“One of the most creative and figurative ghost narratives ever made [that also] turns out to be one of the most pure and disturbing confrontations with the uncanny (…). A classic that will long linger in one’s mind.”
When Toho studios asked Nobuhiko Obayashi, an experimental short film director, to come up with a narrative like Jaws, they never imagined that he, inspired by his daughter’s fantasy and fears, and screenwriter Chiho Katsura would craft such a crazy narrative.
After Toho green-lit the script – it was time to give a chance to a script they deemed incomprehensible – the film was quickly put on hold as no director from Toho wanted to ruin their career. It was only after the success of the radio drama, that Obayashi, who had been promoting the film in the mean time, was given special permission to direct the narrative itself.
As summer vacation is near, Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is happy to recall that she will spend her vacation with her father (Saho Sasazawa), a globetrotting composer. But these plans are ruined when her father introduces Oshare to his new lover Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi). Unable to accept her ‘new mother’, she writes a letter to her mother’s sister to ask her if she and her friends – Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Sato), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), and Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) – can spend the summer vacation at her house.
The narrative of House communicates primarily with its visuals; the ‘natural’ narrative space visually intruded by the surface of the super-natural (Cine-note 1). The first time the supernatural infringes the sweet teenage drama – this is when Togo-sensei falls due to the mysterious white cat Shiro – the cinematography quickly shifts to a peculiar stop-motion sequence. But it is only when the seven girls arrive at Oshare’s aunt’s Hausu that the supernatural comes to re-arrange the narrative space and the narrative thread of love and promises is slowly unfolded.
The choice of Nobuhiko Obayashi to visualize the haunting in such eccentric and theatrical way has no other purpose than to evoke the irrationality of the real in a uncanny and estranging way. While the narrative has a consistent structure – the explanation of the haunting is logically sound – its visualization of the ‘irrational’ supersedes this structure. By superseding this structure, by visualizing this ‘irrationality’ with mattes, animation, and collage effects as unrealistic as possible, the problematized narrative confronts us with the uncanny in a disturbingly expressive way. Furthermore, by analyzing the way the irrationality is visualized, the narrative reveals itself as a visual translation of the real impact of the atomic bomb (Cine-note 2).
The composition of House is exceptionally creative and might even be considered as the most figurative and expressive way a haunting was ever framed in cinema history. While the cinematography knows some unnecessary decorations, e.g. some shot-transitions hurt the fluidity, the visual flow of House is nothing less than eccentric (cine-note 3). While this cinematographical inventiveness is first employed in rather lighthearted way, the stylized effects are – as the camera moves across the narrative space – quickly turned into visualizations initiating the spectator in the unsettling weirdness that comes to identify the narrative space.
And while the acting may feel unpolished at times, the performances, ever charming, blend nicely with the eccentric cinematographical composition and the surrealistic narrative descent into madness. The mood of the narrative is guided and communicated to the spectator by extremely flexible use of musical themes; music that glides from rock-and-roll or pop to support more superficial interactions to more softer music to infuse the more personal moments of Oshare and her friends with intimacy in mere seconds. Furthermore, by carefully playing with music and vocalizations Obayashi is able to announce the coming ‘horror’ and turn, by repetition, the intimate softer theme into an eerie support of the malevolence that permeates the house.
Even if the acting is unpolished and some cinematographical choices hurt the overall narrative flow, House still remains, beyond any doubt, one of the most creative and figurative ghost narratives ever made. And while this is already an exceptional achievement, the fact that Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s eccentric visual composition also turns out to be one of the most pure and disturbing confrontations with the uncanny transforms this narrative into nothing other than a classic, a classic that will long linger in one’s mind.
Cine-note 1: The ‘natural’ narrative space is already stylized to some extent, mainly through the use of hand-painted backgrounds and the inventive interplay between foreground and backgrounds.
Cine-note 2: House has many visual references to the atomic bomb. The flash in the eyes of Shiro is associated with the flash of light of the atomic bomb, and the many attacks of the house, e.g. Oshare’s face that breaks, her body that is on fire, the many severed limbs, …etc, have to be read as visualizations of the impact the atomic bomb.
Cine-note 3: To attain this eccentricity Obayashi uses a whole bouquet of techniques (e.g. various dissolves, quick cuts, various colour filters, stop-motion,….etc).