bouncing from sugary J-pop to simple piano refrains, the music dominates virtually every scene. Particular refrains are used over and over again to reinforce particular feelings: pop music accompanies a particular character; simple piano evokes wistfulness with another, jarring chords complement the extreme acrobatics of Kung Fu. Obayashi employs several dissonant tones as well, from epic crashing waves to perpetually crying infants, all amplified and aimed at assaulting and unsettling the audience.

House feels like a child's nightmare, logic and explanation cast aside in favour of imaginative invention, and this is largely due to the collaborative effort in the writing. Obayashi consulted with his then eleven-year-old daughter, Chigumi Obayashi, for many of the key scenes. Mirrors crack and drip blood, reflections take on a life of their own, a piano eats one of the girls, while mattresses attack another. All fears that a child would conjure and be terrified by is made real in this narrative.

In House, Obayashi makes numerous cultural references in a wry and amusing manner. Obayashi draws on the style of contemporary Japanese film, with the early references to Tora-san films (a long-running series of films that revolve around romance and small-town sensibilities) along with wartime propaganda films and twists them to his own hyper reality. Obayashi also draws on traditional Japanese kaidan eiga, or traditional ghost story film, motifs, like creeping black hair in a bath, and the kabiyo ghost cat hybrid, to his own unique vision.

Another aspect of this film that is peculiarly Japanese is the nascent sexuality displayed by the schoolgirl protagonists. While not the sole domain of Japan (Picnic at Hanging Rock anyone?), the girls in House are shown in progressive states of undress as they are increasingly terrorised by supernatural forces. The Aunt regains her vitality and youth as each girl is dispatched. The girls own crushes are also used, with the girl's favourite teacher transformed into a man-sized bunch of bananas. This sense of coy humour is evident throughout the film. Another point in the film, for example, watching her naked self being devoured by a piano she can be heard to say in a cute voice, "Ooh, that's naughty." With House, the combination of terrifying and fetishised schoolgirls is done with such vigour and delight one hardly knows whether to be disgusted, scared or laugh out loud.

House will not suit everyone, as some will find it overbearing, exhausting and overly disorienting. While there are very few films like it, House can be viewed as a forebear to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series and such Japanese strangeness as Uzumaki or Tetsuo, especially with their emphasis on visuals over story. Viewed as an experience in what film is capable of, and for encapsulating a distinct aspect of Japanese culture, this is well worthwhile. Multi-textured with a simple story, House is an indisputable cult film. A precocious debut that Obayashi was never able to fully emulate again, this is a genuinely unique experience.
House is presented in its original 1.33:1 original aspect ratio. As this film relies heavily on its visual presentation, the transfer is especially important. The colours are lysergically vivid, the images clear without being overly sharp, adding to the surreal beauty of the film.
The overall sound on this disc is excellent, if overbearing at times. Featuring a soundtrack by Japanese pop group Godiego, a curious blend of power ballads, synthesiser dance numbers and haunting minimalist piano refrains. The soundtrack was released well-before the release of the film. The sound effects, are loud and discordant, in keeping with the anarchic nature of the film overall. The audio is presented in Japanese monaural with English subtitles.
Extra Features
As with many Criterion releases, a number of extras are included on this disc, greatly increasing one's appreciation of the film.

There is a short feature "Constructing a 'House'" (46 minutes) that features an interview with the Director, his daughter and screenwriter. Insights into the film include the two years spent developing and marketing the film, how Toho studios were wary of allowing Obayashi, a director of television commercials (check out his series of "Mandom" ads with Charles Bronson for instance), to direct a feature film. A fascinating insight into the process of developing the story idea into the film.

"Emotion" (39 minutes) is a short experimental film from 1966. This can be seen as a direct precursor to House, dealing as it does with young women who are coming of age and being threatened by supernatural forces. The same chaotic visuals and storytelling style are similarly in evidence here.

"'House' Appraisal" (4 minutes) is an interview with director Ti West (House of the Devil, Cabin Fever 2) who talks enthusiastically about his experiences of the film.

The original theatrical trailer is also included, and focuses on the horror elements contained in the film. This is misleading and reflects the struggles of marketing such a difficult to categorise film.

There is also a colourful 24-page booklet that contains an extensive essay on the film by critic Chuck Stephens.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
House is not simply a film - indeed judged solely on that level there is little to recommend it - but an experience that is close to indescribable. Over the top, definitely; hyperbolic, positively; daring and inventive, annoying and frustrating, House is all these things and more. Made in a pre-digital age, House is a cinematic maelstrom of ingenuity that takes the standard story of young girls in a haunted house into a whole other fantastic realm. Endlessly fascinating, House is a classic example of either/or - you will either let go and love the experience or scratch your head in confused loathing. This is one House that roars.

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