Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House

November 14, 2009

There’s a small number of popular directors in Japan whose output has been rather one sidedly presented outside their native country. Cult director Nobuhiko Obayashi falls to this group. To a large extent his international reputation lies on the film House (1977) – somewhat ironic considering how little seen it is outside Japan. But House’s (also commonly known as “Hausu”, as fan circuits have adopted the Japanese katakana spelling for international use as well) reputation has preceded it for years, and now Criterion / Janus Films have picked it for theatrical and home video distribution in the US. For better or worse, next year this time equals mark can be drawn between Obayashi’s name and the film’s title globally.

House is the kind of movie cult film enthusiastics are looking for. Best described as Evil Dead 2 with kawaii factors, Obayashi’s film is a wacky comic book come alive. A group of junior high school students – all girls of course – travel to countryside to spend a weekend in an old house. It just happens to be that this specific house is more or less alive, and its visitors quite a bit dead after soon. If the ghost don’t get them, the piano will eat `em. But it’s not a very gory vision, unlike Raimi’s splatter films. A seminal element is Obayashi’s films has always been the visuals. House comes with more color-combinations and unreal images than the beloved early 70’s visual experimentalists of Japanese cinema, such as Shunya Ito (Jailhouse 41), could ever have dreamed of. But this is also House’s problem. The first 15 minutes may be a jaw dropper, but an over-dose in inevitable. When Obayashi goes overboard, it’s no longer a matter of style over substance; it’s the matter of style over the substance of style.

The reason for bringing up the matter of one sides presentations is that Obayashi’s true talent is indeed in substance. His masterpieces, such as Tenkousei (1982), are balanced, character driven dramas that work on a whole different level than the superficial roller coaster ride that is House. But it would be wrong to consider Obayashi the victim of his own cult film; House is no less genuine Obayashi than Girl Boss Blues is genuine Norifumi Suzuki. There is another side to these directors, but that remains to be discovered by large international audiences. That being said, House is by no means a bad movie. Its cult film reputation is fully justified, the masterpiece tag a bit less so. If a young kung fu skilled girl (called Kung Fu) in her underwear fighting ghosts and getting bit in the butt by a severed head sounds like your cup of tea, you’ve chosen the right film to watch. There’s enough good laughs and inventiveness on offer to keep one entertained even after the visuals lose their brightest shine. The film’s soundtrack, while sometimes repetitive, is also very pleasing.


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