[Note: The following post discusses scenes from the film Hausu, but no major plot points are spoiled.]
Born in 1938 in Onomichi, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s first experience with film came at three years old when he mistook a projector for a toy. He was pressured by his family to pursue a career as a doctor, but he enrolled in Seijo University instead, where he began playing with film. In the 60’s he established himself as a part of the experimental film scene, became a member of Japan Filmmaker’s Cooperative and his work was being screened with the Art Theater Guild. Together with his contemporaries, Obayashi crafted experiments on 8mm and they would later host screenings at universities and venues around Tokyo to get noticed. Because experimental cinema (un)surprisingly isn’t a great source of income, Obayashi started creating advertisements. During his lifetime he ended up making over 2000 commercials.
Nobuhiko Obayashi passed away on the 10th of April, aged 82, after a long battle with terminal cancer. He made over 40 features and his work was dominated with by themes of war and the horrors it brings. His last film, Labyrinth of Cinema arrived just last year, but Obayashi is most well-known by his incredible debut 1977 feature.
Hausu is a surreal tale about a schoolgirl and her six classmates who travel to her aunt’s country house, only to encounter evil lurking inside. It’s not a terrifying horror film, nor is it one that can be viewed as purely comic. Hausu occupies a specific niche where nothing is scary, but you don’t feel safe watching it.
This is caused perhaps by the fact that Obayashi alone didn’t come up with the concept. The birth of Hausu is one of the most unique stories ever, because the film came from the mind of a child. After establishing himself, Obayashi was asked to develop a concept for a feature and rather than writing the screenplay on his own, he had asked his daughter Chigumi what scared her. Chigumi, then just 11-years-old (if you didn’t feel bad about yourself already) gave him responses that thanks to Obayashi and the magic of cinema would go on to make the most memorable scenes of the film. Some of these included her fear of a reflection eating her, finding a head in the well or a piano chewing on her. Obayashi then refined those ideas into a story about a house devouring its inhabitants.
To be honest, Hausu is a crazy film. You have to see Hausu to believe it. Maybe even multiple times. It’s a mix of horror and comedy, but calling it a horror-comedy feels inherently wrong. It’s a cult film and a staple of horror cinema, one that endured the test test of time better than anyone could have predicted.
Commissioned by Toho Studios, which produced multiple Kurosawa films and, most famously, the original Godzilla, Hausu was meant as a Japanese reaction to the mega-successful Jaws, a horror which hit theatres two years prior.
Obayashi then presented the concept to Vice-President of Toho, Isao Matsuoka, who didn’t understand the story but greenlit the film nonetheless, willing to bet on a unique, original story (a move surely baffling to the heads of today’s biggest studios). However, due to the strict rules of that time Obayashi couldn’t have been appointed as the director.
In the meantime, Obayashi took the matters of marketing into his own hands. Press started mentioning the film in various articles, he created Hausu-themed postcards and bumper stickers and he convinced Weekly Shonen Magazine to create a manga based on the story. A novelization of the screenplay followed shortly. Eventually, he was brought on to direct as his dedication, coupled with the fact that none of Toho’s directors wanted to helm the project (which delayed the production by two years), persuaded the studio.
Once in production, instead of letting go off his previous filmmaking experiences and approaching the material in a more traditional matter, Obayashi went all-in. He made an amalgamation of everything that has made his work unique. The childlike approach which spawned the original idea was kept throughout filming, as Hausu seems to have been made by … well, a child.
The special effects are obviously amateurish, the backdrops stand out like a sore thumb and the blood is the colour of a saturated orange juice. The film is a horror, but that doesn’t mean it won’t take every opportunity to wink and the audience in an attempt to make them laugh. For all its quirks, Hausu is actually more special than we give it the credit for. It’s the first Japanese film to use video effects – applied in the scene where one of the girls dissolves in the water – achieved through low fidelity video and chroma key effect.
Nobuhiko Obayashi wanted to involve as many of his colleagues from the underground scene as possible, such as the rock band Godiego for the soundtrack and his friend Asei Kobayashi, who not only produced the film, but also starred as the watermelon man. All seven of the actresses were models who worked with Obayashi on various advertisements, with little to no previous acting experience. In fact, the only truly experienced actor was Yōko Minamida, who portrayed the enigmatic Auntie.
While Hausu is a pretty straightforward film, there is also a lot of subtext in it and multiple possible explanations of it. However, reading into it will only get you so far and I’d say that it actually takes away from the experience. The most obvious way to read Hausu is as a metaphor for puberty. The seven main characters are in that age and what happens to them in the titular house can be seen as an exaggeration of the sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes scary changes. And then there’s the blood. What’s more, the film itself exist in a transitional, changing state: animated yet live action, scary yet humorous, fantastical yet grounded with the painful reminders of war.
Having been born near Hiroshima, Nobuhiko lost a lot of his childhood friends to the atomic bomb. This scarring event formed all of his subsequent work. As explained much better in kogonada’s video essay, after the first viewing few would point out the backstory of Auntie’s family as the most memorable or the most unsettling part of Hausu. When this flashback occurs, we’re even presented with the footage of the explosion while the girls comment: “It looks like cotton candy!”. That’s an extremely stark contrast, one that would no doubt turn heads in just about every other film.
The initial reception of Hausu was mixed. The critics didn’t like it, but the film did receive a huge amount of praise from the public and went on to become a box-office success in Japan. By the time the film officially came to America in 2009, it already had a cult following.
Obayashi has since stated that he isn’t happy with some of the special effects, but watching the film more than four decades later the very visible effects enrich the experience, rather than take away from it. It’s so uniquely self aware that nothing quite like Hausu has been made since its release. Whether you’re watching it alone or with friends, drunk, high or sober, Hausu will certainly make for a memorable experience.
“Movies are not weak. Movies express freedom.” – Nobuhiko Obayashi