It's amazing. Technically you'd have to call it a horror movie, but it's more about increasingly crazed imagery from a director previously known for experimental filmmaking. Put it this way: the story came from his thirteen-year-old daughter.
Firstly, some background. Toho originally wanted Nobuhiko Obayashi to make a movie like Jaws. Hah hah. Obayashi came up with this script instead, whereupon it sat on the shelf for two years because all the studio's directors thought it was gibberish and would kill their careers. He'd brought his daughter into the creative process, for example, believing that adults "only think about things they understand... everything stays on that boring human level" while "children can come up with things that can't be explained". This explains a lot, actually. I think it's great. The only reason this film doesn't feel more literally like a child's nightmare is that Obayashi didn't shoot it that way.
Obayashi spent those two years talking Toho into letting him direct it. He kept making commercials and independent films, but in doing so he was assembling a cast from the models he used in his commercials, while he also managed to release manga, a script novelisation and a radio drama based on House. Eventually Toho gave in. He wasn't on their staff, but nevertheless it's been said that they were tired of losing money on comprehensible films and so were willing to gamble on an incomprehensible one instead. (To their astonishment, it would become a hit.)
The production process sounds interesting. Obayashi shot the film with no storyboard and with a cast of mostly non-actors. Unsurprisingly their performances were bad when directed conventionally, but they got into the right spirit when Obayashi started doing things like playing the film's soundtrack, skipping, singing and playing quiz games. There were a couple of proper actresses here, but most of them were models, family members or country music singers with amazing 1970s sideburns. Meanwhile the special effects were deliberately unrealistic and drew on Obayashi's experience on TV commercials. Often he'd do things with no idea how they'd turn out, which of course meant that the final film often looked nothing like what he'd been expecting. One scene for instance involved suspending Ai Matsubara nude in mid-air and pouring buckets of blue paint on her for a "being eaten alive" chroma key effect.
The result became a cult film, whatever that means. It was a big hit, especially with young audiences, but was never shown in America until Janus Films bought the rights for their Eclipse line of DVDs, started getting requests for screenings and eventually in 2010 gave it a small theatrical run in the USA. I've never heard of that happening before.
So what's it like?
It starts out pretty normal. I'd been expecting to be immediately floored by wackiness, but the first act is almost sober. Kimiko Ikegami is perhaps a little too fond of her father, jumping into his arms and then going all moody when told that she's going to have a new mother. (The real one's been dead for eight years.) They'd been going to go on a holiday together, just the three of them, but Ikegami would sooner die and instead goes off to visit her aunt, Yoko Minamida. She takes six schoolfriends with her. Minamida lost her fiance in the war and ever since has been living alone like a sweet, beautiful Lady Havisham in a big... yes, a big House.
This is all pretty normal so far. The girls are actually good in their roles, not to mention often highly attractive. They are models, after all. Miki Jinbo was particularly eye-catching, I thought, especially in those shorts. Anyway, all seven girls are having fun and bantering exactly like real friends, which also makes them very likeable.
However there's also the weird stuff. At first it's almost subtle. When Ikegami meets her prospective new stepmother, the sky behind them might make you think there's something wrong with your television. I couldn't decide whether or not it was supposed to look bizarre. As the movie progresses though, the special effects take over. It's like a surreal, musical, trippy, silly, happy version of The Amityville Horror. It has a smile on its face. Freddy Krueger meets Alice in Wonderland, except with very little Freddy and quite a lot of Alice. Even when a piano eats a girl, in a scene stranger even than you're already imagining, it feels goofy and light-hearded. Personally I never found the film scary for a moment, although this might paradoxically freak you out with the fact that you're not scared of what's theoretically a nightmare.
There's also a bit of nudity. You can't go wrong with nudity. Apparently Ikegami was uncomfortable about her nude scene during filming and Yoko Minamida also stripped just to make her more comfortable, whereupon Obayashi added a nude scene for Minamida that hadn't been in the original script. I bow in awe.
It doesn't feel 1970s, mind you. I'd have sworn this was the 1960s, complete with a funky music soundtrack and a sense that hippies and drugs must surely have been involved somewhere. The nod to the Rocky Horror Picture Show makes that impossible though, although at the time I assumed it was merely a coincidence that giant disembodied lips were talking to the characters.
Is this film a triumph of style over substance? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. The plot's theoretically just another haunted house film, but the final movie is like nothing you've ever seen. However that's probably unfair, though. You could also argue that the style is the substance, as with Alice in Wonderland. You don't watch this film for its storyline, although in fairness Minamida's backstory incorporates themes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, since Obayashi himself was born in Hiroshima and lost all his childhood friends when we dropped the nuke. There's bitterness under the surface here, with Minamida's resentment against the young people who haven't suffered like her and the fact that her supposed love ends up being the destroyer of love in others. Note also the parallels between her character and Ikegami's.
Not quite as insane as I'd been expecting, but my expectations had been sky-high. What I didn't expect was how happy it was. It's a joyful, ridiculous experiment in pushing the haunted house movie until it breaks. It's infectiously cheerful. It's certainly far better than the other Obayashi film I've seen, which is Sada (1998)
and I kind of hated it, but that's mostly because I thought the style didn't work with the subject matter. Here though he's made something incredible. I don't think it attains brilliance, but twenty years ago I'd have lost my mind for it and it's certainly worth a recommendation. Sada Abe was a real person, after all, but I don't think in real life a man has ever become a pile of bananas.