not in our stars, but in ourselves
I’ve always been ashamed of how little I know of international cinema. Where I’ve studied a bit of classical Hollywood cinema, and can see how certain historical events led to certain strains in American mainstream film, I’m almost entirely ignorant of any other so-called “national” cinema – and the farther we get from the West, the more appallingly ignorant I am. And yet, when I watched House (or Hausu), I felt almost free. Obviously, there are multitudes of artistic and historic context that I’m missing, but this film is so nuts, so off-the-wall, so utterly original, that I felt reasonably sure that I could react to the film itself – because no amount of history or context could help House to make sense. It just is what it is.
The film centers on seven teenage friends: Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), Sweet (Masayo Miyako), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Prof (Ai Matubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), and Mac (Mieko Sato). Summer vacation is coming up soon, and the girls are all excited about their plans. Gorgeous will go with her film composer father (Saho Sasazawa) to their country villa, while Fantasy and the rest will go to a seaside camp with their handsome teacher, Mr. Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki). Gorgeous’s plans hit a snag, however, when her father introduces her to Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous’s mother died eight years ago, and her father wants to marry Ryoko and bring her with them to the villa. This upsets Gorgeous, so she writes to her mother’s sister to ask if she can come visit. While she’s writing, a fluffy white cat enters her room via the window. Gorgeous is delighted by the “cute kitty,” and the cat becomes Gorgeous’s faithful shadow. Her aunt writes back that she’s been waiting many years for Gorgeous to write, and of course she’s welcome to visit. It just so happens that Mr. Togo’s sister is pregnant, or just had a baby, or something – so the seaside inn is closed. The rest of the girls accompany Gorgeous to see Auntie (Yoko Minamida). Auntie has had a tragic life: she was engaged to a man she loved madly, but he died in the war. She’s become a spinster and a recluse since, growing old along with her house. When the girls arrive, Auntie is bound to a wheelchair, but she seems happy and gracious to have so many young visitors. As soon as the sun sets, however, strange things begin to happen. One by one, the house devours the girls. Each death gives Auntie more strength and vitality. Gorgeous, however, seems to have been consumed spiritually by the house: she dons elaborate white wedding clothes, and becomes one with the house. The next morning, Ryoko stops by, having promised her fiancé to check in on Gorgeous et al., and Gorgeous greets her. Where are your friends, Ryoko asks. They’ll wake up soon, Gorgeous responds, and they’re sure to be hungry.
All these supernatural ends are accomplished with visual effects that I can describe only as batshit. Collage, animation, matte paintings – there are all kinds of old-school tricks that are, needless to say, far more effective than any SFX could hope to be. At times, the girls’ terror and the house’s voracious appetite are, frankly, extremely funny. This is a movie about hysteria, in both the current colloquial sense and the more archaic female-centric sense. It’s about excess and sexuality, or excess of sexuality, however you want to put it. Sometimes the only way to express that excess is through laughter. When it’s unclear what the fuck is going on, sometimes there’s no other possible response.
To the sexuality angle, however, this is a strange movie about femininity. Even the girls themselves seem to illustrate different feminine archetypes: vain and fashionable Gorgeous; dreamy and romantic Fantasy; athletic and fearless Kung Fu; brainy and logical Prof; musical and sensitive Melody; kind and generous Sweet; food-obsessed and “fat” Mac. (Please note: Mac has a rounder face than the other girls, but she’s visibly slim, like the rest. Hmph.) You get the idea: these girls each represent a particular “type” that a man might like. The Spice Girls were a similar rainbow of archetypes, styled and nicknamed beyond any resemblance to real human females. Even more than the labeling, however, are the overriding views of what it means to be female. We have our blooming teenage girls, giggling about boys. We have our predatory spinster spirit aunt, who preys on women of “marriageable” age – vengeance for her own lover dying in a kamikaze mission. We have Gorgeous’s dead mother, whom we see only in flashback, and almost only as a bride. We even have the cat, an animal that’s so often associated with femininity that there are people who will unthinkingly refer to any given cat as “she” unless told that the poor kitty is, in fact, male. In contrast to all these varying representations of womanhood, we have a pretty standard representation of masculinity: the men are either absent (Gorgeous’s father, Auntie’s fiancé) or ineffectual (Mr. Togo, who does attempt to rescue the girls…before being turned into a pile of bananas. Shit happens.) What does it all mean? That women will always destroy each other for the sake of a man, or if they can’t get a man, or whatever? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure it matters, ultimately. Nobuhiko Obayashi was asked to make a Japanese Jaws, but after consulting with his eleven-year-old daughter, he came up with this. And why not.
As a completely ahistorical and anachronistic (and nonsensical) note, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something about House‘s entire premise that reminded me of something else: the Salem Witch Trials. Now, hear me out. Of course that’s not what it’s about. I know that much. Nevertheless, consider: the younger generation experiencing a collective fever dream of an older, mysterious spinster – with a witch’s familiar and everything – and freaking out at dancing skeletons and floating heads and gallons of blood and hungry pianos. There’s something about female teenage hysteria that’s universal and enduring, whether its focus is a demonic spinster aunt, or Goody Proctor cavorting with the devil. Isn’t that inspiring, in a way?