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March 2010

House

cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, and Eriko Tanaka

director: Nobuhiko Obayashi

87 minutes (15) 1977
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Eureka! DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Richard Bowden

House

Disturbed by her father's announced re-marriage, Angel joins six of her schoolgirl friends to start a vacation break at the isolated country house of her auntie whom she has not seen for years. While waiting for their teacher to arrive, it soon becomes clear that it will be far from the idyllic if eccentric holiday it initially appeared to be...

A huge hit when it appeared on first release at home, House (aka: Hausu) is another real cinematic oddity thrown up from a county whose film industry whose products often confound western audiences with genre-bending, kitschy and subversive offerings. For more recent examples of this, think of Memories Of Matsuko, or Big Man Japan. Back in 1977, director Nobuhiko Obayashi, whose striking feature debut this was after a couple of experimental shorts, pulled out all the stops in a work packed with visual special effects and inventiveness - even if, when broken down, they serve to distract us from a plot that's fairly straightforward in progress.

The febrile atmosphere of House is built around the central group of seven school-girls, their names reflecting characteristics, being suitably abstract and yet individual at the same time. Thus, Kung Fu is the more martial of the group; Mac (an abbreviation, we are told, of the English word 'stomach') always eating; Melody plays the piano; 'Prof' wears the specs and so on. Out of the girls, Fantasy and Angel are given most attention and are particular friends, an apt combination, as we discover. It is they we see in the opening scene, one photographing the other, and there's suggestion of a crush existing between them.

A good deal of the first part of House has this light-headed atmosphere of mild porn: a deliberate, girly artificiality which elsewhere would soon break into soft focus and soft bodies. It would have suggested much at the time to a home audience, familiar with the popular genre of 'pink film' or Pinku eiga. But the writer-director has other things in mind. Much of House might have romantic or pseudo-romantic tones either through lighting, dialogue or the plaintive and syrupy piano tune, written by the director, favoured by Melody. But this is not a romantic film. Indeed, as befitting a production principally about women without liaisons, men are either absent (as in the case of Mr Togo the much fancied teacher, or the auntie's boyfriend), unobtainable (Angel's dad) or weirdly gross (the fat water melon vendor seen upon arrival). Consummation is always beyond reach and must find a new expression.

Some of the group have strong yearnings towards their largely absent teacher while Angel is distressed by her father's taking of a new wife. It is clear that all are at an age when the subconscious tensions of innocent adolescence and impending womanhood are glimpsed through the overactive lens of early teenagers. The result is that we see fairy-tale fears mixed with the trappings of unrequited blas´┐Ż romance, schoolgirl camaraderie shot through with magical nightmares, often buoyed with plenty of that old symbolic stand-by, blood red.

The nearest equivalent in tone, that I can think of closest to home, is Neil Jordan's fantasy The Company Of Wolves (1984) - a film more overtly sexualised perhaps, but in which the hothouse atmosphere of pubescence is similar. Like House, Company Of Wolves shows us how the workings of the young female imagination can reflect outwards into a fantasy world. As Obayashi remembers, the original idea for his own film came from his 12 year-old daughter. House does not offer the overt dream-like framework of Company Of Wolves. But then again it does not need to; the whole of Obayashi's film is shot with (in the best sense) such artificiality that naturalism is almost completely denied though a surreal clutter of staging, special effects, forced perspectives and the increasing witchcraft of events.

But Obayashi has other targets too; not least a sly comment on consumerism, done at a time when such attacks were less common. Coming from a background of independent filmmaking to a first real studio product, the director wanted a fresh perspective, both through casting and style (the realisation of which contributed to the fine pre-release publicity 'buzz' he describes in the accompanying interview). Most of the young actresses he cast were new to the screen but hailed from a background as advertising models. In addition their respective character names, we are told, are those of much-advertised consumer products of the time. While some of the interest shown in the film at the time stems from the existing media familiarity with some of the actresses, Obayashi has mischievous delight in showing his characters facing death by being 'eaten' in one way or another - a fate making sly reference to the perils of consumption.

As consumers ourselves of the film, we may or may not be concerned with such social critiques, especially as the director gives us a lot elsewhere to get our teeth into. Visually, as I have said, House is particularly striking. The many special video effects, even though over 30-years-old look a little creaky, but then their nature is part of the appeal while the editing and baroque imagination on display helps things along nicely. One particularly relishes such moments of imaginative despatch as the piano eating a victim, bit by bit, starting with her fingers; or the decapitated head which pops out to bite a spooked girl on the arse, the final flood of cat blood, and so on. Obayashi is clearly a man who has a wild and vivid imagination, and so it is a bit of surprise to see the modest and unassuming director when interviewed in the extras accompanying the film - even though he does quietly compare the effect of House on the Japanese market at the time to that of Jaws on the Americas. The extended interview with Obayashi, his co-screenwriter and actress Kumiko Oba (who plays Fantasy) is quite substantial, and covers such various aspects of the film's script, pre-production and release.

Eureka should be commended for releasing such an entertaining film to the UK market for the first time. The often colour-saturated image of House is presented in a good print with no discernable damage. Definitely worth a look!



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