Feature Four Frames

Transgressing genre conventions: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (Hausu, Japan, 1977) is a coming-of-age film that mixes horror and fantasy elements with humour and an undisguised penchant for the experimental. The title itself is programmatic – seven schoolgirls find themselves trapped in a haunted house.

Shocked by the unexpected news that her widowed father has remarried while on a business trip to Italy, Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) – a Japanese word that could be translated to “fashionable” – decides to spend the summer with six of her classmates in her aunt’s mansion in the countryside. The film’s first sequences introduce the seven young women as a group of giggling teenagers in school uniform talking about their plans for the summer holidays and about a male teacher that one of them fancies. It is a representation of very ordinary situations and gives no hint about the horrific events to come. Oshare’s apparent dislike of her stepmother Ryoko is perfectly credible too, but in this film it forms the starting point of a journey into the supernatural, which is what House quickly becomes.

© 1977 Toho Company

The topos of the haunted house is a familiar one in both Japanese and European culture. The aunt’s mansion, on top of a hill and filmed in a general shot at night with a full moon, is the ultimate stereotypical image of a mysterious, nightmarish place that is part of the horror film repertoire and black romanticism. According to Japanese legends, the ghost of someone who died alone or suffered a violent death – murder or suicide – haunts the place where they met their death. Indeed, the aunt (Yoko Minamida), who turns out to have died long ago and whose fiancé was killed during World War II, lives alone in the huge and gloomy mansion, the perfect setting for a horror film.

This haunted house is associated with the aunt’s lonely death as well as with the motif of the dysfunctional family as represented by Oshare’s family. While her father thinks he is re-creating a happy family, his daughter is unable to accept his new wife. Later, Oshare becomes possessed by the spirit of her dead aunt and turns into a vengeful creature as devoted to her mother as her aunt was to her fiancé. However, the romantic idea of eternal love expressed in Oshare’s monologue in the film’s last shots is challenged by the horror elements. The giggling girls become screaming girls. Blood gushes from the picture of a cat, blood pours out of Oshare’s body, and finally the room floods with torrents of blood: an additional hint to the link between horror and sexuality, one that suggests the fears of pubescent young women on the threshold of adulthood as well as those of adults frightened by the awakened sexuality of adolescents (see William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, 1973).

© 1977 Toho Company

Severed heads and cut-off limbs derive from the horror iconography, as do the suddenly animated everyday objects that attack Oshare’s friends. A pile of futons or a clock are transformed into murderous objects killing the young women. Such possessed objects are well-known in Japanese folklore, which is evoked by a reference to Hokusai’s famous woodblock print “Lantern Ghost” when one of the schoolgirls is swallowed by a lamp.

The cat is a further element borrowed from Japanese culture and cinema. Ghost-cat films – kaibyo eiga – were already popular before World War II and became a horror subgenre in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the features of the haunted house is a fluffy white cat. The animal appears out of the blue after Oshare has decided to seek help from her aunt. Photographs of this cat and other representations of white cats are decorative elements in the mansion. Ordinary only in appearance, it is a bakeneko, a supernatural creature with a capacity for shapeshifting. The close link between the house, the cat, the aunt and Oshare is revealed when the cat turns into a human being and Oshare takes on her aunt’s identity. 

Although numerous features are borrowed from Japanese folklore or film history, House was largely inspired by Chigumi, Obayashi’s daughter, who was eleven years old at the time of the production and is credited with the story. Her fears, for example, of being attacked when a pile of futons falls onto her or of having her fingers caught between the piano keys are the basis for a number of scenes. Suu-ito/Sweet (Masayo Miyako) vanishes after being attacked by the futons, leaving behind only her clothes. Merodi’s/Melody’s (Eriko Tanaka) fingers are mutilated by the piano keys before her whole body is devoured by the piano.

The film’s tremendously rich narrative and aesthetic repertoire is also inspired by films that do not belong to the horror genre. Oshare’s father, a composer of film music, refers to a meeting he had with Italian director Sergio Leone and the latter’s favourite composer Ennio Morricone. Mr. Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki), a schoolteacher who was supposed to join the seven young women at the mansion, bears a striking resemblance to Tora-san, the main character in a popular Japanese film series directed by Yoji Yamada. Kunfu/Kung-fu (Miki Jubo), another of Oshare’s friends, fights against invisible forces and menacing objects, thereby hinting at martial arts films. Fanta/Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) admires the sunset while trying to pull a watermelon out of a well, but it turns out to be the severed head of her friend Makku/Mac (Mieko Sato) floating on the surface of the water. This scary discovery leads to a moment of comedy when the head bites Fanta in the buttocks. 

Body parts flying in the air and severed fingers playing the piano are rather fanciful than terrifying. Mr. Togo, the teacher, also contributes to the film’s comic elements (humour and horror are continually mixed), as in the scene in which he says to the watermelon seller – one of the evil spirits – that he hates watermelons but likes bananas. Following this rebuff, the watermelon seller is transformed into a skeleton. In a later sequence, a heap of bananas occupies the driver’s seat of Mr. Togo’s car, suggesting that he has been transformed into a bunch of his favourite fruit.

House’s highly imaginative aesthetic means contribute to its transgression of the horror and fantasy genres. One brief sequence filmed in black and white shows moments from the aunt’s youth and the death of her fiancé in combat. World War II is also evoked by the shot of a mushroom cloud, a strong reminder of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which have no obvious connection with the story but are a reminder of Obayashi’s own biography (he was born in Hiroshima in 1938). Many of his childhood friends lost their lives in the bombing on August 6th, 1945.

© 1977 Toho Company

The meaning in this film is not only in the tale but also very much in the telling. By making use of a great variety of techniques such as stop-motion and picture-in-picture, Obayashi creates dizzying visual effects. With the horror increasing, the rhythm accelerates, and shots inspired by Japanese woodblock paintings and pop art are transformed into highly dynamic cinematic images. In Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), the landscape backgrounds are painted, a device also employed in House. But Obayashi goes a step further, combining live action with hand-drawn animation. The sound design also contributes to the film’s richness, with screams, the wailing of a baby, the sound of invisible waves and occasional disjointed rhythms reinforcing the atmosphere of the supernatural. Tuneful pop ballads provide a counterpoint to the horror scenes, challenging realism just as the animation scenes do. The stylized mise-en-scène and music offer a kind of ironical comment on horror conventions, refreshing the genre by infusing the film with a highly creative mixture of cinematic devices.

By Andrea Grunert

Andrea Grunert is an independent scholar (Ph.D University Paris X, with a dissertation on the films of Clint Eastwood and the American frontier) and freelance writer and lecturer in film and cultural studies. She has published widely in France and Germany. She is the editor of three books published by Charles Corlet (France): Le corps filmé (2006), L’écran des frontières (2010) and De la pauvreté (2013). Her Dictionnaire Clint Eastwood is out in French bookshops, published by Vendémiaire.

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