Death and the Maidens

The other night I got the chance to see the 1977 Japanese film ハウス, or Hausu,
alias House.

Video still of large, wavy white letters reading 'House', with the Japanese katakana reading the same in small characters above, superimposed over silhouette of tall oddly shaped house that appears to have either tree branches or hands sprouting from it all around, full moon and red sky in the background

Frankly, I'm not sure what I can tell you about it of import that the insane trailer doesn't — except to verify that while the movie does have a basic plot it actually lives
up to that trailer's wildly abrupt shifts in scene and tone. Even if you don't think you'll ever see the film, I urge you to click through the link; House's trailer is a distillation of sublime weirdness unto itself.

House was directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi for Toho, a studio probably most associ-
ated on these shores with (if anything) the Godzilla franchise. Chiho Katsura wrote the screenplay based on a springboard from Obayashi that incorporated ideas from Obayashi's daughter Chigumi. It looks roughly like a mashup of The Monkees, Scooby-Doo, and H.R. Pufnstuf made for Hammer Films, by the love child of Federico Fellini and Ed Wood, starring young Japanese women.

Story? Gorgeous is looking forward to spending the school break with her widowed father, but he surprises her by stating that his new galpal will be joining them: "She's going to be your mom," his subtitles read, all the more awkwardly blunt for the jaunty tone in his voice. "She's surprisingly good at cooking," he adds, "and other things." While it's obvious why Dad's high on New Mom, his daughter is having none of it, and so she heads out to her aunt's house for vacation instead — along with six of her class-mates whose plans for some kind of training camp with the supposedly dreamy Mr. Togo have fallen through. Like Gorgeous the other girls have English-based names reflecting their personalities: Fantasy, or Fanta, who daydreams; Prof, a bookworm; Mac, described as fat although she's nothing of the sort, who eats a lot and presumably likes American fast food; Melody, the musical one; Sweet, who must be particularly nice; and Kung Fu, who has martial-arts skills and is totally awesome.

I give away absolutely zilch by telling you that the aunt's house is haunted nor by describing all 88 minutes of the film as, pardon my transliteration, battoshito kureizii.

House wasn't released in America until distributor Janus Films began exhibiting it in 2009, with a Criterion Collection release soon following. The DVD has among its extras a nearly 40-minute experimental film of Obayashi's from 1966 and a new 45-minute piece interviewing Obayashi, screenwriter Chihu Katsura, and the now-adult Chigumi Obayashi about House. I highly recommend seeing House in a group, be it with a viewing party at home or better yet in the theater if you're lucky enough to have a local art-house cinema and can get it screened.

Despite my interest in Japanese language and history, I've never been possessed of a particular bent for manga, anime, or kaiju eiga like so many of my friends, although I certainly appreciate them as part of an omnivorous pop-cultural diet. No amount of that stuff will prepare you for House anyway.

Updated and revised February 2019
Screencap © 1977 Toho Company Ltd.

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  1. I have to see this movie.
    Sorry to be so bad about commenting lately — I promise to do better when work lets up!

  2. I hunted down some more clips on the Youtube and *eee* is that Creepy Dancing Aunt ever freaky! I watched a well-known Japanese surreal horror film about a decade ago and what I remember most (for whatever reason...) is the end scene where the guy ends up driving around town in a giant metal phallus.

    Can anyone confirm that this isn't just a disjointed nightmare of my youth?

  3. The movie is The Iron Man and he becomes a giant metal phallus, he doesn't drive one around (because that would be weird).

    Here's the ending!


  4. I had not seen that, Joan. What's so "funny" about it to me is that Japanese porn pixelates male genitalia, and there are (or were; I don't keep up with this stuff) people actually employed by the Japanese government to cut out explicit naughty bits from publications imported into the country, but a movie featuring a cyborg with a machine gun for an arm grafted to a giant motorized scrap-metal penis, y'know, sure.

    Pornographic manga and anime are even weirder than the actual live-action stuff, too. [So I've heard, of course.]

    And then there's "tentacle erotica"...


  5. The main reason why I didn't link to the other clips of House on YouTube — well, aside from not wanting to support copyright infringement — was that the movie really does have to be seen in its entirety. I don't blame you for wanting to check 'em out, Joan, but trust me: As disjointed as it is, House's cumulative effect is way more than the proverbial sum of its parts.

    You really do have to see it, Arb. If you haven't by September, I'll make it a birthday gift.