Two Midnight Screenings were originally intended for publishing this week, but they got a little long individually and separating them seemed more appropriate. Besides, more than any other film I can think of, this week’s entry stands on its own.
Sometimes you wander into the wilds of film land and come back a changed person. Sometimes, however, a film grabs you kicking and screaming into the wilds and you aren’t even afforded the privilege of returning a changed person, and the challenge of writing about such a film dumbfounds and exercises the mind beyond its safely mechanical, utilitarian qualities. Ladies and gentlemen, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House.
Released in 1977, the perplexing and ever-inquisitive House (Hausa in its native Japanese) defies expectation and thumbs its nose at common sense, knocking down the pieces of classical Japanese Kabuki ghost stories before it even sets them up. Obayashi’s “horror” doesn’t begin until the audience is well within the film’s vortex, entrapped in its visionary milieu. Well before anything that even rumors to chill the spine, Obayashi has already lulled us into his alarmingly postmodern variation on everything from irrepressible teenage determinism and heightened melodrama to Harlequin romance to the backstages of film production.
Most horror films take their time methodically and systematically inducing comas of mundane life before they flash-freeze into rigor mortis with whitened fright. Obayashi takes a decidedly different path, inoculating us from the everyday and the typical from his very first shot. Scratch that. Before his very first shot, for the film’s clipped credits sequence introduces us to Obayashi’s world in a decidedly ’70s variation on a classical ghostly font (wobbly, bubble-text animation out of low-budget ’70s underground animation included), immediately propositioning us with his schlubby, modern re-jangling of a would-be old school haunted house story (a promise the film makes good on and then takes us out for dinner afterwards). The content of the text itself has the “o” of the film’s title turn into the mouth of a particularly gluttonous looking sharp-toothed animal and then an eyeball, but content even this abnormal hits us like an after-effect of the pop-art style, the same way that the actual content of the film is more a dessert to Obayashi’s stylistic main course.
On this front, you can forgive the tentative baseline narrative of the film for the sheer ornamentation Obayashi doctors it up with. The story commences as most grand tragedies do, with a young Japanese school girl tempur-tantruming a trip to her long-lost aunt’s spooky house as a form of revenge against her father returning home with a new wife in tow. A fantastically under-emphasized line about Sergio Leone almost disguises how hurt the sensational Gorgeous (Kimoko Ikegami, and yes Gorgeous is her character’s apparent birth name in the film) is by her father’s desire to replace Gorgeous’ departed mother. She angst-writes her aunt and asks for a trip to her wooded rural abode, and ends up bringing six friends (ahem: Prof, Melody, Kung Fu, Mac Sweet Fantasy) with her. It is at this point, long after Obayashi has already seen a stunningly zealous canvas backdrop that looks like a cotton candy sunrise replace any sense of real morning or daytime in the film, when things get weird.
Obayashi’s unflagging voraciousness, his propensity to engulf any technique that makes the mistake of crossing him on the sidewalk and finding itself in his crosshairs, sounds like an experiment in alienation. Yet his project never attains the worn-out trudge of a mercenary production, always in high spirits and inescapably industrious as a work of magnified inspiration. His confident, vivid surfeit of style titillates the flamboyant and the far-fetched, dressing up exotic innocence with the cloak and cowl of a particularly stimulated mad scientist turned carnival ringleader. Make no mistake, Obayashi is absolutely peddling snake oil, but here the lustrous packaging and limber presentation are the real presents. No matter how strange House gets, there is an overwhelming feeling that Obayashi truly loves and respects every single decision he makes. He’s enjoying himself, and this personal flame keeps the movie from ever burning out.
If any single aesthetic overlaps throughout this diving rod of madness, it’s Obayashi’s frisky deconstruction of fiction and film culture. He douses the film in fragmentary fakery, gyrating with lustful colors, doing a pirouette onto a canvas of gaudily and diaphanous superimposed animation, and sparkling our eyes with a camera in the throes of a seizure and unable to decide whether it wants to tremor or twitch. Obayashi doesn’t stay with one trick too long, giving his film a temporal, always hurtling but never harried appearance, but they are all united in their tickled desire to tilt the film world of its axis of reality. House is Obayashi’s fiction film turntable, and Giallo horror, cartoon physics, and Old Hollywood romance all get a spin.
It’s tempting to say Obayashi’s style speaks for itself, but there’s more brewing underneath. His work isn’t narcissistic – the style does not exist purely for the sake of itself, although one gets the sense that this would be enough. Instead, his style teases out a certain commentary on the flourishes of film as a gateway to the mind, capturing his characters in a sort of trance of teenage abandon that manifests itself externally in the film’s splashy youthfulness. After all, its narrative, insofar as it exists in any meaningful sense, does transform the aunt into a youth-stealing elder bent on destroying the innocence and unexpected, unexpecting joy of teenage life. The film plays heavily on stereotypes of Japanese female youth as naïve and emotionally underdeveloped, and played a role in developing these strains in media culture throughout the succeeding 38 years of its existence. It’s also wholly aware that the entirety of its vision of childlike glee is a falsity, and it pushes this self-awareness to the forefront at every turn, something many of its less earnest, more self-serving successors failed to latch onto. While they seem to utilize their problematic visions of Japanese culture with lead-footed acceptance, Obayashi is always caressing out the internal silliness of the idea that this is actually how Japanese women would behave.
In turn, House hinges on youth, and critiques the soul-sucking specter of old age (Gorgeous’ father, after all, was the impetus of her undoing in the first place). But it also mocks glorified youth, filming characters through lenses which recreate their purposefully artificial names. Melody, for instance, gets a lush, romantic camera to serenade her in a glorifying light as she exerts her namesake prowess, suggesting her own naïve view of herself manifested in Obayashi’s camera. Lest we get too calm, however, he then tears the rug out from under her, transfixing her in his perky, if admittedly vituperative, gaze and color-coding the celluloid to slather it with wrath-red blood as her piano literally eats her alive. The end result, if abusive to the girls, also abuses the idea that these stereotypes are real people. They are types, the products of a screenwriter thinking he is writing female characters, but Obayashi directs to draw attention to the fact that they are types, enhances and exaggerates their perspective on the world, and then squashes them with it under his flippantly post-structuralist directorial gaze.
When the dust settles, we’re left with a crumbled house, a fitting metaphor for the effect the film has on the human mind. If it doesn’t leave you catatonic, Obayashi’s maelstrom of creative destruction and apocalyptic stagecraft will likely find you shocked, awed, quizzical, and unsure of where to proceed. The only real downside is that after it ends you’ll have to go back to your normal life and sigh at the fact that Obayashi is not an architect for something much greater than a film, ungodly in its power though it may be. It’s a truly special work, one of the few films for which the word “singular” can honestly and unaffectedly be applied without any concern for disappointment or hyperbole. For when a film’s mindset is the stuff of hyperbole, overstating things isn’t really an option.