The task today is to explain a movie that reviewers have described, unvariously, as “gonzo,” “beyond the pale,” “surreal,” “indefinable,” “gone, baby, gone,” and “totally inexplicable.” The movie is Nobuhijo Obayashi’s Hausu, from 1977, a horror film of sorts that has, at last, been playing in American theaters here and there over the past year, and, yes, the damnedest thing, the kind of movie that can turn any hour into midnight. A teenaged girl gets into a kung fu showdown with a wall phone. A stygian fruit stand turns a high-school teacher into a pile of ripe bananas, the bunches heaped high at his steering wheel, still wearing cap and spectacles, as though waiting to speed away, “Bananas everywhere!” his dying words, except you can’t really make them out over the rockabilly and the lounge jazz. The severed head of a recently decapitated young she-glutton chomps the assflesh of another teenaged girl, like a farmer wide-mouthing the season’s first crisp apple, and then tilts back to show a ragged neck packed with watermelon pulp.
And yet Hausu really isn’t all that hard to explain, as long as you’re willing to ask the obvious questions, to start with what is most familiar in the movie and work your way up to what is most bum-biting and outlandish. For Hausu is, at heart, really just a haunted house movie. Its Engrish-language title is telling you as much. A high-school student takes six of her girlfriends out to the countryside to visit her dead aunt, and the house attacks them, one by one, then pairwise, such that none ever returns.
Yes, there’s also a white cat with green laser eyes, but for the moment that will only confuse the issue. For now, we need merely plod, putting to Hausu the questions we would put to almost any ghost story. In some ways ghosts are unusually hard to talk about, because the ghosts one encounters in film and literature are so much more varied than the werewolves and the vampires and the zombies: they come in different shapes; they have different powers; different vulnerabilities. It could seem harder to generalize about them, to find any pattern of meaning amidst all that variation. But one point stands out, and I don’t think it’s hard to grasp. Ghosts are almost always figures for something you think should be gone, but isn’t. That’s it. A haunting just means that a trace of the past has come back. The ghost almost always announces some disruption in the order of time; the ghost is history itself, perceived as a problem; the disturbing persistence of history into the present. It is history that refuses to go away.
So when you watch a ghost movie, your chief task is to figure out how the movie understands the relationship between the past and the present; that is, you need to figure out what the movie has indentified as the salient features of the present; what it has picked out as the salient past; and then you need to figure out what they have to do with one another. Hausu makes this easy, by giving us a few minutes of fake newsreel, in early ‘40s black and white, in which we learn that the undead aunt is a kind of war widow, engaged once to a Japanese airman, who never returned and for whom, having made a pinky promise, she eternally waits. The movie, in other words, nominates its own past by shooting it on a different film stock: We have an older generation that is still pledged, in occult measure, to pre-war Japan, which here means not only thimbly tea cups and a population in fancy pajamas, but the Japanese empire and Japanese militarism. The aunt is witch-priestess of that Japan, endlessly mourning it, awaiting its return or re-rising sun.
The way the movie captures the present is necessarily more diffuse and so a little harder to pin down, though not much. The movie’s main characters are all teenaged girls, seven of them, with dwarflike names to match that number: Gorgeous, Prof, Sweet, Melody, Kung Fu, Fantasy, and Mac. This already gives us a lot to work with. The first thing that leaps out is the total absence of men, so first: a feminized Japan. Two of the girls—Prof and Kung Fu—conspicuously occupy roles customarily allotted to men, as the gang’s braniac and warrior-guardian, respectively, and so suggest a historical transition over to female self-sufficiency: a society that’s all ladies. But then fully four of the girls have English nicknames: “Gorgeous” and “Prof” are the subtitles’ translations of Japanese originals; “Kung Fu” is neither Japanese nor English; but Sweet, Melody, Fantasy, and Mac all are Anglo-monikers, English already in the dialogue, and so register a certain Americanism, except the movie’s subtitlers have gotten ahead of themselves, because “Fantasy” is actually, as spoken, “Fanta,” which means that one girl is named after a soda and another after a hamburger, so: A Japan so Westernized that children nickname themselves after value meals. The other thing to know about Hausu is that its dialogue is all a-titter, effervescent, silly, the opposite of mournful; the movie uses schoolgirl giggling the way Harold Pinter used to use pauses. The bundle of associations is the usual one: a feminized, consumer Japan; given over to the young; post-heroic, maybe even post-masculine. The movie can seem to pitch giddy, pop girl power against the imperial melancholy of their parents and grandparents.
This all makes for a reasonably straightforward ghost story, in which the present is pitted against the past—a generational battle, then. In those terms, the movie puts in front of us a failed present, which is what usually happens in a ghost story—a present that hasn’t extricated itself from the past. The old Japan reasserts itself: This is clearest in the movie’s coda, when we see the ghost-aunt’s niece, Gorgeous, now mistress of the old house, and so spectral in her own right, or atavistic, dressed in a kimono, fluidly opening shoji. In fact, we also see her welcoming—and then killing—her father’s new fiancée, and the important fact here is that at the beginning of the movie, the stepmom was described as “surprisingly good at cooking and other things.” The movie has thereby registered the questionable domesticity of modern Japanese women, and we can understand the house as busy trying to undo that shift, by relegating the powerpuff girls back to the old roles of maid and helpmeet. The movie’s title is in this sense oddly precise; it can dispense with the word “haunted” because it is premised on the observation that all houses are haunted or possessed, because all feed on their members, and especially on their less muscular ones, as this house does literally. The girls are to this extent the unlikely bearers of a feminism, whose defeat the movie will, with horror, recount. In place of fiends and demons, the movie has washrags and feather dusters, which all turn out to be the same anyway: Things that can destroy a carefree girl. One girl gets killed by the bedding.
But the movie is actually more complicated than this, because it also admits of a second reading, which runs concurrently alongside the first. Even as it pits the duty-bound war generation against the pop feminists of the mid-‘70s, the movie establishes a certain vexing continuity between the war widow and the girls and thereby forces us to consider the possibility that the girls are vulnerable to the Japanese past because fully its heirs.
A little background: It will help to know that there has been a lot of Japanese art over the last few decades that condemns its post-war addressees for being too too childish or too girly—a backlash, this, against Japan’s more or less official culture of cuteness: whatever it is that drives grown men to put stickers on their cell phones, or convinces Japan’s governors to assign each political district—they’re called prefectures—a certified cartoon mascot: a walking yellow fire hydrant with parsley on its head or a blue eel with jet engines strapped to its sides. To outsiders, Japan is at this point associated above all with manga and anime and children’s games and cosplay and the jailbait tartans of school uniforms. The point is that some Japanese commentators think that this trend has gotten way out of hand. That idea is most recognizable as a kind of right-wing nationalism—though there are variations—which nationalism holds that Japan’s atomic defeat destroyed the country’s great martial traditions; it destroyed the established forms of Japanese masculinity; it made it impossible for the Japanese to be real men. The military was largely disbanded; the imperial throne was turned into an empty symbol; the country became an American protectorate. Instead of a warrior Japan, one now finds the Neon Archipelago, overrun with women and children and shoppers.
There’s lots of evidence for this backlash. The position was codified in the glut of post-war samurai movies grieving for the vanished Japanese warrior class. But you might also consider Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows, from 2004, a movie about children who have literally been abandoned to raise themselves, because no-one in Japan wants to be the adult; the adults in that movie wear cute little backpacks and carry cute little dogs, while their children starve and sit in their own filth and die: a cuteness that kills. Or you could have a look at Big Man Japan, from 2007, a movie about how modern Japanese people don’t even appreciate their own superheroes; a man with superhuman strength can’t get respect from the Japanese any longer, even when all he wants to do is defend Japan, the collective castration has cut so deep. That the superhero in that movie has a reality show is, at this point, a tired joke. The better joke is that nobody watches it.
In some sense, these are the movies that run counter to Hausu, depicting the same generational battle but reversing our allegiances, until we recoil in disgust from a Japan that has allowed itself to be infantilized, a whole country of overgrown kids. So here’s the thing: Hausu partly gives you that other, anti-girl reading of Japan, too. When the movie runs its three minutes of newsreel, from 1941, one of the schoolgirls says in voiceover: “Men were so much manlier back then”—and that at least puts the de-masculinization narrative in play. But the most important detail here is that the girls—and especially Fanta—are in the same position as the war widow, waiting for a man to show. The movie gives you four or five chances to spot the correspondence: The girls are expecting that a man will arrive to save them from the house, and he never comes. The movie, then, has a strong sense of the cycle of traumatic repetition. The ghost-widow is trapped eternally wishing for the return of Japanese manhood, and the girls are made to share her desire. If the teenagers prove unable to overcome the threat of the imperial past, then this is because they are themselves entirely too much like that past—a replica of the war widow and not her antithesis, like her the product of the early ‘40s, endlessly living out Japan’s defeat.
So what interests me about Hausu is that the movie invites a certain feminist reading: Bad-ass girls fight an encroaching domesticity. But it also invites an anti-feminist reading: A nation unhinged by the absence of men. It’s at this point that we have to start accounting for the movie’s fever-dream style, which is what those reviewers were mostly responding to. The movie is a cascade of lo-tech special effects and film tricks: garishly painted backdrops, dancing marionettes, psychedelic wipes, crude animation scratched right onto the negative, every possible lens filter, in seemingly random rotation. This all communicates a certain joie du cinéma, but it also makes the movie feel diabolical, completely cracked, and so unlike ordinary haunted house movies, which have always been the most genteel members of the horror canon—talky, sedate and goreless, with Merchant-Ivory production values—long steady shots of corridors well papered, dolly shots tracking invisible presences, protracted enough that you can pause to admire the sconces. Next to that—next to The Haunting and The Innocents and the aesthetic these share with home-improvement shows—Hausu plays like a stone freak-out.
But there’s a danger here, that in saying this I will make the movie sound experimental or avant-gardist. That would be misleading, because the easiest way to communicate what Hausu is up to would be to say that it has borrowed most of its techniques from children’s television and TV ads. When your cinephile buddy tells you that Hausu reminds him of some Kenneth Anger joint, you need to say in return that it looks like an episode of Captain Kangaroo or an old Peppermint Pattie commercial. If you can imagine a horror movie stitched together out of 200-some 30-second ads, you’ll begin to get a sense of what it’s like to watch Hausu. There’s one detail that is decisive in this regard—one amazingly simply device that transforms a viewer’s experience of the movie and shifts it irretrievably into the realm of the commercial—and that’s the movie’s pop soundtrack, which not only has almost no discernible relationship to what’s happening on screen, but—and this is the important part—is turned up much too high in the audio mix, competing with the dialogue, like music in TV and radio ads, but not like ordinary movie music.
What most matters, then, is that these last two observations mostly coincide: The movie seems demonic and its style is borrowed mostly from children’s television and TV spots. The movie asks you to imagine what it would be like to live inside a kiddie show and decides that it would be terrifying. This shunts us straight back to the movie’s doubleness. At the end of Hausu, you have to ask yourself, does the movie’s insistent, camp cuteness distract from the horror or merely add to it? The slapstick and the dumb jokes and the storybook cartoonishness—do these counteract the film’s Gothic qualities—or do they amplify the horror in a new direction?—such that Japan seems completely mad even before the haunted house starts exacting its toll. In other words, you might choose to see this as a movie in which cuteness squares off against horror (and then cuteness tragically loses)—and that reading just about makes sense. But you might also see it as a movie in which cuteness and horror get grafted onto one another, in which case you end up with cute horror or a horrible cuteness—in which case Hausu would be like a hundred other movies that wish the Japanese would just sack up. Check the poster: The movie’s presiding demon is a white cat, Hello Kitty as hell’s familiar. And at one point, the movie, for no apparent reason, runs maybe two seconds of nuclear footage, the mushroom cloud, and one of the girls chimes, in voiceover: “Oh, look, it’s cotton candy”—and you think: Wait … was that…? Did I see…? Atrocity? Candyfloss? Atrocity? Candyfloss? In an alternate history, the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was called Little Girl.