Our House (2017) review [Japannual 2018]

Introduction

If your graduation work can win the Grand Prix at Pia Film Festival, Japan’s most important festival dedicated to indie filmmaking, this win evokes nothing other than the fact that the jury – a jury that included J-horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure (1997), Creepy (2016), Before We Vanish (2017)), is seen as having potential.

Review

Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) lives alone with her mother Kiriko (-) after her father departed. As her birthday nears, her mother is busy making preparations for her birthday party. One night, while taking off her make-up, Seri sees something strange. When her mother arrives home, Seri confesses to her mother she saw a ghost and that, because of that, she doesn’t dare to go upstairs anymore.

Toko (Mei Fujimara) meets a confused woman on a boat. After arriving at the harbour, the confused woman, whose name is Sana (Mariwo Osawa) confesses to Seri that she forgot everything. Upon hearing that, Seri invites her over at her house, a house where she lives alone and where she mends clothes for a living.

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While Our House starts as seemingly normal slice-of-life narrative, there is a strange element that subtly disturbs the two narrative spaces. The narrative is thus not strange because there are two separate narrative spaces, but because these two narratives sides share a visual element that seems unresolvable: Seri and Toko live in the same house (Narra-note 1). Beyond the desire to know about Seri’s past, it is this strange element, this seductive element of mystery, an element vaguely foreboding a supernatural dimension, that captures the spectator’s interest.

But we have to be honest, without this strange element and the other (lesser) elements of the unknown, like the truth of Sana’s present, the narrative would not be that interesting. If one takes the successful manipulation with the unknown out of the equation, the narrative would remain an uninteresting slice of life narrative. In other words, beyond the successful strange element, an element persisting in the background, the narrative is unable to offer anything of thematic depth. Formulated in a more positive way, we can say that Kiyohara succeeds in infusing her narrative with enough elements – all elements that play with the unknown, to carry the interest of the spectator to the conclusion of her narrative. And she tops it up with a splendid and a truly chilling finale, a finale that dares to keep the mystery it has introduced wide open instead of closing it up with answers.

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If we focus on the relationships at play in the two narrative spaces, we can find some similarities and one formal difference. First of all, the difference concerns the colour of the conversations. While the conversations between Seri and her mother are naturalistic in nature, the conversations between Toko and Sana are more characterized by dreamy poetic touches. The similarity concerns the notion of the unknown/unsaid. In Seri’s narrative, we’re given some insight in the dynamics of a relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter. More concretely, we are given a subtle – but alas too brief – insight in the process of separation. By teasingly keeping secrets for her mother and for her friends, Seri protects nothing other than her subjective place. In other words, by keeping things unsaid – things we as spectator want to know but never will, Seri introduces boundaries within her relationships.

In Toko’s narrative, Kiyohara focuses on the development of the relationship between Toko and Sana. Let us immediately note that because Toko keeps things unsaid, keeps secrets, a distance between both women remains sensible. While what is presented in Our House between Toko and Sana can be calles a mundane but heartwarming blossoming of friendship, we, as spectator, feel that some things, like Toko’s secret and, in this respect, also Sana’s past, in this narrative remains untold.

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What’s most notable about the cinematography of Our House is its dependency on more temporally long shots. While snappier concatenations are present, e.g. the dance that opens the narrative, the narrative’s cinematography generally consists out of temporally long fixed shots and equally temporally long floating semi-fluid following shots (Cine-note 1). A keen observer will also sense that interior geometry is subtly but effectively used in shot-composition. In this way, Kiyohara successfully avoids the dangerous trap of framing her narrative in an uninspiring way. Additionally, there are some nice (formal) poetic touches present in the narrative’s unfolding.

Where Our House excels in is in creating a seductive atmosphere, an atmosphere exploiting the strange. This atmosphere is, first and foremost, created due to a great sound-design. The greatness of the sound-design has to be found in its subdued and subtle nature, to be found in the subtle way it fills the auditive background with lingering whispers and lingering musical pieces. This fluidly integrated lingering sounds further empower the mystery that the intermingling of both narrative spaces causes.

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While all performances are great, Nodoka Kawanishi’s performance as Seri steals the show. Kawanishi, with her naturalness, successfully empowers the naturalism that marks her narrative side.

Our House might not have the most interesting narrative due to a lack of thematic depth, the successful manipulation of the unknown that structures the narrative’s unfolding turns this narrative into an interesting experiment. Yes, if one views Our House first and foremost as an experiment of style and atmosphere – an experiment focusing on the notion of the unknown, one will find one of the most promising debuts of the past couple of years, a debut powerfully underlining Yui Kiyohara’s potential.

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Notes

Cine-note 1: Some temporally short following shots are also present as well as some shaky shots, e.g. the shots on the boat.

Narra-note 1: One can read this narrative as two parallel words that are able to collide at various moments.

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