ByCiarán Ainsworth, writer at Creators.co
Postgraduate researcher of Japanese Mythology and Cinema at the University of Exeter. 妖怪と怪談の熱狂者.
Ciarán Ainsworth

When one thinks of horror cinema, familiar images usually spring to mind: Frankenstein’s monster; Dracula; old, creepy houses or torture chambers decorated with spatters of gore. Certainly, there is a familiarity to Hollywood’s cinematic offerings to the genre. Outside of Hollywood, though, horror took a very different path of evolution.

In Japan, horror evolved according to Japan’s own folklore, ghost stories, urban myths and cultural fears. Being such a secluded country for such a large portion of its history, most of these themes, stories and characters were very unfamiliar to Western audiences, and it wasn't really until the late 1990s that they began to find mainstream status on American shores - with films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) making a big noise in Hollywood and spawning their own tropes.

While these films are very distinctly Japanese in their themes, settings and characters, their execution is not overly dissimilar to contemporaneous American horror cinema. Before this time, Japanese cinema was producing horror that was less influenced by the touch of Hollywood form. It is upon one of these such films that I want to focus in this essay.

Hausu is a 1977 Japanese horror film directed by then-unknown (at least in the West) director Nobuhiko Obayashi. It tells the story of seven teenage girls: Gorgeous (Kimiko Ikegami), Prof (Ai Matsubara), Melody (Eriko Tanaka), Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo), Mac (Mieko Sato), Sweet (Masayo Miyako) and Fantasy (Kumiko Oba), who travel to an old house in the countryside for a holiday.

However, upon arrival they are met with supernatural goings-on and are devoured by the house one by one. The idea, Paul Roquet writes, was given to Obayashi by his daughter, who while ‘combing her hair in front a mirror after her bath, [began] imagining how scary it would be if her reflection were to come out and eat her.'

Now, such an idea is not inherently Japanese, indeed there have been many haunted house films in which the house itself has acted as primary antagonist. A good example of this would be Robert Wise's expertly crafted The Haunting (1963), which used sound and cinematography to create an eerie and claustrophobic setting which acted to drive the characters mad. Hausu, on the other hand, is less focused around the fear of hauntings and more around the physical dangers that malicious spirits in their culture can pose to the living.

Drawing on Culture

A haunting sight
A haunting sight

The film draws heavily on existing Japanese folklore, particularly that of Onryō , a malevolent (usually female) spirit who is tied to the living world by unfinished business or an unhappy heart. Such spirits have permeated Japanese media for years, appearing in Kabuki theatre, books, television shows, and films. They are so prevalent primarily because of Japan’s religious approach to death. As Klaus Antoni writes: ‘the traditional Japanese attitude toward death was extremely negative and timorous. The living feared pollution by death, as we can see for the first time in the myths surrounding Izanagi and Izanami.

Especially feared were the spirits of such persons who died an unnatural and premature death, or who died far from home as strangers (128).' As such, many horror films from Japan focus on such spirits as a source of terror, a parallel to the West’s hatred of disfigurement, loud noises and bodily mutilation as well as their own ghost stories. In Hausu, Gorgeous’ aunt (Yoko Minamida) is one such spirit, who possesses household objects in order to kill off the girls. The aunt is embittered as she lost her husband during the Second World War, potentially in the infamous atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I speculate this as Obayashi himself was born in Hiroshima and lost childhood friends to the bombing.

The atomic bombings and defeat by the allies in the Second World War have been recurring themes in many Japanese films. Godzilla (1954), for example, uses the eponymous Kaiju as an allegory for the destructive forces of atomic weapons, while Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988)- while not a horror movie - deals with the personal horrors of the Kobe fire bombings, the losses that it bought, and the subsequent surrender of the Japanese to the allied powers. Hausu, however, looks at the war from a spiritual perspective, applying traditional Japanese Kaidan (strange stories) tropes and narratives to the people affected by the events of the war. The Onryō of this film is a woman embittered by the loss of her husband in life, who attacks and kills the unmarried girls who have their lives ahead of them and have left their country’s past behind.

Gorgeous being ghostly
Gorgeous being ghostly

To further this point, it is important to look at the victims in the film themselves. The film opens on Fantasy photographing Gorgeous, who sits looking forlorn in a white gown and headdress. She is surrounded by candles and the film has a green tint to it, lending an eerie feel to the scene. This is helped along by the high pitched, music-box like theme played on a piano softly in the background. Immediately, the mood is broken by the camera cutting to Fantasy, who pulls faces at it before it cuts back to Gorgeous, who says “hurry and take the picture. It’s hot.”

The camera flashes, Fantasy says “Okay!” and borders appear around the small box that has acted as our frame through this sequence. The borders then fall into place as the colour fades back in and Gorgeous gets out of the gown and moves into the classroom. From this, we see that the girls are simply dressing up as ghostly figures for fun; they are young and flippant when it comes to matters of the supernatural, as Gorgeous discards the ghost-like white robe and ghoulish imagery without a second thought.

This could be read as a reflection of goings-on at the time. In the late 1970s, Japanese cinema was experiencing huge competition from the US and Europe, particularly in the field of horror. As Valerie Wee puts it:

"By the late 1970s, the traditional Kaidan [sic] narratives had been replaced by more contemporary tales, many of them reflecting the influence of popular non-Japanese horror films from Hollywood and Europe, at a time when Japan itself was experiencing deepening sociocultural anxieties over the encroaching impact of modernity and Western ideas."

This makes a lot of sense within the context of the film, as the girls in the film are all very much stereotypes lifted straight out of a Hollywood horror film, musical or sitcom: Prof is the typical ‘nerd’, seen wearing big glasses and reading a book, Melody is the guitar strumming musician, Kung Fu is the sports-obsessed ‘Tomboy’ and so on. The Onryō that kills them off could be read as being Japan’s past punishing a generation of youth who are so desensitised by the viewing of over-the-top Hollywood horror that they are no longer afraid of their own urban legends.

Candy-Coated Cruelty

Such horror!
Such horror!

This being said, were Hausu to be shown to a modern Western audience, it would appear quite alien. Obayashi, a commercial director by trade, took the idea of Hausu to Toho studios, the studio behind many famous Kaiju movies. The screenplay struck a chord with Toho’s vice-president, Isao Matsuoka, who said of it:

‘But Mr. Obayashi, I don’t understand the story at all. This is the first time I have seen such a completely meaningless script. But maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t understand. Please do not try to make it into something I can comprehend (quoted in Roquet. 6).'

This attitude, born from Toho’s desperation for a hit movie, granted Obayashi almost complete freedom not only over the story and characters, but also over the production of the film. Therefore, the film contains many elements of Japanese commercials at the time. For example, the introduction of the group of girls is set with a single long shot of all the girls sat on a wall, laughing and gossiping about their teacher, Mr. Togo (Kiyohiko Ozaki), with whom they are supposed to be vacationing. The music in the background is a catchy, upbeat rendition of the earlier creepy piano theme.

While the original theme is something that would not feel out of place in a horror film such as Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), this one is a poppy melody played on a honky-tonk piano, funk bass and pop flute; it ends up sounding more akin to fairground music. One could easily envision a brand name appearing in centre frame as it plays out. This odd, commercial-like mode of filmmaking marks Hausu as being about as far removed from Western horror as it could be at a time when the West’s filmmaking style was dominating the market and driving Japanese cinema-goers away from the native output.

Similarly, the visual effects used in Hausu are deliberately unrealistic - such as a hand-drawn cat spirit emerging from a picture of a cat on the wall - and the music is seemingly unfitting and clustered. These things work in the film’s favour though, giving it a disorienting and psychedelic effect which plays with the spectator’s mind. ‘Characteristic of [Obayashi’s] style is a fluid approach to the time axis of on-screen events, with footage sped-up, slowed-down, or rhythmically repeated in short intervals, often to emphasis a dramatic climax (Roquet. 18).' Not only that, but it is an echo of other Japanese media. Valerie Wee claims that ‘[traditional] Japanese theatre forms, which include Nō, Kabuki, and Bunraku, reflect the classic Japanese aesthetic that privileges a nonrational, emotion-centered perspective, and consistently emphasizes artistry, and hence artificiality, while disregarding most aspects of realism (44).'

Hausu makes no effort to appear in any way realistic, unlike many of its Western counterparts. Take, for example, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), released just one year after Hausu. While it is in no way a realist film, it is nonetheless set in the real world and does adhere to many real world rules. Hausu, however, is only superficially set in the real world, with the majority of the film taking place in a phantasmagoria of childlike horrors: a house that eats people and contains living light-fixtures and a piano with sharp teeth (another idea from Obayashi’s daughter).

Gender and Society in Hausu

This is not to say, however, that Hausu is entirely unlike and unrelated to its Western contemporaries. As stated before, the idea of a house acting as the main (or at least most visible) antagonist in a film was not new and had in fact been done multiple times. So, too, had ghosts been used extensively in Hollywood horror of the past, and female victims were already a cinema trope unto themselves. As Brian De Palma notes: ‘If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man (quoted in Clover. 77).'

This use of women as victims to illicit an audience reaction seems universal. More recently, it was notably used in Ringu. In Suzuki’s original novel, the main character, Kazuyuki Asakawa is the uncle of one of the victims and is accompanied by his friend, Ryuji Takayama. In the film, however, the main character is a woman – Reiko Asakawa – who enlists the help of her ex-husband in solving the mystery of the cursed video tape. In both cases, the victimisation of females remains a key trait in identifying the films as horror. In Ringu and Hausu, the victims of the Onryō are mostly teenage girls. In this way, both play out in a manner similar to that of Western horror films. Ringu, in particular, adopts a number of Hollywood slasher tropes, such as the final girl, and mixes them with traditional Kaidan tropes such as the Onryō to tell a cautionary tale about the proliferation of technology in modern Japan and its perceived negative effects on Japanese youth at the time.

...What?
...What?

However, what really sets these Japanese Onryō films apart is the antagonist. In Western horror, the antagonists are predominantly male. Carol Clover claims ‘A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is a psychokiller (13).' Even when the killers are female they are often masquerading as males, such as in Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), in which Mrs. Voorhees carries out murders in the place of her dead son, Jason, crying out “kill her, mommy!” as she chases down the final girl, Alice. However, in Japanese horror, women often take the central role as villains, particularly in the familiar Onryō role.

This is most likely because of the dynamic created between men and women throughout Japan’s history. Japan is traditionally a heavily patriarchal society, in which most power is wielded by men. Therefore, men had the power to seek vengeance for slights against them in life. The Onryō is predominantly a figure who was powerless during their lifetime and was so granted the power to seek revenge in the spirit world. It follows, therefore, that the majority of these characters would be female.

Those soft hues really make for a... haunting film?
Those soft hues really make for a... haunting film?

On the point of the typical patriarch, the breakdown of traditional Japanese family values plays a significant role in Hausu. Towards the beginning of the film, Gorgeous’ father (Saho Sasazawa) announces that Gorgeous has a new stepmother in Ryoko Ema (Haruko Wanibuchi). Gorgeous rejects the union and runs off screen. As she does, the frame freezes and a new frame appears within it showing her discarding a white silk scarf, symbolically casting the marriage out of her life. It is because of her dismay at this union that she refuses to go vacationing with her father and ends up taking the trip to the eponymous house. Her father calls after her to wait, but she runs off screen and into her room.

Her father’s apparent ineffectiveness could be seen as indicative of the breaking down of the traditional patriarch-headed family unit. ‘Nowadays,’ Kizaemon Ariga writes, ‘patriarchal power has become remarkably weakened, for the development of the capitalistic economy since the Meiji Era (1868-1912) has changed the living conditions to such an extent that the institutional control of the family over its members has less importance. Moreover, the legal abolishment of the patriarch in the revision of the Civil Code after the termination of World War II has more or less promoted this trend (363).'

This, too, is indicative of the film’s events being a punishment for the girls’ apparent ignorance or rejection of traditional Japanese values, and indeed the country’s own move away from its past in favour of the more Western values that were beginning to affect the youth of the country through American media. There is also a whisper of disapproval at the ‘teenage’ phenomenon that emerged from America in the 1950s. In Japan, as mentioned above, ultimate power originally lay with the head of the household. However, as American media became more prevalent in Japan, the ‘typical teenager’ began to make an appearance and with it disobedience.

As Paul Roquet says ‘all figures of responsibility are dispensed with. [Gorgeous] crosses her father out of her life after he announces plans to remarry…the father’s new girlfriend….is gleefully sent up in flames (34).' Because of this refusal of authority, the girls end up either dead or, in the case of Gorgeous, possessed by the Onryō. Alternatively, one could read this as the rejection of marriage being a central theme. After all, Gorgeous’ aunt is embittered about her husband’s death and is said to eat the unmarried, Gorgeous rejects her father’s remarriage and ends up (while possessed by her aunt’s spirit) killing her new stepmother.

The other girls show a flirtatious interest in Mr. Togo, but never mention marriage. All of these characters meet their demise because of this, with the girls being killed off, Mr. Togo being (rather comically) turned into a bunch of bananas and Gorgeous’ father ending up spouseless, left to suffer the same fate as Gorgeous’ aunt.

Conclusion

Hausu is something of an alienating experience for the Western viewer. It draws so heavily on established folklore, culturally-specific events, and culturally-specific stylistic elements that to the Western filmmaker it may seem amateur, even laughable. The characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical, the execution odd and, at times, goofy, and the situations are unfamiliar. However, the film is, as much of horror cinema, a warning message to its audience. It uses stylistic and thematic elements from Kabuki, and Bunraku theatre; it applies the Onryō folklore to ongoing difficulties in Japan’s transition from the ancient to the modern and uses these to symbolically punish those who choose to forget about Japan’s past in favour of the Western present.

As Roquet says, ‘[Obayashi asserted] that the film was a commercial – for Japanese cinema itself, aimed at getting audiences back into theatres (16).' With an example such as Hausu, it can be argued that just as Western horror is influenced by contemporaneous and native issues such as – most recently - terrorism, Japanese horror is a crystal ball through which the country can reflect on its own social issues and exorcise its collective cultural demons.

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