(I can’t resist using a metaphor to introduce this film, which is impossible to discuss without a claim about film theory or interpretation in general. Here, then, is my attempt at an irreverent segue way:)
Like homeowners, many cinema goers seek solid foundations. A house has to be immoveable, self-contained and secure. The majority of people like films that have self-contained worlds and narratives: classical form, to use an academic term. A movie, in this view, should be consistent, in an environment resembling ours (but not quite ours, these are not realist films). It should have a logical plot motivated by characters. All of these “shoulds” should be maintained from opening to closing credits.
And then you have films like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, which would make such cinemagoers (and homeowners, I expect) vomit their expectations right onto the multiplex floor. More of an experiment than a story, House is billed as a horror-comedy, but even that hyphenation does not even begin to describe the many things this film is. The trailer itself is a kaleidoscope of pop art:
The plot follows Oshare (Gorgeous in English) and her school friends on their unfortunate stay at a haunted house. What actually happens is not so important or understandable, but how it happens. Or, perhaps, how the story is told. Style is all over House where substance and logic isn’t. Each of Oshare’s companions are like Spice Girls with a pre-assigned role. Prof has brains, Melody has soul, Mac has a stomach, and so on. Oshare’s father’s girlfriend is more an event than a character, serenaded by a private breeze and slow-motion aesthetic. Conflict and plot, then, seems beside the experimental point. Every scene is full of visual gimmickry, every edit is loudly prominent, and every background tries to outs stage the very stagey acting. Considering Obayashi was both an avant-garde and advertisement director the surrealism and self-consciousness is not very surprising.
What is curious is the film’s status as a masterpiece. And not just a cult masterpiece. House is not famous in quite the same way Plan 9 From Outer Space or The Room are famous. Obayashi’s debut is actually critically recognized as an important oeuvre. The film garnered an impressive 80% at Rotten Tomatoes and Criterion (a good barometer for what is supposed to be ‘essential’ and ‘important’) is releasing it on DVD and Blu-Ray in October. I have to watch it a second or maybe even third time to develop a full impression of what Obayashi has to say, but I have a few ideas:
The aunt’s house, like Poe’s malevolent House of Usher, turns against Oshare and her friends. Its spasms are matched by Obayashi’s choices to make the film even more frenetic. In one scene Kung Fu (the only practical member of Oshare’s posse) is picked up by a lamp as the walls and floors become animated, changing form and colour. New frames leap into existing ones to replace scenes, as if the film’s style is asserting itself over the characters, and even the plot.
At the risk of sounding academic, I think Obayashi is making a joke on how film operates. In conventional cinema editing, pacing, and backgrounds are meant to reinforce the story and support the characters. Perhaps in House the “evil” lurking in the mansion is the film’s vengeance on this subservient role. The film, in the end, confuses and tears apart the hapless characters. Maybe that’s too meta, but, like I said, I need to give this wonder another viewing. And I won’t be watching for the plot.