Despite its cult status as one of the strangest movies ever to be put to film, House did not start out as anything out of the ordinary, at least according to Nobuhiko Obayashi. Toho Studios had seen the success of Jaws in 1974 and wanted to replicate its success. They asked Obayashi, a commercial director, to come up with a spec script. He did not want to make a straight rip-off of Jaws and instead, asked his daughter what she found terrifying. She came up with ideas like a reflection in a mirror attacking her as she combed her hair or mattresses crushing her to death. Both of these and many other ideas inspired by his daughter would make it into the movie and would slowly transform into the basic conceit of a house eating a group of girls in bizarrely Gothic fashion.
Even when the script was written, House defied most industry logic. The script itself was published at least a year before any filming took place, and a whole soundtrack existed for this script, featuring the band Godiego who also make an appearance in the movie. It even appeared first as a radio drama, and later, merchandise would be sold and created. The anticipation for House blossomed into a sort of grassroots movement. There was a groundswell of support from young cinephiles who had seen Obayashi’s earlier short film Emotion, most likely on college campuses. When Toho studios finally let Obayashi, a non-Toho director, direct his own script (an unconventional practice for the studio at the time), he cast actors mainly from the many commercials that he had filmed, most of whom had no acting experience whatsoever.
Obayashi then turned his many apparent deficiencies and limits of his production into strengths. He believed that commercials were not necessarily inferior forms of art, but that they were creative short films. In fact, most Westerners may be familiar with Japanese commercials from YouTube and how strange, creative and, perhaps, off-putting they seem. If you see House as part of this lineage of commercials, then Obayashi’s whole aesthetic starts to make much more sense – how episodic it is, the use of myriad musical hooks, the bright color palette and even the mannered acting.
Despite its many surreal and avant-garde touches, House is a sincere movie that comes from a deeper place than one might suspect. Obayashi grew up during World War II and many of his childhood friends died in the Hiroshima bombing. This trauma is reflected in the aunt’s backstory about how she lost her betrothed. As the girls hear the story, one of them even comments on how the mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb looks like cotton candy. In fact, the killings in House could be seen as acts of revenge from an older generation on a newer one who never experienced the trauma of WWII and are merely enjoying the benefits of the older generation’s hard work.
Despite its serious undercurrent, House expertly walks the line between childlike wonder and horror. For many children, the boundary between horror and wonder is much more ambiguous than it is for adults, which may explain why most people do not find this movie scary. It perhaps was not meant to be. House seems to be much more concerned with exploring the limits of hypothetical situations such as what a killer piano would look like. In fact, if explained in the proper context, excluding the scenes involving nudity and graphic violence, House is kind of ideal for kids. Obayashi’s daughter even remembered how desperately her friends in elementary school wanted to see the movie because they thought it genuinely looked like a children’s film.
Some of the House’s most wonderful moments reflect this childlike point of view. One of the most genuinely childlike scenes is when one of the girls is looking at “Prof” with one eye closed and then switches eyes while keeping her focus on her. The camera subtly switches the placement of the girl in the frame in an accurate reflection of what our eyes do. Most adults can remember when they did the same thing when they were children. Clearly Obayashi did as well.
Obayashi and many of his actors and crew remember the filming of House as fun and joyous. Even the crew members who were very doubtful of the quality of the production would later tell him that they had enjoyed themselves but that they didn’t think they had made a good movie. Obayashi also made sure that the filming was fun especially for the young, inexperienced actresses. He would skip hand in hand with them to set, play music for them over their line readings, anything to make them more relaxed and act naturally, or at least joyfully. And perhaps that is the best way to think about House – as a joyous exploration of serious trauma rather than a cynical exercise in excess.