October 29, 2010


by Steve Dollar


Every minute, four ideas. That's the oft-quoted credo of celebrated French director Arnaud Desplechin, a guy who gets a lot of critical mileage for packing his films with rich, allusive layers of literary, musical and historical information, modulated through an effusive technique that can only be called encyclopedic. Unlike, say, his forefather Jean-Luc Godard in later years, his work doesn't require a decoder ring—but a Desplechin film both merits and rewards repeat viewings in ways that those by many of his peers do not. There's a lot to chew on, and it tastes pretty good.

House Well, let me tell you this: Nobuhiko Obayashi kicks Arnaud Desplechin's ass in the ideas-per-minute department. I have now seen the director's 1977 House (or Hausu, as it was released in Japan)—what, five or six times? I've seen it on an imperfect file downloaded from the Internet, in bootleg form on homebrewed DVD, really late at night on cable network Turner Classic Movie's TCM Underground, and splashed across the big screen, when the New York Asian Film Festival—in one of its most indispensable acts—revived it in a restored edition in 2009. And earlier this year, the film enjoyed a held-over run at Manhattan's IFC Center, as well as a nationwide tour of repertory houses. Now that Criterion Collection has, at long last, released House in the customary bells-and-whistles Blu-ray version, I can watch it again and again and again. And yet, this is a movie so drenched in neuron-frying crazy goo that every single frame has four ideas. It's a bottomless pit. A thrumming vortex. A nonstop rollercoaster plunge to the deepest, glowing recesses of what-the-fuck? It's so weird and wonderful I can't imagine ever really sorting it all out, and wouldn't want to—even if Criterion included a coupon for a free decoder ring with every purchase.

This clearinghouse of uncanny rumpus is a gothic fairy tale of the old dark house variety by way of the Japanese ghost story—the current revival of Kaneto Shindo's 1968 Kuroneko (Black Cat) is a stellar screen adaptation of this form. Only, it is shot through with the giddy rush and somewhat creepy pubescent perversity of what I suppose is some proto-otaku obsession with frivolous schoolgirls parading around like cartoon characters. They greet every passing occurrence as a non-sequitur revelation of "Eureka!"-like awesomeness, even their own gruesomely baroque deaths. But that still doesn’t tell you enough.

House Though he started out in the 1960s as an avant-garde filmmaker, by the late '70s Obayashi was primarily known as a producer of extremely hilarious TV commercials. Among the most popular was a series devoted to the men's cologne Mandom. They starred pock-faced American tough guy Charles Bronson, and you can watch them now on YouTube, where they glorify the beefy vigilante of Death Wish as both a testosterone-spitting horseman and a debonair, James Bond-like sophisticate, quaffing fine whiskey in his classy man-lair. Croon the silken theme tune: "All the world loves a lover…" These spots, some as brief as 30 seconds, are the DNA cels of House: the key to Obayashi's surreal, spasmodic approach. It makes perfect sense in a quick-hitting video burst, where there's no time or reason to heed petty mandates for narrative logic or connecting the dots. But when applied to 88 minutes, the ADHD-rattled vibe asserts a consciousness-altering whammy. Though Obayashi had never shot a feature, Toho—a studio that was at loose ends at the time with nothing left to lose—picked him to deliver what it hoped would be an action-thriller blockbuster, and gave him total creative freedom. So the director did what any sensible artist would do: He solicited ideas from his 11-year-old daughter Chigumi. (The treat-stuffed DVD includes an illuminating interview with the adult Chigumi and her father, conducted by NYAFF programmer Marc Walkow).

House What unreeled from her imagination was the saga of seven schoolgirls, a posse of precocious archetypes who go by nicknames like Gorgeous, Melody, Fantasy, Prof, Sweet, Kung Fu and Mac (which is short for "stomach," since she likes to eat a lot). School's out for summer, and they're off to visit the elderly maiden aunt of one of the girls. The spinster has a heartbreaking secret, and it's not that she owns a freaky-ass white cat named Snowflake. As the film's "reality," already a half-dreamed Saturday morning cartoon, becomes increasingly dictated by the strangely animate, um, décor, bad things begin to happen, and the cheerful Lolitas begin to succumb to "a fear too beautiful to resist!" No catalog of catastrophes would do the movie justice at this point, but in one brilliant setpiece Melody, who is a musician (of course!), is eaten alive by the piano she plays (and actually continues to play, even when there's no more Melody attached to her nimble fingers). The scene won first prize in the "Best Kills" film clip competition at the 2008 Fantastic Fest, but Obayashi never stops trying to top himself. He riffs on everything, evoking Tex Avery and Busby Berkeley, Henry Darger and bubble-gum pop songs, silent cinema and children's TV, surrealism and giallo, as he goes wild with superimpositions, Day-Glo matte horizons, cotton-candy color schemes, crudely animated special effects (like a watermelon that becomes a carnivorous, high-flying human head), and jaw-dropping juxtapositions.

House Looking ahead, it's easy to infer that House made a life-changing impact on anyone who saw it during its decades in cult-obscurity limbo. Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead look like obvious inheritors, to mention only two. But the film's deeper context is anything but silly or shocking. As the girls are picked off one by one, consumed by a restless, avenging spirit, their joyous acceptance of a bizarre fate should not be taken at face value. There's a troubling undertow of melancholy. The story really serves as a subconscious exorcism of post-war anxieties (not for nothing is there a cameo by a mushroom cloud). Its amusement-park dynamics tap the nitrous-oxide hyperdrive of Japanese pop culture, but underneath the zany is a playfully transcendental brand of national therapy.

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Posted by ahillis at October 29, 2010 7:54 AM



Saw it 5 or so years ago in my favourite
movie theater. It's really a trip and SO FAR OUT!
You will never forget this experience.

Thank you!

Posted by: Jan-Eike at November 1, 2010 7:34 AM
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