Movies To See Before You Die: “Hausu”
Roger Ebert was once asked to name a movie totally free of clichés. He named My Dinner With Andre, an entry in his “Great Movies” list. That’s a good question and a good answer, but maybe it was too easy. Try this instead: can you name a great movie that is composed entirely of clichés?
To say that 1977‘s Hausu (or House) is a collection of clichés — and I am saying that — is both true and misleading. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi uses clichés, both universal ones and peculiarly Japanese ones, in the same way that scrapbookers use pictures and stickers. Individually the movie’s characters and imagery and plot are so familiar that they might have come from any number of stories. Mashed together in a potpourri of winking, sparkling non-sequiturs, they become sui generis, a unique work of art. When Ebert saw a trailer for Hausu in 2010, the year Hausu joined the Criterion Collection, he asked his online followers to “explain WTF this movie is about.”
Before Sailor Moon and The Breakfast Club and Power Rangers and The Goonies and Teen Girl Squad, there were the girls of Hausu, as pigeonholed as any other teen ensemble. Mac (Japanese shorthand for McDonald’s) likes to eat, Gorgeous and Fantasy are romantics and daydreamers, Prof wears glasses, Melody likes music, Sweet is sweet, and Kung-fu’s skill goes without saying. Japanese production giant Toho made sure the way was paved for this trope troupe: the film of Hausu was preceded by a radio program, a soundtrack, a novelization of Obayashi and Chiho Katsura’s original script, and, of course, a manga. If this collection of high school types wasn’t thoroughly clichéd before the film was conceived (it was), the Toho bosses made sure these particular characters were familiar by the time the film debuted during the summer of 1977. Even still, a third of the way into the film, Obayashi takes a page from spaghetti Western director Sergio Leone (who along with composer Ennio Morricone is explicitly mentioned in Hausu’s script) by writing the girls’ names in text alongside their faces — think of the freeze-frames in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The integration of text is a reminder that films are not only about what they are about, they are about how they are about it. In that respect, Hausu is profoundly original. Yet even the bizarre post-production effects and manic, baroque editing that make it so contain hints of familiarity. Hausu uses text overlays to emulate not only a comic book style, which is common enough in Japanese film, but a retail branding style. Obayashi cut his teeth directing commercials, and several of the actresses in Hausu had been models in his TV spots. Heavy use of text, a rapid pace, eye-catching wipes between scenes, and idealized backgrounds (the mountains in Hausu are realistic versions of how a child draws mountains, rows of ^^^^) are reminiscent of nothing so much as a beverage or prescription medicine commercial. The character of Mac takes the notion of branding furthest: not only is her name a reference to a global fast food chain, the bag she carries has her name affixed in large letters where a logo would normally go.
Virgin sacrifice is an even more ancient concept than high school cliques and TV retail, and Hausu’s plot boils down to it. The girls decide to spend their summer vacation with Gorgeous’s spinster aunt, who uses her supernatural powers to kill and eat them one by one. Feasting on unmarried girls gives her power. Like all good enchantresses, she even has a familiar, a white cat. Another cliché is the creepy man the girls encounter on the road to the big house. He looks forebodingly at them and likes to talk about watermelons. Watermelons, especially one the girls purchase from the man’s fruit stand, play a substantial role in Hausu’s plot. Lest you mistake this for mere randomness, consider that watermelons are a popular symbol of summer in Japan. Suikawari is a game in which blindfolded players use sticks to beat watermelons to a pulp, and sliced (or cubed) watermelon is a popular treat in Japanese schools, homes, and offices.
It would be interesting to make a Venn diagram of people who have seen Hausu and people who have played Legend of Zelda video games, which also originate in Japan; I suspect there’s some overlap. Fans of the 2011 game Skyward Sword may be struck by a seemingly unlikely similarity. In the game and in the unrelated, much older movie, a ghostly figure in a dark restroom asks for toilet paper by waving its hand eerily. Coincidence? Homage? Neither. Both works are drawing on a slew of popular Japanese folk tales about restroom hauntings.
Hausu, then, is purposefully comprised of clichés, references, and borrowed styles, but like a good scrapbook its arrangement is unmistakably distinctive. Who but Obayashi would think to take a character straight out of a commercial, a tall, beautiful, smiling woman with a silky scarf blowing behind her in the wind, and place her in a spot where there is no wind but the scarf keeps blowing anyway? Who else would have a character’s face shatter like pieces of glass, which reveal fire as they fall away? Who would break the fourth wall at exactly the right moment, just between the dancing skeleton and the half-eaten goldfish swimming in the bowl? Who would dismember a girl and show her rotating body parts superimposed over a carnivorous piano while her head looks on and provides humorous commentary? Even Charlie Kaufman and Tim Burton have not achieved such impeccable, colorful, cheeky freakishness.
Flickchart tags Hausu as a horror, and that’s inevitable given its tropes and themes, but with its purposefully childish effects and comical abstractions it’s not a movie likely to scare people. Instead, it is likely, even guaranteed, to stun. It is, after all, a movie that made Ebert say “WTF.”
Hausu on Flickchart
- Globally ranked #810
- Ranked by 661 users
- Wins 54% of matchups
- 3 users have it at #1
- 40 users have it in their top 20