WTF ASIA 80: House (1977)

What could I possibly say about this movie that was not said here?


*Deep Breath*





Available in Canadathe United States, and maybe a few other countries. Also free on Vimeo, but I am not linking to that. Approximately 88 minutes.


Our movie begins with two teenage girls at school. Fantasy (Fanta) has been taking photographs of Gorgeous (Oshare) in I guess the chemistry room where she looks like a sort of witch with potions. They are about to leave on separate summer vacations. Gorgeous is going with her father (who is returning from Italy the next day) to their summer home and Fantasy is going to…training camp at an inn by the sea with five other school friends: Kung Fu (Kunfû;), Mac (Makku), Melody (Merodî;), Prof (Gari), and Sweet (Suîto).

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After goofing off with Fantasy for a while, Gorgeous returns home to find that his father has returned a day early. Is something wrong? No, Sergio Leone loved his music. Without much warning, her father introduces her to her stepmother-to-be and Gorgeous promptly runs to her room sulking. Mourning both her long-dead mother and the father-daughter relationship that will be forever altered by a stepmother, Gorgeous reaches out to the only connection to her mother that she knows, her aunt.

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Meanwhile, Fantasy and the rest of the group discuss their upcoming trip to camp. The inn is run by the sister of a teacher named Mr. Togo. Some of the girls tease Fantasy for having a crush on him, but she is unapologetic. During this conversation, we learn that Melody likes playing music, Kung Fu is athletic, Prof is studious, Mac likes to eat, and Sweet…uh…I guess that she is nice.

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Gorgeous turns up and seems to be about to go on a rant about how her beloved father is the worst when the handsome and manly Mr. Togo arrives. His sister is going to have a baby, so the inn is closed for the summer and camp is cancelled. As Fantasy tries to defend Mr. Togo from the wrath of the other girls, Gorgeous invites all of them to come along with her to her aunt’s house. Sure, Gorgeous has met her only once, but they are family. So Gorgeous writes to her aunt, who eventually writes back. Of course she would love to host Gorgeous and her friends. The teacher gets a mild injury the morning of the trip, but promises to come see them soon. In the meantime, it is just the seven girls…accompanied by a mysterious white cat that had visited Gorgeous when she first wrote her aunt and who was responsible for Mr. Togo to get injured in the first place.

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During the trip, Gorgeous tells the story of her aunt. A long time ago, Japan was in a big war. She is referring to World War II. Gorgeous says that her had planned to marry a man, but he got drafted into the war. She had promised to wait for him to return, but he never did. Yet, still, she waited. Her younger sister would get married and move away. Her mother died. She was left alone in her house with only a cat to keep her company, and the occasional piano student. And still, she waited.

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Gorgeous and her friends receive a warm welcome from her aunt…not so much from the house. The chandelier seems to break immediately when they arrive, as if it is attacking them. But they brush aside such dire warnings, settling into their regular habits.

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Melody goes to the piano, Mac lugs around a watermelon that is supposedly a gift for the aunt, and Sweet sets out to thoroughly scrub the place down. One by one, the girls start disappearing, but the others do not sense anything ominous until it is too late, as the house itself seems intent on killing them all.


East Asian Cinema is well-known for its supernatural horror movies. While I am not particularly a big fan of the genre, I must say that this movie is, by far, the scariest movie that I have ever seen in my entire I’m kidding. This movie was not scary at all. I doubt that it was scary even back in 1977 except maybe for really young children who are easily frightened. Even the director does not consider it a horror movie, but a fantasy movie. Actually, frights are not really the draw of this movie, though there are some disturbing parts. The draw of this movie is just how crazy it is. People may point to this movie to show just how weird Japanese movies are, but this was really the first of its kind. That it was a huge success amongst the young people in 1977 is probably a reason for the rise in wildly…uh…creative Japanese movies in subsequent decades, as fans of this movie grew up and entered the movie industry.

A little backstory might be in order. 1975 was the year that two movies (okay, more than two movies, but two movies that are relevant here) came out: Terror of Mechagodzilla and Jaws. Terror of Mechagodzilla was a flop, and the Toho Company would not release another Godzilla movie for another nine years. Jaws, however, was a huge success, and Toho was eager to come up with a Japanese version of that. They asked Nobuhiko Obayashi to develop the movie. This would be Obayashi’s first big movie, having previously worked in commercials and experimental films. Instead of trying to come up with some equivalent to Jaws, he asked his 10-year-old daughter, Chigumi, what she found scary. Her answers concerned not some monsters from the sea that could attack everyone, but things that she encountered in her life that she sometimes imagined could attack her. I do not want to spoil what these things are (though, you will get spoiled if you look up anything else regarding this movie) other than to say the girls usually die are pretty specific to how they are. Chigumi’s ideas reminded the scriptwriter of an English story of an old woman who plays host to her granddaughters and puts them in a trunk. So it was Chigumi who turned the movie from a Jaws rip-off to a story about a house filled with the supernatural. Her input was so important that she got credit for the story. And while the movie is often called Hausu, Obayashi deliberately titled it House, thinking that a foreign title would make it seem more taboo and alluring.

No Toho director wanted to touch such a ridiculous movie, so Obayashi suggested that he direct it himself. Toho balked, and Obayashi spent about a year or so trying to build hype around the movie from fans of his experimental work and commercials. Eventually Toho gave in, figuring that his incomprehensible film might be more successful than their more comprehensible work. Most of the cast was inexperienced. Most of the girls were models from Obayashi’s commercials. Other roles were filled by crew members and their families. Even Chigumi had a small role.

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This movie was not well-received amongst adults at the time. Critics were harsh. Toho wished to bury it. Even many crew members who had a good time making it thought that it was rubbish. Kids loved it. The people at Toho saw its success and despaired for the future of Japanese film. And here we are today.

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Obayashi was an experimental filmmaker before making this movie and it really shows. This is not one of those dreary or hypnotically slow art movies. This one is directed right at the youth of Japan in the 1970s, meaning a whole lot of stuff being thrown at the screen. With this being labeled a “fantasy”, Obayashi felt allowed and obligated to make this movie feel as unrealistic as possible. That meant visual techniques and sound tricks that seem utterly distracting and unnecessary, which were often not planned out beforehand. There is almost always something to keep one’s attention, whether it be the mania of the scene itself or the little details that stick out in the background. Obayashi wanted it to seem that it was something that a child could have made; at times it seems like a movie only a child could have thought of making. One can think of it as amateurish. One could also think of it as a testament to the possibility of film to push the boundaries of the imagination.

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Aside from the first few seconds of the film, there is little indication that this movie is even supposed to be the least be scary for anyone. It comes across as goofy and almost like a parody of…a teen drama? When it becomes “scary”, most of the scares come in the form of more quick cuts, girls screaming, and pseudo-ominous music. Some of it is disturbing not for being scary, since Disney movies could be scarier than this; it is more how some of the most mundane elements of life suddenly turn life-threatening. Not to give much away, but the climax of the movie lasts about ten minutes. This movie is not even eighty-eight-minutes long and ten minutes of it is the climax.

The movie may seem crazy, silly, and incomprehensible, which is exactly what Obayashi intended. It would be a mistake, however, to call it meaningless. Surely, the goofy and off-kilter atmosphere may have drawn the young kids, but that could not have been the only thing that made it a hit amongst them. Throughout all of the crazy hilarity, there are moments of tranquility, there are moments that are actually somewhat off-putting, and there are moments that are actually somewhat sad. In one relatively quiet moment, Kung Fu, the most boisterous of the bunch, wanders outside alone, smiles at nothing in particular, and says to herself that she loves this place. Her smile fades as it looks like she is about to cry, but then she smiles again. Why?

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There is symbolism all over the place, a lot of it involving generations, youth, and the inevitability of growing up. A lot of Japanese stories involve the loss or impending loss of the past. This is often shown in the presentation of youth. While Americans may look with bewilderment at what they see as the infantile portrayal of Japanese youth (particularly girls), I get the impression that the Japanese are simply holding onto to the last vestiges of their youth before the ultimately have to give it up for actual adulthood, which many Americans never do. In regards to House, this loss works on at least two levels.

The first level is dispensed with rather quickly, but ends up becoming a pretty important part of the story., When Gorgeous recounts her aunt’s story to her friends, the movie portrays it with what looks like old footage from the 1940s. The characters even provide commentary on the footage like they are seeing it. They almost completely ignore the horrific aspect of the war (with one character saying that the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb looks like cotton candy) and look at the story in romantic terms. Obayashi is actually from Hiroshima and lost many friends to the bomb. Yet, the world of 1975 was even more removed from the world of 1945 than The Terror of Mechagodzilla was from Godzilla. Showing the atomic bomb in the film was partly a way of showing how the effects of the war did not seem to reach the new generation, but eventually would when they were unprepared to face it. For society to try to enforce normality when such a thing could happen is ridiculous, so why not portray the world as nonsensical?

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The second level is perhaps what really resonated with the youth. By the time that the movie started production, Chigumi was 12 and about to go through changes. A lot of the kids who went to see the movie were probably going through puberty, were about to go through puberty, or knew kids going through puberty. This changes not only a person’s body and mind, but also the perceptions and expectations that others have towards that person. Kids sometimes find that what interested them before no longer has any appeal. Childhood friends begin to realize that they don’t have much in common with each other anymore. Others have trouble dealing with these new feelings and expectations. They don’t understand why things are different and no explanation from anyone actually helps. Signs of puberty and the transition from childhood to adulthood are all over the place, particularly in one scene that is most likely a metaphor for menstruation. The entire world seems to change depending on their feelings. When they are carefree, the world is full of youthful goofiness and lively exuberance. When they are sadden by what the future holds, the world is a quiet sunset. When they are stressed, the world is jittery. When they are scared, the world is chaotic.

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One school of thought around this movie is about how a girl starts to grow apart from her friend and each of them has trouble adapting. Another school of thought says that all seven girls are different facets of one girl’s personality, and each gets subsumed and consumed by the mental, physical, psychological, and societal identity of Japanese womanhood. Do I ascribe to either interpretation? I dunno, maybe. The girls are known by traits in a manner that may seem reductive, but are what help them stand out, that make them individuals. One by one, the house of adulthood destroys them and that childhood individuality, until there is only what this culturally homogenous society can co-opt and control until that also gets destroyed.

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At first, I thought that it was cheap shorthand to cast the same actress to play Gorgeous and her mother. But maybe it was not simply that Gorgeous looked a lot like her mother, but that their identities were directly linked beyond merely being family. And that linked identity came with a linked destiny that had a happy journey to a bad end. She would grow up, marry, give birth, raise a child, die, and be replaced by a younger woman. Seeing her future, Gorgeous ran away to an even grimmer destiny and a more immediate danger.

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Maybe that is why Kung Fu smiled, frowned, and smiled again. She is in a place that she had never been to before and might not ever visit again; she has felt something that she never felt before and she doesn’t know if she will feel this way again. Emotions are coming at her quickly and she just deals with it the best that she can, with a smile and resolve, before she disappears into a society that has little desire for a woman who does martial arts.

Many Japanese movies would have more of this, showing one last hurrah before surrendering to adulthood. But this movie, instead, shows adulthood as a malevolent force that will consume childhood, regardless if one flees, fights, or surrenders. This society had militarized its youth for generations through imperial propaganda and sailor suits, resulting in the death of millions, including the young aunt’s betrothed. Utter destruction, however, did not deter this societal intrusion into the soul of youth. So here they are thirty years later, having learned nothing and setting yet another generation on a path towards annihilation. And the youth have to decide whether to flee, fight, or simply surrender.


Erm…ahem…maybe that was a bit of stretch.


When I first saw this movie, I thought that initial reveal of what was going on and why was quite stupid. With the added symbolism of puberty and the fears of losing one’s childhood to adulthood, it makes a bit more sense. There is a scene near the beginning featuring a character whom we never see afterwards. Gorgeous and Fantasy say goodbye to one of their teachers and congratulate her on her engagement, which she had not told them about. One of them hopes that she had married for love, but she informs them that it was an arranged marriage. Oh well, the girls have no time to feel sorry for her; they have Summer Vacation ahead of them. For her part, the teacher just looks upon them with a bit of a smile, probably nostalgic for her own childhood, before she became an adult and engaged to someone whom she most likely does not love. That is what adulthood has in store for these girls. That is what adulthood has in store for all of those kids who went to see this movie. And to many of them, that could very well be the scariest thing ever. A loveless marriage, an inconvenient childbirth, broken promises, a lonely death, and even more broken promises after death. Why would any kid want that? They might as well binge on…whatever the kids are into these days. It’s not still Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, is it? Babymetal? I suppose that Hikikomori was not a big thing in the late 1970s, so withdrawing from society and just staying in one’s childhood room while one’s bewildered parents struggle to figure out what to do was not yet an option…though one could sort of draw parallels to that and the Aunt.

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Roundly panned by the establishment when it first came out forty-two years ago, House has been deemed a classic, and not just a cult classic, but a classic worthy of a Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, which is where I got some of the backstory. In any case, I suggest that you watch it. Sure, you might not be scared, and you might end up with a bit of a headache, but I am pretty sure that you will be highly entertained.

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And that is enough rambling from me.


WTF ASIA 81: The Missing Gun (China: 2002, approx. 90 minutes)


Available in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, and maybe a few other countries.


WTF ASIA 82: Jakarta (South Korea: 2000, approx. 90 minutes)

No Wikipedia entry.