November 5th, 2009


Welcome to the Hausu

Hausu, directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi in 1977, is perhaps the most visually exuberant film I've ever seen. The comedy-horror "watch-'em-die" flick was his first feature after a career in TV advertising; according to the film's Wikipedia page Obayashi got the idea from his 7 year-old daughter. It certainly looks like it; the film has a hyperactive pace, saturated colours, unrealistic situations taken to the extreme, storybook backdrops, and absurdly inventive cinematic devices. It's a genre film which uses the strictness of formula to allow itself a wildness of technique which is really quite extraordinary.

I discovered Hausu this Halloween just by typing "Japanese horror film" into YouTube. The clips there were enough to send me to Veoh to download the whole film (for that you need to install the Veoh player, which is free). I was surprised I hadn't heard of the film, but apparently it's been unavailable for a while on DVD and is only now being shown theatrically in the US, in places like the BAM Cinematek, with a view to appearing on DVD shortly via Janus Films. (Sorry, Janus, you probably didn't want people to know it was available on Veoh, did you?)

Generally speaking, I'm not terribly interested in genre films, in OTT horror, in 70s watch-'em-die exploito-formula flicks, in Tarantino Asian fleapit raves (not sure if he's raved about this one, but it wouldn't surprise me) and so on. I could talk about the sweet-sour contrast between the first half of the film and the second, or I could tell you the film's plot and describe how the seven teenage girls are killed one by one via a possessed house and a "seven deadly sins" structure which sees each of them offed in a way appropriate to the virtue or vice which defines their stereotypically flattened characters. Talented musician Melody is swallowed by the piano, pretty Oshare by a mirror, Kung-Fu is felled in a kung-fu fight with a witch, and there are similarly far-fetched deaths for Fantasy, Prof, Mac, and Sweet (which one drowns naked in a rising tide of cat's blood when she falls off a tatami raft? I lost track; they all sound the same when they scream).

But recounting the ludicrous plot would be a waste of time. What's really compelling about this film is all on the formal level, and it's all about excess, exuberance, license and invention. Within the first few minutes the director establishes that he can and will do anything to tell his story. He'll overlap two different musical pieces on the soundtrack, shoot a scene, Cassavetes-like, through a glass door, freeze the frame, billow a silk scarf in a wind machine, zoom suddenly down to a telescopic detail, blackening the rest of the screen, insert an animation, spin the picture upside down, use absurdly unrealistic (and gorgeously beautiful) painted backdrops featuring towering cumulo-nimbus clouds, insert a musical number... And that's even before the inventive murders begin. Here, have a look for yourself:

The sheer absurdity and excess of the film would irritate if it weren't so beautiful and charming, with a gorgeous musical score and seductive Wizard-of-Oz-like colours. It isn't just that Obayashi throws in every cinematic device he can think of, but that he makes them work so well. His next films (Drifting Classroom, Exchange Students and The Girl Who Conquered Time) were apparently quite similar; I'll be seeking them out, interested to see whether he burned out quickly or continued, on a purely visual level, to be as inventive as he was in Hausu.

To my mind -- in this film, at least -- Nobuhiko Obayashi is much better than the over-hyped Dario Argento.