We thank Zack Davisson, writer and Japanese folklore scholar, for this guest post on our upcoming screening Hausu.
Flying vampire heads popping out of wells. A massive, shape-shifting cat. The corpse of an unloved woman wrecking ghostly revenge. For modern viewers, Nobukiko Obayashi’s 1977 film House may be a brain-melting tour of a psychedelic fever dream, but Edo-period kabuki fans would have barely fluttered an eyelash. They had seen it all before. Because, if you look past the movie’s flashy visuals and attack storytelling you will uncover a secret; House is a traditional Japanese ghost story.
For a movie so often hailed as avant-garde and experimental, House is a throwback, a retrograde. In an interview, Obayashi rejects the idea that House is even a horror film. More correctly, Obayashi says, House belongs to the genre called kaii (怪異). If you have never heard of that, don’t feel bad. Roughly translating as “strange events,” kaii was a popular genre about two hundred years ago—during the Edo-period kaidan boom.
From 1603 to 1876, Japan was addicted to kaidan (怪談; weird tales). Every conceivable artistic and entertainment medium, from painting to literature to sculpting to theater, produced works of the strange and mysterious. Kabuki theater in particular—with its sensation of gaudy, over-the-top artifice—fed the audience’s lust for blood and spectacle.
Writers and directors like Tsuruya Nanboku IV pandered to baser instincts, and delivered up some of the most bizarre, outrageous, and gory bits of ghost lore ever created. Under Nanboku IV’s hand, the kabuki stage transformed into a wild world of ghosts soaring on wires over exploding fire pots, flying vampire heads, giant fire-breathing frogs, and shape-changing cats known as bakeneko, working their mysterious kaidan magic.
Obayashi followed Kabuki’s lead, favoring the artificial over Western naturalism. House dives head-first into Grand Guignol and spectacle. And the film’s dynamic imagery is wrapped tightly around an even more traditional core.
At the heart of most kaidan—and House—is urami (恨み). Translating into English as grudge, urami comes from a Shinto/Buddhist idea where the soul is bound to Earth by unfulfilled desires. These desires can be anything—unrequited love, unexpressed gratitude, unfinished business—but it becomes meat for storytellers when coupled with resentment. A person who dies with a grudge-bearing soul infects like a plague.
House’s urami is a classic example of an obake yashiki tale. Roughly meaning “haunted house,” obake yashiki stories tell of possessed mansions inhabited by unquiet spirits. Like the Poltergeist of Tajima, obake yashiki manifest any number of ghostly phenomena from rattling windows to monsters. They are random; chaotic; terrifying. But always at the center is a single, tormented soul. Digging through these layers of horror, trying to find the curse underneath, is always part of the fun.
And just think; in 1975 when Toho studios hired Obayashi they asked him to make something like Jaws. Instead, he delivered one of the most bizarre, original—and traditional—works of cinema ever to come out of Japan.
Join us January 3rd at 7 pm at a screening of Hausu in the Henry Auditorium.
Zack Davisson is a translator, writer, and scholar of Japanese folklore, ghosts, and manga. He is the author of The Ghost of Oyuki and the translator of Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. He also created the popular Japanese folklore website Hyakumionogatari Kaidanka.