Nobuhiko Obayashi might not be one of the most readily recognised names outside of Japan; his films have rarely enjoyed international fame past festival screenings, but he’s a man who early on in his career helped to define a new movement in experimental film making, subsequently leading him to becoming one of the country’s most successful commercial directors.
It was during the fifties and sixties that the twenty-something student began making short 8mm and 16mm films, whereby he earned local recognition for his candid portrayals of everyday Japanese life: pseudo-documentaries such as Onomichi (1961) and Confession (1968), for example, proved to be nice tributes to the quiet Hiroshima town he grew up in and predominantly made all of his shorts, but much of the decade was spent in finding new ways to tackle various genres through his keenness to take his camera to its very limits. Drifting between fantasy, horror, documentaries and romance, Obayashi churned out some fascinating experimental pieces: he would hark back to the silent era with the reflective insertions of 1960’s The Girl in the Picture; dabble with numerous filters in the satirical Complexe; unnerve with The Eaten Person’s seemingly literal commentary on consumption; and even present his own take on the vampire tale with Emotion, the film that would eventually catch the eye of Toho Pictures. All of these were accompanied by self-composed piano ditties and varying editing styles and would often acknowledge his European influences and appreciation through his fond use of slapping ‘Un film de’ introductions on their opening title cards and throwing in homage’s to various cinematic greats.
By the seventies he found himself working in the field of television, primarily directing commercials for popular brand products; his unbridled approach would attract the attention of major Hollywood stars: one such fellow by the name of Charles Bronson would bestow the moniker of “OB” upon Obayashi, due to initial pronunciation difficulties, but it became an affectionate nickname which would serve the director well throughout his subsequent years as he traveled between countries. Obayashi’s approach to commercials would continue to be as unique as his previous home movies, showing him as a director with a distinctive voice worth hearing. By 1976 that was enough for Toho to approach him. The director was now entering his forties and Japanese cinema was in decline, with little revenue coming in from domestic releases. He was offered an opportunity to direct his first studio feature under conditions that not even he could afford to pass up. He would be allowed to defy the conventions that Toho itself had become so tired of, given absolute free reign and a respectable budget – anything he wanted in order to get audiences back into theatres. He would ultimately leave his unforgettable mark on cinema with what would become his most fascinating feature.
It’s close to Summer vacation, and Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is excited to be spending some quality time with her beloved father (Saho Sasazawa). That is until her hopes are shattered when one day he introduces her to his new girlfriend, Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi). Despite Ryoko’s sincere efforts, Oshare can’t bring herself to accept this potential family member, and soon begins to reminisce about her deceased mother. She recalls her auntie, who has lived out in the countryside all her life, and feels that it’s about time she went out for a visit after an impromptu visit from a mysterious white cat.
Oshare decides to invite her closest friends along: Fanta (Kumiko Oba), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), Gari (Ai Matsubara), Mac (Meiko Sato), Melody (Eriko Tanaka) and Kung-Fu (Miki Jinbo) – each of whom hasn’t experienced life outside of the big city. After a fun train journey and short trek through the woods, they reach their destination and are readily greeted by Oshare’s aunt (Yoko Minamida), who invites them into her huge estate. Little do the girls know, however, that auntie isn’t all she appears to be, and that very soon their lives will be extinguished for a seemingly greater good.
Though widely regarded as a horror feature, House is very much a deceptive piece of work; the first of many from Obayashi that would retain whimsical fantasy elements and sentimental drama, set to an assortment of unorthodox visual aids which eschew traditional genre practices. The film’s opening act is a bit of pot-boiler, predominantly constructed of pure angst-ridden melodrama and social satire, with the latter showing the director for his deftness in enlivening a sparse narrative through a clever and serenely executed dismantling of a decade’s worth of commercialism. There’s very little subtlety to it all. For instance, our first introduction to Oshare’s father’s new woman immediately sets alarm bells ringing: mirroring some cheesy perfume advertisement, it comes replete with slow wispy garments and flowing locks of hair, set to the cawing of invisible seagulls on a warm summer’s breeze.
Elsewhere, idyllic sunsets permeate almost every frame and sickly sweet conversations are shared between a cacophony of naïve, giggling schoolgirls. Our introduction to the sisterly seven is swift, with their idiosyncratic nicknames telling us all we need to know before the director places them on that fateful train journey; itself taking shots at the tourism industry as a cartoon-ish skit sees the young ladies transplanted into a welcoming countryside of animated rainbows and pastel fields. It’s here that OB goes some way to revisit the rural encapsulation of his earlier – and more intimate short – Nakasendo. Obayashi’s overtly direct attitude is refreshing in that he uses humour to great effect in illustrating his point: the hilariously oversized countryside signboards (which even appear over the backdrop of a matted rural landscape) provide the neat juxtaposition of modern tastes ebbing away at traditional values. At the same time his fascinating homage to silent cinema, which sees the girl’s provide an excitable commentary on their journey over sepia-toned wartime imagery, fuels the imagination with recurring fairytale fantasizing.
Indeed, for its absurdly sprightly presentation it’s not without a spot of cynicism, which even goes so far as to extend to a key figure. Just as Obayashi could be considered a rebellious force, so too is his lead protagonist, Oshare. There’s a slight flaw in her character, however, in that she’s rarely ever likeable. It’s a curious move on the director’s part because by rights if you’re gonna place young innocents in harms way then you should probably make an effort to get the viewer on their side. Most of his cast, despite their one-dimensional and archetypical personalities, at least have an air of charisma about them, yet this one individual almost burdens the entire feature. Her name – literally translating to ‘fashionable’ – is all too apt, and it’s practically from the moment she arrives home after school in the opening ten minutes that she’s painted no less than a heavily spoiled and selfish individual, who decides to rebel against her father’s best wishes by rejecting Ryoko and running off to her dear auntie’s house in the countryside, where she can continue being the centre of attention to her friends, whilst seeking solace in a more desirable surrogate.
Within this somewhat shallow characterization though is a clear delving into parental/child relationships, with underlying themes of sexuality, romantic idealism and superficiality lending fair credence to a tale based around teen adolescence. All of which leads to an oddly poignant catharsis by the time the film reaches its dire ultimatum, which is further compounded by our auntie’s desire to meet her own needs as well. House was Obayashi’s first feature film and granted he would go on to make more successful emotionally-driven pieces, which further explored the coming of one’s age, yet the tremulous depictions of his debut feature’s cast remains largely unrivaled on account that there seems to be a point to their thinly drawn persona’s in its overall eschewing of audience preconceptions, despite its embracing of well worn clichés.
Because at this point all he’s done is create an artificial sense of hope in showing us an absolute perfect world inhabited by promising young lives – a world that without much warning he then chooses to systematically tear apart before our eyes. The director’s twisting of the knife occurs once the girls arrive at the malevolent house, whereby all of the cutesy preamble and social commentary soon dissolves into a string of wild and sadistically humorous set-pieces, which sees his deconstruction of conventional melodrama and horror staples come to full fruition; a mélange of bizarre and wonderful trickery, showing the feature for it being a wild amalgamation of all that he had taught himself throughout his experimental beginnings, along the way knowingly referencing and re-inventing key moments from several of those productions. Obayashi’s ultimate playfulness in disfiguring House’s framework is the very thing which has undoubtedly earned it the recognition it now readily enjoys. Its defiance as it sets about cruelly bumping off its protagonists one-by-one remains largely unrivalled by today’s standards, thanks to the sheer originality on display. It’s not the typical stalk and slash affair which has become so ingrained in contemporary cinema, but an entirely different beast altogether, born from the mind of the director’s then 11 year-old daughter, Chigumi, who found there to be nothing scarier than a house which consumed its inhabitants in many nefarious ways.
What was once envisioned to be a new breed of monster movie in a bid to rival overseas success stories such as JAWS, eventually became a rare thing of ingenuity over what was a gestation period of two years. An entire house to himself, Obayashi finds no shortage of wicked ways to antagonise his girls, from an ominous white cat named Snowy, to killer lampshades, possessed smothering pillows and a carnivorous piano which has to be seen to be believed. Sure, there’s a hokeyness to House; it’s the kind of feature that wouldn’t ordinarily be made today given advances in technology and changes in audience tastes (about as close is Gil Kenan’s more recent Monster House, which perhaps can be directly attributed to it), but that’s all part of its charm and a testament to Obayashi’s distinct personal ideals. It’s raw film making at its best, pulling no punches as the auteur lets himself loose in the editing suite like a child in a candy store. Each and every scene is punctuated by some kind of stylized trait as he opts to illustrate various mood changes through the use of literally dozens of varying cinematic techniques, created both in-camera and some off, with the help of blue-screen. Double exposures; numerous colour filters; super-impositions; frequent dissolves; heavy cranking; under cranking; animation and matt paintings; vignettes, diffused focuses; dreamy lighting; abrupt scene shifts – the list goes on. Obayashi often heeds to repetition, as a means it seems to disorient the viewer as the girls are pulled deeper into the ghostly chasm of despair. Running in tandem is a ridiculously catchy score, surreal in its equally repetitive, though chirpy pop playfulness. Asei Kobayashi (watch for his cameo as the watermelon man) and Godeigo’s Mickie Yoshino – who would later go on to provide further memorable melodies with NHK’s Saiyuki (a.k.a. Monkey!) and Galaxy Express 999 – adopts a romanticised approach of predominantly piano-led ditties, some of which are assigned to particular characters in maintaining welcomed emotional undercurrents, while at other times they go all-out-silly, with one of the most amusing recurring themes belonging to Kung-Fu: a catchy action tune that heightens whenever she finds an opportunistic moment to kick down parts of the abode with total abandonment.
In all Nobuhiko Obayashi is all too aware of his environment and House perfectly sums up the kind of man he is: a cunning and methodical thinker, who defies convention to the best of his abilities, while simultaneously laughing in its face. His debut film – although harbouring some perfectly deep sentiments and clever satire – is ultimately one of enormous fun. It’s an event movie that you want to kick back with amongst friends and reel over its sheer unperturbed madness. I think at the end of the day that’s all Obayashi wants as well.