Sunday 16 August 2009

Hausu (1977)

Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Stars: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba and Yoko Minamida

Sailor suited schoolgirls and Japanese ghosts can hardly be a bad start to any movie, but Hausu (or House in English) isn't just any movie. These young ladies are named Gorgeous and Fantasy and they flounce around in a haze of schoolgirl delight. School is breaking for summer and they're enjoying their last day together. Gorgeous is going to spend the summer with her father and Fantasy is going to a training camp with a bevy of other schoolgirls with awesomely generic names. This is a horror film but it initially plays out like an daytime soap opera on NHK.

Of course this wouldn't be much of a horror film if the leading characters were split up before we even got started, so we follow Gorgeous home to meet Papa. He's an important film composer, playing mini golf on his patio, apparently just back from Italy where Sergio Leone thought his music was better than Ennio Morricone's. Now we know we're in a fantasy film. It doesn't turn out to be Gorgeous's fantasy film though, because instead of a souvenir Papa has brought back a new woman, Ryuko Ema, who will be her new mother, her old one having died eight years before.

Now Gorgeous is really not happy, because she's pretty close to old dead mother, so she chases off in a huff to her purple room with huge flowers on the wallpaper to visit with her memory. And sure enough next day the trip with Papa is off, she's going with her girlfriends to their training camp, a training camp that turns out not to happen because Mr Togo's sister's inn is busy or something. There are so many excuses in this opening that it's hard to work out who's actually trying to make things happen and who isn't.

In the end though, they all traipse off on the bus to Gorgeous's aunt's place in the town where her mother lived. It doesn't matter that she's only seen her once in her life, she's looking forward to seven lively young Japanese schoolgirls arriving on her doorstep to brighten up her life. Hell, who wouldn't? I'd sign up for that chore if my wife would only let me. And it's at this hausu that most of our film takes place, including all the attacks by mattresses, lampshades and pianos.

That made you blink, huh? Let me reiterate: this is not your standard horror movie, just in case you hadn't worked that out by this point in the film. Already we'd had vividly painted skies, soft focus overkill and the cinematic equivalent of the sort of framing you see in girls' scrapbooks. Now, as they set off on the bus to Auntie's hausu, we get animated scenery and a great set of flashbacks to show us who Gorgeous's mother and aunt were, all done like a silent Japanese film, complete with death in a plane, a red rose to stand out on the sepia footage and even animated blood for emphasis. All flashbacks should be made like this.

So our seven young beauties arrive in Satoyama Village, which apparently consists entirely of a single bus stop, and they wander through the hills until they find a watermelon salesman to ask where the mansion is. Naturally it's the awesomely obvious gothic manse on top of a hill, the only building in sight, making this a truly bizarre cross between Dracula and The Sound of Music. And just in case we'd forgotten who these young ladies are, we get a fresh introduction, just like the credits to another soap opera. Along with Gorgeous and Fantasy, we have Melody, Mac, Sweet, Prof and Kung Fu.

I'm sure it doesn't take much to imagine what they're all like, though I should add that Fantasy is so named because she imagines things not because she's every man's... well, maybe she's both. I should also mention that Mac who is so named because she can't stop eating, prompting everyone to comment about how fat she is when she's really just as delectable as the rest. I should add that these aren't just names that became dubious through translation, they're faithful translations from the original Japanese, where their names remain unmistakable: what else could Kunfuu, Suuitto or Merodii be translated as? Fantasy is Fanta and Gorgeous is Oshare.

Our first signs that this is a horror movie are when Auntie answers the gate in a wheelchair, looking rather young but with straight blonde hair. Blanche, Gorgeous's cat, takes to her immediately, which is hardly surprising given that there are pictures of her all over the house. She shows that she's a witch cat by flashing her eyes luminous green and breaking the girls' camera through the sheer power of her mind. Now, are you ready for the weird stuff? The chandelier kills a lizard, that painted sky follows them to Auntie's and Fantasy, trying to find Mac who has disappeared, pulls her head out of the well, a head which promptly talks to her, floats in mid air and bites her on the ass. I did tell you she can't stop eating, right?

Beyond being a very weird film, Hausu is a very Japanese film. Anyone versed in Japanese folklore will recognise that this is a visualisation of the concept of yokai, spirits that pervade everything and are frequent visitors to movies, two of the best examples being Spirited Away and The Great Yokai War. Here, Auntie talks to all her household appliances, from the chandelier to the stove, not because she's lonely, as she pretends, but because they're all possessed by spirits. What's more this epitomises the conglomeration of styles that the Japanese seem to love so much. However consistent the style of a Japanese film seems to be, there's always plenty of opportunity for it to veer off suddenly into something else. Here it veers everywhere, all at once.

Description is next to useless here because this is such a unique film. Let me suggest that it's a horror movie phrased as a Japanese schoolgirl's acid trip, psychedelia very much included. Picture effects by Terry Gilliam and animation by Jan Svankmajer, all directed by someone who has only ever made shampoo commercials. Add in some diverse influences from things as diverse like The Twilight Zone and Master of the Flying Guillotine and you may be close. Then if you're twisted enough to actually visualise something close to that unholy mixture, let me add that, as the end suggests, this tale of vampiric cannibalism is really a love story. The one thing that always survives, it tells us, is love. Hopefully along with love, Hausu survives too. It deserves never to die.

I was surprised to find that this film was written by two men and directed by one of them, because it feels utterly feminine throughout. They're Nobuhiko Obayashi and Chiho Katsura. Katsura, who co-wrote, was early in his career, though would quickly move onto a Kon Ichikawa crime drama, the first of three sequels to The Inugami Clan, and other intriguing works like Irezumi: Spirit of Tattoo. Obayashi, who directed and co-wrote, has a long filmography but is apparently best known as a celebrity on TV, a regular on game shows and chat shows and featuring in commercials. His list of credits looks as eclectic as Hausu is within its ninety minutes.

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