As with all national cinema industries, Japan has seen a variety of highs and lows. If the 1950s and the 1960s were the golden age of Japanese cinema, then the decade that followed is probably best considered the industry’s ‘dark age’. The 1970s witnessed a staggering contraction in the Japanese film industry: audiences dwindled away, studios down-sized or even collapsed, and creatively speaking most studios entered an unprecedented fallow period.
Over in America, Hollywood was undergoing a profound change in the way films were developed, produced and distributed. The old-fashioned staged releases were being swept away by massive day-and-date premieres, with cinemas coast to coast premiering the latest expensive movies simultaneously. It helped foster a sort of hype that didn’t previously exist, and led to film after film breaking box office records in the USA and overseas. First Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) whipped American audiences into a frenzy. The following year the feat was repeated twice, by George Roy Hill’s The Sting and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. In 1975 the success of these early films was deliberately repeated by Universal Pictures with their release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975): a nation-wide release, extensive publicity campaigns and a single ‘high’ concept that made the film easy to sell and even easier for audiences to understand. By the time George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) broke box office records worldwide, the modern studio ‘blockbuster’ system was well in place.
While the blockbuster system revolutionised Hollywood and earned the American film studios unprecedented amounts of money, it had a catastrophic effect on other film industries around the world. Local productions, made with lower budgets and shorter production schedules, simply couldn’t compete with the glossy, massively hyped product that Hollywood could offer. In 1975 American films out-grossed Japanese productions for the first time. Japan’s film industry would not fully recover for another decade and a half.
Coupled with the problem of increased foreign competition was the rapidly growing popularity of television. Why bother going to a cinema to see ‘jidai-geki’ (period films), or ‘chanbara’ (samurai action flicks), or even a Godzilla-style ‘tokusatsu’ (special effects) movie, when the same kinds of stories were being told for free on television? While American studios successfully competed with television by presenting large-scale prestige films, Japanese studios lacked the resources to do the same thing.
In 1971 the film studio Daiei declared bankruptcy. The company had been formed in 1942 as part of a war-time rationalisation of film resources, and had produced some of Japan’s most enduring film classics – including Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) and Kinugasa’s Gate of Hell (1953). Falling box office receipts, and an over-extension into other industries, finally put paid to the studio. While it was successfully revived by a corporate buy-out in 1974 (by publisher Tokuma Shoten), it was never quite the same again. In 2002, and after 30 years as a small producer of mostly cult and arthouse fare, it merged for good with Kadokawa Pictures.
To avoid a similar fate the studio Nikkatsu shifted to making soft-core pornography. In one sense it was a canny business move, since erotic films were one area in which television and Hollywood were not competing. The studio split its output largely between ‘roman porno’, short for ‘romantic pornography’, and the more exploitative and violent ‘pinku-eiga’, or ‘pink films’. While the move staved off bankruptcy, it did provoke a mass walkout of offended talent, including then-company President Kyusaku Hori. While television provided no competition for softcore erotica, the advent in the late 1970s of home video absolutely did. Nikkatsu financially struggled throughout the 1980s before finally closing down in 1993.
Shochiku fared better than its competitors, thanks largely to a few perennial franchises. Yoji Yamada, for example, continued to churn out Tora-San comedies at a brisk pace – often two films per year. On the other hand Toho’s Godzilla films struggled to maintain audiences. In 1975 the 15th film in the series, Terror of Mechagodzilla, performed dismally, leading the studio to cancel the whole series (although it was successfully revived nine years later with 1984’s The Return of Godzilla). Toho’s biggest problem was not with audiences in general, but with the key demographic of Japanese teenagers. The company was failing to attract youths into cinemas despite numerous attempts and strategies. The hunt for an innovative solution led the studio to maverick commercials director Nobuhiko Obayashi.
Had Nobuhiko Obayashi never directed a single feature film he would still have left a remarkable impact on Japanese popular culture. As a director of glossy film and television commercials he pioneered the style of advertising that continues to permeate Japanese society today: glossy visuals, surreal imagery, and incongruous Hollywood celebrities standing awkwardly next to the latest whisky, coffee machine or soft drink.
Obayashi was born in Onomichi in 1938. During World War II, and while his father was fighting on the front lines, he was raised by his maternal grandparents. After completing school, and at the behest of his veteran father, he applied to medical school to become a doctor. A last minute change of heart saw his abandon those plans and, in 1956, he enrolled in a liberal arts program instead. Following his degree he moved to Tokyo to further his work creating abstract short film.
Obayashi joined a group of self-proclaimed ‘film artists’, based in Shinjuku and producing art films on 8mm and 16mm film. In 1964 he co-founded Film Independent, an arts collective whose members included Takahiko Iimura, Youichi Takabayashi and Yoko Ono. It wasn’t long before the collective’s abstract film art captured the attention of television commercial producers, who started offering production contracts to Obayashi and his fellow film artists. While other members of the collective were not enamoured with the commercial production process, Obayashi found it fascinating – it represented, in essence, an opportunity to make fully-funded 60-second films.
‘I still remember the day vividly,’ said Obayashi. ‘They said: “We are from a company named Dentsu, and we’d like to ask you to shoot a commercial” and then they stepped back two or three yards – and this might be over-exaggerating – the three of them did it at the same time. They thought they would be kicked out. They looked as if they were begging “please don’t kick us out.”’[i]
Shooting commercials for Dentsu offered Obayashi the chance to work with 35mm film, and to operate on much larger production budgets. Due to the general downturn in the Japanese film industry, Dentsu was able to hire large soundstages at Toho Studios at a relatively cheap rate. Obayashi enjoyed almost total freedom in dictating the tone and content of his commercials, with product manufacturers only insisting that their product appear on screen for the final five seconds out of each 60-second advertisement.
By his own estimation, Obayashi shot more than 2,000 commercials in the ensuing decade – either for Dentsu or rival agency Hakuhodo – with increasing budgets and a growing number of international locations and stars, including Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson.
Shooting on Toho’s soundstages brought Obayashi to the attention of studio heads. In 1975 he was approached to develop a concept for a blockbuster that would challenge the success of American imports such as Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (then the most popular film in Japanese cinemas).
It was Obayashi’s young daughter who gave him the inspiration for House. She described a fear she had that her reflection in the mirror might reach out and eat her. When pressed for other things she found frightening, she told him ‘sometimes during piano practice, my fingers start to hurt, and I feel like the keyboard is chewing on me.’[ii] His conversation with his daughter led Obayashi to consider the idea of an entire building attempting to consume its residents. After all, if Spielberg could make a feature out of a shark trying to eat people, why not make a film where a house tried to eat people instead?
Obayashi developed his concept into a story treatment. He gave it title House, deliberately using the English word because he thought it seemed provocative. He submitted it to Toho vice-president Isao Matsuoka who, while impressed by the imaginative concepts, professed a complete lack of understanding as to what the treatment meant. It seemed, however, to be something distinctive and unique, and those qualities were in short supply at Toho. Matsuoka commissioned writer Chiho Katsura to work with Obayashi on a screenplay while he went about appointing a director.
Even in 1975 Japanese film studios operated under a strict departmental system. Aspiring directors would join the director’s department and be apprenticed underneath experienced working filmmakers. After many years learning their trade, the apprentices would – if lucky – be assigned to feature film projects of their own. All of Japan’s studio filmmakers worked within the departmental system, and under restrictive contracts.
Obayashi of course had developed his talents through independent commercial filmmaking, and wasn’t willing to apprentice himself for several years purely on the chance he might graduate to directing features. At the same time, Toho’s internal practices were so inflexible that the idea of contracting an outside director was not considered an option.
While Toho tried to secure a director, Obayashi continued to aggressively promote the House concept. He produced car bumper stickers and postcards and persuaded contacts in the Japanese press to mention the forthcoming film in news articles. With Toho’s permission he convinced Weekly Shonen Magazine to adapt House as a manga serial. There was even a novelisation published, proudly reporting on the back cover that a feature film was coming soon. In November 1976 an hour-long radio adaptation of the screenplay was broadcast to great success by Nippon Broadcasting System’s All Night Nippon In. The broadcast successfully introduced House to its target market, so that teenagers might recognise the brand when the film finally entered production.
All of this publicity was personally driven by Obayashi, despite his not being approved to direct the film and despite Toho not even giving the film a formal green light to begin production. ‘The director Obayashi,’ said studio publicist Shogo Tomiyama, ‘invented all sorts of strategies and the use of mixed media was very effective. As a result it had a huge fan base of young people before its release.’[iii]
One distinctive element of the film’s publicity campaign was the logo: a fanged house on the horizon with an open mouth, its huge red tongue lolling down the page. The image, originally designed by Obayashi, was uniformly used across all publicity and media materials; something Tomiyama described as ‘truly revolutionary for a Japanese film at that time.’[iv]
For a long time Toho producers attempted to convince their contracted directors to shoot Obayashi’s House screenplay. All of the directors approached refused. It was only after the success of the Nippon Broadcasting radio play that studio management relented and, in exasperation, hired Obayashi to take control of the film himself.
Seven young women were required to fill the main roles, and Obayashi cast them predominantly with actresses he had directed in television commercials. Most of them had limited acting experience, with the notable exception of TV and film starlet Kimiko Ikegami, who was cast in the lead role of Gorgeous.
Now is as good a time as any to talk about the characters. There are seven teenage girls in House, who all travel together on a summer holiday to a country house owned by Gorgeous’ elderly aunt. We never learn their real names. Instead they have nicknames based on their dominant characteristics. Gorgeous is pretty. Prof (Ai Matsubara) is a bookish girl with glasses. Melody (Eriko Tanaka) plays guitar and piano. Mac (Mieko Sato) eats all the time. Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) is a teen martial artist. Fantasy (Kumiko Oba) daydreams all the time. Sweet (Masayo Miyako) has a pleasant personality.
It is as if Obayashi is telling his audience from the outset not to care about the characters too deeply. They never get expressed as properly realised, three-dimensional people. Instead they are cyphers for the titular house to consume. They also act as an analogue for the seven dwarfs – there is a deliberately play on European fairy tales going on here, between the girls and the evil witch who lives in a house in the woods.
This witch, also Gorgeous’ aunt, who may also be a malevolent spirit, was played by Yoko Minamida. Minamida presents a sharp contrast to her young co-stars, because by comparison she was extraordinarily experienced. She had performed in numerous feature films since the 1950s including several for Kenji Mizoguchi. Minamada had also appeared in several commercials for Obayashi, and took on the role of the aunt as a personal favour. She makes a striking impact on the film and is by far the most interesting performer.
Mr Togo, the hapless school teacher who is supposed to accompany the girls on their trip (a series of mishaps prevent his arrival), was played by country singer Kiyohiko Ozaki. He was a personal friend of Obayashi’s, and again took on the role as a favour. His scenes are there purely for comedic purposes and aren’t well connected to the rest of the film – although it’s worth keeping an eye out for the man dressed as Tora-San in one Togo’s later scenes.
House was shot almost entirely on a Toho soundstage, with only a few location sequences shot using the seven teenage protagonists. The shoot took roughly two months, with Obayashi working without storyboards. The director’s loose directorial style would cause some problems, since he was also keen to utilise as many different optical effects as possible. More than once a visual effect did not result in the imagery Obayashi was seeking, or indeed result in useable footage at all.
To give the film a contemporary soundtrack Obayashi hired popular music act Godiego (pronounced go-die-go) to adapt a basic piano track by composer Asei Kobayashi. The band even made a cameo in the finished film, flirting with the schoolgirls while they entered a train station. Godiego’s soundtrack album was released into stores on 25 June 1977, a full month before House opened in cinemas. This 12-track LP was preceded by a single release of the film’s love theme on 1 June.
While House was in production there was a general feeling within Toho that Obayashi was directing complete nonsense. The film was not expected to be a commercial success. The possibility was briefly raised of launching House as part of the annual Toho Champion Festival, a sort of day-long film festival that had been running since 1969. When the production schedule did not allow for this, the plans were dropped. Ultimately House was scheduled for release as a B-picture in a double bill with the romantic drama Pure Hearts in Mud. Pure Heart in Mud formed part of a series of film made by Toho that paired up actors Momoe Yamaguchi and Tomokazu Miura. These romances, which at this stage were getting churned out twice a year by the studio, were generally referred to as “Momo-Tomo” films. It was felt that, should House not succeed, pairing it with a popular film would at least prevent it from losing money.
House and Pure Heart in Mud were released in Toho’s cinemas on 30 July 1977. What few critics that bothered to review House were not kind, seemingly justifying Toho’s lack of faith in the production. Then something odd happened: the film was a hit.
It didn’t just make money – it made a lot of money. In the second week of release Toho swapped the two films around, with House becoming the main attraction and Pure Heart in Mud becoming the B-movie. By the time the film had wrapped up its theatrical run it had grossed ¥893 million yen, more than almost any other Toho release that year.
Despite its huge local success House was never distributed in the USA. It was only when Janus Film picked up the rights in 2009 that the film came to the attention of a broader English-speaking audience. Subsequent DVD releases by the Criterion Collection in the USA and Eureka Video’s Masters of Cinema in the United Kingdom have only increased the film’s international reputation and prestige – albeit 30 years late.
It has to be said that, despite its enormous commercial success, House is a genuinely bizarre film.
It’s almost a cliché to describe a movie as ‘shot like a commercial’. It’s an accusation usually levelled at the likes of American director Michael Bay, whose career kicked off with glossy advertisements for Coca-Cola and the Red Cross before applying the same slick visual techniques to action films like Bad Boys (1995) and Armageddon (1998). House is a different matter. When I describe it as ‘shot like a commercial’, I mean exactly that: it is as if Obayashi only knew how to make a 60-second film, so he simply filmed 88 of them in a row.
Each scene bangs up into the last, with sudden shifts of production techniques, colour filters, editing pace and musical score. There are weird cross-fades. A matte iris will suddenly close in on a specific detail in a shot. Obayashi uses picture-in-picture, then animation, then live-action stop-motion. The genre will shift from melodrama to horror to slapstick comedy.
There are numerous scenes where soundstages have substituted for outdoor locations, but have been shot and lit in such a fashion as to make no secret of their artificiality. There are other scenes where Gorgeous’ cat appears, regularly miaowing in the soundtrack without the cat’s mouth moving once.
If there’s another text with which to compare House, it is – rather oddly – the American educational series Sesame Street. In the development of that series, creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett deliberately emulated the structure and rapid changes of television commercials. Research had found that American children were becoming more engaged with commercials in between programs than with the programs themselves. As a result, Sesame Street’s format was broken up into a rapidly shifting series of puppet sketches, short dramatic scenes and animations. The result was a series that captured the short attention spans of its audience, and successful educated them at the same time.
House may have a different goal and target market to Sesame Street, but it achieves a very similar result. The film constantly changes and mutates, and its audience simply doesn’t have a chance to get bored or let their minds wander. Sure some scenes are going to fall flat, but the audience will keep watching because a completely different scene will come along within another minute. The film seems at first like utter madness, but take one step back and the method becomes visible.
What’s particularly interesting is the way the film gets increasingly unsettling as it goes on. For the first half hour it seems particularly haphazard, with jumps in style and tone and a heavy comedic edge. Once the girls finally reach the titular house, things begin to develop a threatening edge. It starts off in subtle ways, such as a conversation between Gorgeous and her aunt: every time one character speaks the camera cuts to the other one listening. It creates an extraordinarily uncomfortable effect, because this isn’t the way we normally see a conversation in a movie. It instinctively feels wrong.
The first death sees Mac vanish while going to fetch a watermelon from a well. When she doesn’t return, Fantasy goes to find her – and instead finds an animated severed head that bites her on the buttock. It’s deliberately silly. Each subsequent death gets more frightening and violent. By the time Prof is drowning in a room full of blood, the film has crossed from a strange sort of silly fun to a more authentic horror movie. By pushing through the eclectic scenes of comedy and surreality, the film’s climax becomes all the more frightening. It’s a hallmark of Japanese horror cinema, as we shall see later when exploring Hideo Nakata’s Ring: the monster is not simply inescapable, it’s inexplicable as well.
The film ends on a deliberately ominous note: Gorgeous greets her new step-mother, who has arrived at the house to speak to her. The step-mother spends the entire scene in front of an enormous electric fan, clearly hidden just off-screen, but which billows her hair and clothing like a shampoo commercial. Gorgeous, sitting directly opposite her, isn’t affected by the wind at all. She takes her step-mothers hand, and watches as the woman magically burns away to nothing. The implication is that the aunt, whether malevolent spirit or physical witch, has somehow restored her youth by consuming the dead girls – and the hapless step-mother. Obayashi deliberately eschews straight answers. House may spend the bulk of its running time like some sort of eclectic drug-fuelled hallucination, but its denouement is genuinely unsettling.
‘When I made House,’ said Obayashi, ‘obviously it would have been so much easier for me to make a commercially viable film, which would be nominated in first place in a prestigious film magazine, but then I didn’t make that choice. All the adults will say “that’s not a film, that’s not a film” but the children will appreciate it.’[v]
[i] Namiki Suzuki, “Interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi”, Eigagogo, January 2010. (Translated by Mariko Sasaki and Jerry Turner.)
[ii] Nobuhiko Obayashi, Boku no eiga jinsei (My Cinema Life), Jitsugyo no Nihon-sha, Tokyo, 2008. Quoted in Paul Roquet, “Unhinged Desire (At home with Obayashi)”, House DVD sleeve notes, Eureka Video, 2010.
[iii] Interviewed on House DVD, Eureka Video, 2010.
[iv] Interviewed on House DVD, Eureka Video, 2010.
[v] Christopher O’Keeffe, “Yubari 2014 Exclusive Interview: House director Nobuhiko Obayashi talks Seven Weeks and the art of cinema”, Twitchfilm, March 2014.