Suito Homu, 1989
Prior to Kiyoshi Kurosawa achieving international recognition with 1997’s Cure, it’s important to note the transitional period in his career, which saw him go from directing Pink Eiga features during the early part of the 80s, to becoming ostracised by the studio system on account of his maverick sensibilities, which ultimately led him into the realm of V-Cinema throughout much of the following decade. Kurosawa had already clashed with studio heads early on when he bought the rights to his unreleased pink film, College Girl: Shameful Seminar, an outsourced Nikkatsu production which was shelved in the wake of his debut feature, Kandagawa Pervert Wars, failing to earn the enthusiasm of pink film studio, Million Film. His second feature, then, renamed The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl in 1985, involved heavy reworking and, upon initial release, was met with warm praise. By this point, however, his associated ties with leading Pink cinema studios were all but severed.
By the time that 1988 rolled around, Kurosawa had been approached by Toho and his friend and prolific actor/writer/director Juzo Itami (who has starred earlier in Do-Re-Mi-Fa) to direct a horror feature for theatrical consumption. The plan was to work alongside video-game developers Capcom, concurrently, in an effort to mutually benefit one another via the simultaneous release of both mediums; the game ended up hitting shelves in time for Christmas ’88, while the film followed one month later. Kurosawa would write and direct the feature, which Itami oversaw as producer, while the celebrated Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ’n Goblins, Bionic Commando) would hawk over the film’s development to create what would become one of Nintendo’s most obscure treasures never released outside of Japan – a survival game like nothing before it, which would later evolve into of the most enduring video-game franchises of all time: Resident Evil.
Controversy struck Kurosawa again, when it was learned that Juzo Itami later intervened with the film’s structure, by reshooting certain elements in the lead up to its home video release; Kurosawa would publicly go on record to voice his displeasure with the move, which saw him file a legal complaint. The ruling went in Toho’s favour, however, and Kurosawa reportedly fell out with Itami, removing his name from the feature and leaving behind a piece of work which didn’t end up suiting his original ideas quite so fittingly. Yet Sweet Home [lit. derived from Suito Homu) isn’t all doom and gloom, in fact it’s a highly entertaining slice of J-Horror, reminiscent in many ways of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 debut Hausu, with its often sunny disposition, creative visual effects and juxtaposing themes of familial bonds.
The plot sees widowed Producer Kazuo Hoshino (Shingo Yamashiro, Battles Without Honour and Humanity) arrive at a small community, as a member of a documentary crew hoping to uncover more tales about the town. His main goal, however, involves trying to obtain access to the Mamiya Mansion: once home to famed artist Ichirou Mamiya, who died there thirty years ago and left behind a series of frescos which have since become the thing of legend. When Kazuo is granted access, he heads to the site with his crew of three (Ichiro Furutachi, Nobuko Miyamoto and Fukumi Kuroda), alongside his daughter Emi (singer-songwriter Nokko). Together, they ascend into the derelict mansion, soon learning the disturbing secrets behind the death of Ichirou and unwittingly disturbing the spirit of his departed wife, which will soon prove fatal for the unsuspecting team.
When sitting through Sweet Home in its officially released home video guise, there’s a distinct impression of a film which is attempting to marry western sensibilities with that of an intrinsic belief system. As a film designed for mass mainstream appeal, given the impact of Japan’s huge gaming sub-culture and the rise in home video distribution, its frantic style is one well suited to a time when Hollywood action and horror tropes were filtering through the market. Similarly to how Toho required Nobuhiko Obayashi to create a film to rival the likes of Jaws’s popularity over a decade prior, here we have a feature which not only takes cues from OB’s Hausu, but also finds itself harking back to an era during which western horror cinema was creating its own waves. The interest in studios such as Hammer and American International Pictures during their heyday, had previously influenced other notable Japanese horror features; one only needs to take a gander at Michio Yamamoto’s Bloodthirsty Trilogy for Toho (1970-1974) to see such an example of how European cinema impacted this shift.
And so, Sweet Home does find itself nestled comfortably between western and Japanese tradition, with a narrative which is arguably derivative but functional in its simplicity. Adding to the crossover appeal is the employment of Academy Award-winning make-up effects artist Dick Smith, who, alongside other greats such as Etsuko Egawa and Kazuhiro Tsuji, brings to the fore an incredibly inventive aesthetic, which leaves behind some particularly memorable scenes. It’s suggested that Juzo Itami (who also co-stars in the film as a whisky-swilling, expository aid, who winds up singing a ditty to a bottle of alcohol) had a great hand in how the film ultimately found its pacing, but it’s to no detrimental effect here, with a brisk runtime which never outstays its welcome. Once the Sweet Home’s revealed curse gets underway, the inventiveness on display is nothing short of impressive; gore kills are satisfyingly realised with sharp editing, while the film’s more enticing use of shadow-play is something which could easily become attributed to Kurosawa’s later acclaimed works. What we end up with is a dramatically unnerving experience on account of just how well these techniques are realised, with the conviction of psychological terror over the more visceral, for which Japan has always reigned supreme.
Despite any reports of post-tinkering, then, Sweet Home retains all the necessary hallmarks of Kurosawa to suggest that his overall message isn’t entirely extinguished. The film is set up in a jovial manner, with a soundtrack and sense of humour which maintains consistency throughout, but just as systematically as the picture strikes down half of its core cast, it also expresses clear parental issues as it denotes the importance of coming of age and moving on in life. The playful dynamic shared between father and daughter delicately helps to explore such subject matter as loss and finding new love, with Kurosawa’s original script introducing another key member in Akiko, played by Juzo Itami’s wife, Nobuko Miyamoto. Kurosawa’s strength here is that he doesn’t simply make his female protagonist the archetypal damsel in distress/love interest, but rather reveals Akiko to be a strong, independent woman, who in fact can be attributed as being one of the film’s central heroic figures. Just as Kazuo’s arc from being a timid father to self-sacrificing soul is well handled, so too is Akiko’s journey toward finding a resolution, which leads to a heart-wrenching, yet uplifting denouement on motherhood, bolstered by some expressive puppetry effects and an ideology that has befitted the best of Japan’s ghostly offerings.
Due to the nature of Sweet Home’s trial, the film was never again released on home video formats. To this day, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s original cut languishes within the vaults of Toho, waiting for the day to be unearthed and presented in its original glory. Given the pedigree of the film and its influence on modern gaming pop-culture, it’s with hope that one day a new audience will rediscover it.