Excerpt from “The Housemaidens” by Chuck Stephens
A pioneering figure in the Japanese experimental film scene that sprang up at the end of the 1950s, Nobuhiko Obayashi (born in 1938) had begun making short Super 8 movies in 1956, and soon became closely associated with fellow cineastes Donald Richie Takahiko Iimura, with whom he would cofound the experimental film collective Film Independant in 1964. Obayashi’s 8 and 16 mm short films almost always centered on young women emotionally stranded between skipping rope and the skipping heartbeats of first love: sprightly and painstakingly pixilated visions of female longing, of adolescents forever distracting themselves from their imminent coming-of-age with quasi-carefree (and, under Obayashi’s percussively pianistic editing strategies, graphically dazling) games of hopscotch and hide-and-seek, at once bewitched and bewildered by the mostly peripheral (though, as in his 1966 masterpiece Emotion, often somewhat comically and ominously vampiric) men hovering in their midst. Today, Obayashi remembers mainly the impact that seeing the first films of the French New Wave, particularly Godard’s Breathless, had on his and his compatriots’ sensibilities, although on the evidence of as early an Obayashi film as 1960’s Dandanko, Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren, who’d been similarly experimenting with hand-drawn and collage animation with live-action, often quirkily pixilated footage since the 1940’s, seems equally to have had his (perhaps secondhand) influence. Whatever his inspirations, Obayashi’s implementation of a variety of “handmade” filmmaking approaches (not unlike some of A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester’s pop art stylings) seemed custom designed for a certain strain of somewhat less than radical 1960s youth culture: his was a sensibility steeped in a romanticism far more Truffaut than Godard, and as politically and aesthetically muted when compared with contemporaries like Oshima as a Peter Max might seem in comparison with Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns.
Obayashi spent nearly two years preparing the narrative and commercial particulars of his feature film debut, first concocting House‘s script from the collection of frights his preteen daughter suggested, then conspiring with the pop group Godiego (pronounced go-die-go, like the fourteenth-century Japanese emperor Go-Daigo) on the film’s assortment of pop ballads and searing synthesizer boogie, all in time for the soundtrack album to be releases well in advance of the film. Care was taken, too, to season the film with timely cultural touchstones: here an appearance by a Tora-san look-alike, there a ringer for actor Bunta Sugawara in his then popular Truck-yaro (Bastard Trucker) guise; there’s even a reference to Pure Hearts in Mud, the Momo-Tomo romance to be released as the surefire A feature to House‘s marketing gamble B. As for the myriad stylistic flourishes (faces that melt into the flame, a disembodied head hungrily nibbling on an unwary butt) that make Obayashi’s film so visually overwhelming, it was if the director had been preparing for them his entire experimental filmmaking and advertising careers. The story of a motherless teenage girl named Gorgeous who, disappointed by the imminent remarriage of her soundtrack composer father, precipitously cancels their planned summer vacation together and instead sets out with six of her schoolmates for a visit to her long-unseen maternal aunt’s house in the countryside…But who cares about the story! House is a film far more focused on the telling than the tale, haunted by more formalist freak-outs, sudden excursions into time-warping slow motion, and ludicrously lysergic, analog-age matte effects than any other twenty Japanese films released that or any other year.
The narrative, in its essence, is in fact a rather well-worn one in Japanese folklore and horror movie culture, familiar from such films as Kaneto Shindo’s kabuki-bound Black Cat and Nobuo Nakagawa’s lurid Ghost Cat Mansion. What makes Obayahi’s film so thoroughly extraordinary is twofold: first, the virtually limitless visual variations and sound design fever schemes (cocks crowing, babies wailing, piano glissandi and thunderous waves crashing on an unseen shore) with which he transforms the story’s traditional elements (which go beyond those bakemono/kaibyo components to include, among other things, various evocations of ukiyo-e illustration master Hokusai’s famous ghost-headed Oiwa lantern), to such a startling degree that Japanese audiences in the 1970s, as do audiences around the world today, found the film fresh and utterly new; and second, the obvious glee Obayashi takes in pushing the roricon (Lolita complex) richness of his subjects – a bevy of tender beauties, most of whom appear in increasing stages of undress as the film progresses – as he torments and terrorizes them. Not since the work of outsider artist Henry Darger, who ransacked children’s books to create epic collage tapestries depicting armies of oft-naked girl warriors in battle, have so many magnificently demented possibilities for simultaneously empowering, imperiling, and eroticizing pubescent young women been gathered so dazzlingly together in one place – and never at such a speed-demon pace!