While we're still in spooky season I thought I would write up a review for the 1977 Japanese Comedy/Horror film, Hausu. As I wrote this review and analysis it became clearer and clearer that this movie is well-deserving of high praise in the film community. It's an absolute adventure, non-sensical and fantastical at times, but it houses deeper thematic messages that speak to Japan's history, Obayashi's personal history of loss, and femininity.
At this point in 2020 there are no new movies being released in theaters and half the theaters aren't even open. I really couldn't be more sad about this but I know someday (hopefully soon) the movies will be back to normal. However, this does give me a chance to catch up on a lot of older films that I haven't had the chance to see yet. And thankfully, my local neighborhood theater, The Trylon Theater, has been staying open throughout covid and showing some great old films on a regular basis. And this spooky season they were showing Hausu.
Brief Plot Summary
Hausu, which translates directly to "house", is a story about a group of seven Japanese schoolgirls who are starting their summer vacation and decide to take a trip to one of the girls Aunt's house deep in the countryside. This trip is instigated and facilitated by Gorgeous, the main young girl, who is trying to escape spending time with her new stepmom. Gorgeous's mom died eight years earlier and she's upset that her dad is trying to replace her. So she decides to go on a summer trip to visit her aunt with six of her friends. Upon arriving at the house, things start to get supernatural almost immediately and the aunt's house starts to turn into a literal house of horrors fueled by the creepy aunt and the very obviously evil cat.
My Unfiltered Opinion of Hausu
Hausu was wild! It was surprisingly fun and funny, adventurous, ambitious, thought-provoking and overall a very entertaining film. I absolutely loved the originality, the quirkiness, and the ridiculousness. It lives and breathes the 70's, from the awesome psychedelic soundtrack to the retro Scooby-Doo cartoon effects. It was also edited with a film grain and sometimes a vintage film frame overlay to make it feel a lot older than it is. I'm not sure why the director chose to do this but I'm all for it. It all adds to this time capsule gem of a film.
With most new horror films following cookie-cutter patterns, it was refreshing to see a horror-comedy fusion that takes such a non-traditional approach to filmmaking which bordered on experimental. But it's the type of experimental filmmaking that almost perfectly balances plot with the abstract, making it very fun to watch but still easy to follow. The key to this film's greatness is it's confident, humorous, sarcastic, and fairytale tone. And the director nailed it in all aspects.
All of the girls names describe their personality and character directly, such as Gorgeous (known for her beauty), Fantasy (daydreams frequently), Kung Fu (VERY skilled fighter), and so on.
The director takes a sarcastic approach to the girls optimism much farther into the movie than you would expect. Despite their friends disappearing and the appliances coming to life, they still don't think anything of it. And one of the girls Melody (who plays the piano, duh) just ends up laughing as she's being eaten by a grand piano.
All of the evil and supernatural events happening in the house are painfully obvious to the audience but the girls are painfully and fatally oblivious.
There is a talking, walking skeleton in the background throughout the film, and the furniture and appliances are alive because why not.
Each scene has something outrageous that just adds to the fun. Like one of the girls pulls what should be a watermelon out of a well and turns out to be one of the other girl's heads who talks to her, gets flung in the air, and then takes a bit out of her ass.
The editing is choppy on purpose and the amount of different camera angles is outrageous and inconsistent at times, but consistent with the tone of the film.
Thematic Elements of Hausu
While this film is a whole lot of fun, you might be asking why this is considered by some to be an important film in film history. I thought that too going into it. But this film does have some deeper thematic messages that are woven into the plot.
The director, Nobuhiko Obayashi, wanted to make a fun film that has a child-like playfulness to it, but he also wanted to bring the audience back to a more serious topic. As many Japanese films do, Hausu weaves the nuclear bomb from World War II into it's backstory. And this is primarily because Obayashi was born and grew up in Hiroshima. He says in an interview that he lost all of his close friends when the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima. This makes it clear that he's placing a piece of himself in the character of Gorgeous, as all of her friends end up dying in the house. It's a very sad, personal and nationalistic piece of filmmaking from Obayashi that makes this film a little more serious than the joyride on the surface.
To go a little further into the themes in Hausu and how the director wove them into the plot, we can start by looking at the cat. In Hausu the cat is the likely source of evil that lives in the house, his eyes light up green and he appears randomly to Gorgeous in the beginning of the film before she even leaves for her Aunt's house. The Aunt has photos and shrines for the cat all throughout the house, so we know that it's her cat. Now I think we can all agree that a cat can be a universal symbol of loneliness. Gorgeous's Aunt has been alone for a long time as her husband was killed by the nuclear bomb in World War II. All she had after that was the cat and her house. Obayashi takes an intimate approach to the evil effects and aftermath that the nuclear bomb had on a lot of families and individuals even for generations after. The cat has this pain and evil within it and it haunts the Aunt, the house and all who come near it. The green flash is a reminder of the damage the bomb inflicted. It is even transferred into Gorgeous at the end of the film who will then be the next likely ghost to inflict that pain onto others.
Women in Hausu
There is also the broader theme of women in Hausu. There are hardly any men in the movie at all and the men that are in it are antagonized or just plain dumb. Part of this decision to have a nearly all female cast was a function of the plot as well as the classic "sex sells" which generally helps sell movies. It could have also been influenced in-part by a progressive movement to get more women in leading roles. However, in Hausu, the director is clearly taking a good look at femininity and the daughter to mother relationship, how important it can be and how fragile it can be. Obayashi was very intentional about this and I'm sure was influenced by his own daughter who helped with imagining some scenes from a child's perspective.
Gorgeous's mom died leaving her with a step-mom that she doesn't like. The Aunt was widowed without any children (to our knowledge). And at the end of the film, Fantasy (the last surviving schoolgirl and the dreamer), held onto the ghost of Gorgeous and called her "mother". This could be an ode to Gorgeous's hopefulness of having a mother figure or it could be a call to return to infancy and full vulnerability after Fantasy witnessed all of the destruction. She also looked the youngest out of the bunch.
The absence of a true mother for Gorgeous is clear throughout the film. I'm not sure if Obayashi wanted to infuse this from his personal life (because his own daughter did help with some of the imaginative scenes while they were writing the script). But we do know that Gorgeous is plagued by this absence. She tries to find a figure that she can look to and unfortunately she goes to her Aunt. Obayashi uses a few specific techniques to define this relationship. In the first scene, the conversation with her dad and stepmom is shot through an impeding glass window pane creating clear dissonance between the two. In the scene where Gorgeous presumably dies, she sees reflections of herself, an evil self, and an older woman which I believe was either her mom or Aunt. That absence within her becomes her downfall and she becomes possessed by the evil that lives in the house, the cat, the Aunt, etc.
Additionally, Obayashi looks at female purity. Exploring the ideal portrayed through Gorgeous as she is mainly draped in all white up until the end of the film when we see the starkly contrasting blood seep into the white bridal gown. With the introduction of evil, the purity is disappears, and this is evident throughout the whole film. Obayashi does this well by using blood, lots and lots of blood. This is highlighted especially well in one of the final scenes with "Prof" nude and swimming in the sea of blood.
A thematic element that Obayashi used to portray purity was the watermelon. I recently watched the music video for "Watermelon Sugar" by Harry Styles and was immediately reminded of this when I saw how prevalent it was. It starts with the creepy man selling watermelon who made an advancing comment towards the group of girls. Mac then delivers a whole watermelon as a gift to the Aunt. The whole watermelon represents female purity preserved. They begin the movie by putting it down the well to literally preserve it. And then just a few scenes later we see Mac's head replace the watermelon in the well and the Aunt is eating a piece of the watermelon, as if she (the evil spirit) is pursuing the girls purity. She even says directly to Mac, "you look tasty" (paraphrasing). The girls also all start off wearing school uniforms (very conservative) and then progressively throughout the movie, they literally lose clothes and nudity becomes more frequent as the evil spirit attacks the group.
Final Thoughts on Hausu
As I wrote this essay it became clearer and clearer that this movie is well-deserving of high praise in the film community. Let me tell you, Obayashi and the crew had some FUN making this movie and it's FUN to watch. It's an absolute adventure, non-sensical and fantastical at times, but it houses deeper thematic messages that speak to Japan's history, Obayashi's personal history of loss, and femininity. I can now semi-confidently call this a masterpiece. On the surface or on a first viewing you maybe wouldn't come to that conclusion but the resonant and influential filmmaking Obayashi achieved with Hausu sticks with you long after your viewing and still holds a tremendous place in film in 2020.