Film in Japan in the late 1970s was in a difficult spot. The heady days of the Japanese New Wave were over, and American film was beginning to start its decades-long dominance of the global cinematic marketplace. Even past greats were not spared the slump: Akira Kurosawa was unemployable after the failures of Dodeskaden (1970) and the Soviet co-funded Dersu Uzala (1975) and altogether written off by the major Japanese studios. Genre films that once brought a consistent stream of box office revenues began to suffer as audiences grew bored of endless yakuza mob scenarios and tired samurai tales. But most damaging of all to mainstream Japanese cinema was its own gradual shift towards pinku eiga (“pink film”), or what in the West was commonly known as “sexploitation” films. Since the mid 1960s, independent studios had focused on offering the public sensationalist subject matter that pushed the envelope on acceptable content and censorship (e.g. last week’s Gate of Flesh). By the 1970s, desperate to remain relevant and competitive, the movement was quickly co-opted by the mainstream, who could put their considerable budgets behind erudite titles like Apartment Wife: Affair in the Afternoon and Female Convict #701: Scorpion. The content remained similar to that offered for years by the indies, but these were backed with larger budgets and higher production values, and were often more successful as a result. Things went a step farther with Oshima’s highly-controversial and more artsy In the Realm of the Senses (1976), which featured actual on screen sex between actors; censors banned the film completely in Japan–a ban still in place today–and it faced countless troubles elsewhere, even among the most open-minded cinephiles. As for external threats, both Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1976) were game-changers of magnanimous proportions, drastically upping the ante with regard to audience expectations of action and horror films. That is what Toho Studios wanted, and what they hoped director Nobuhiko Obayashi could deliver them: something scary, hi-tech and preferably exportable in the same way that Godzilla had been for them twenty years before. What they got was House.
Although his first feature, Obayashi started his career in the late 1950s, doing experimental film with Takahiko Iiamura and Donald Richie, with whom he would co-found a collective in 1964. From there, he went into advertising and became known in industry circles for his popular and ironic Japanese T.V. commercials with stars like Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson, the latter shirtless on horseback in Monument Valley, espousing the benefits of Mandom deodorant as “All the World Loves a Lover” plays in the background. Honestly, one could retire after such an achievement. But as luck would have it, he was then approached by Toho to work on a new film project, albeit a B-list film, but a feature nonetheless.
Just why he was handed a horror film when his background was cowboy deodorant is somewhat unclear to me. Still, from the fantastical results of House, it is clear that strong synergy exists between the two. Maybe it was his lack of being tied strongly to the conventions and trappings of the horror genre that gave him the ability to improvise so wildly and embrace surrealist and absurdest tendencies. His daughter gave him many ideas for the script, including much cat-related material, which he worked on for nearly two full years before shooting began. Having specialized in popular short narratives with teenage girls as protagonists in his 1960s film work, Obayashi again returned to this dynamic. But instead of skipping rope and gossiping about boys, they are being eaten by pianos and stalked by an elderly cat-woman. An unavoidable progression perhaps. The film was a big success in Japan, and, while not at Hollywood blockbuster level, still easily buried the A-list romantic comedy to which it was attached on the Japanese marquees. Of 1970s horror films, only Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria, coming out of Italy that same year, achieves the same overwhelming ambiance of sound and image.
Today, House stands as the prime example of just how freakishly original Japanese horror films could be, before everything became the standard creepy ghost girl with white kimono and Joey Ramone bangs. If it only had the Mandom.