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Cult Column: Hausu

For many of us, our most vivid memories of fear come from childhood. When we have no understanding of the world, anything has the power to horrify, and even innocuous household items can strike terror into our hearts. This is one of the many reasons that Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 cult hit Hausu provides such a unique horror experience, because much of the creative input came from his infant daughter and her fears, leading to wonderfully weird sequences of characters literally drowning in futons or having their fingers bitten off by hungry pianos. Like the young protagonists of Hausu, we cannot help but reconnect with our childhood sense of wonder and vulnerability as we watch them navigate dancing skeletons and sentient, flying logs. Everything in this film reinforces that sense of childishness, from the manic, jaunty score to the character names that sound like they come straight from children’s media (no prizes for guessing the defining traits of Prof, Kung-Fu, and Sweet). 

While it received poor reviews upon its release, nowadays there is no shortage of praise for its fun, whacky vibe, and yet it is often overlooked as the thoughtful, complex tragedy that I believe it to be. Underneath all the craziness, there is an unmistakable sense of melancholy. The film is visually hazy, with most of the action taking place at golden hour, as if we are looking back at an old memory. Hausu reminds us of being children, but it does not let us forget that we are adults. I think one of the main themes of Hausu is the pain of growing up, in particular growing up as a woman. The tagline of the film is “House is calling you to come back home and marry me”, and it is no coincidence that the girls are “eaten” in heavily gendered scenarios – Sweet is killed by bedding, while Gorgeous meets her doom putting on makeup at her aunt’s vanity, and is only seen afterwards in full wedding attire, devoid of her former self – “she’s no longer the Gorgeous we knew”, her friends lament. Even as the few remaining girls are drowning in blood, they hold out hope that their dashing teacher, Mr. Togo, will save them. As they imagine him coming to their rescue on a handsome steed, we see that he is stuck in traffic, constantly getting into slapstick situations. There is no knight in shining armour.

Even more than this, though, I think Hausu is a story of intergenerational trauma, both on a personal and cultural level. When the motherless Gorgeous is given the opportunity to accept the love and guidance of her modern, forward-facing new stepmother, she retreats into the memories of her mother by visiting her aunt. Her aunt, too, is clinging to the past, waiting for her fiancé to return from the war. She not only inflicts her pain on Gorgeous and her friends, but she also uses it to keep her regrets and delusions alive through them, essentially passing all her baggage on to the next generation. There is a reason that Gorgeous sees her aunt’s anguished face in the mirror before her transformation into a bride. The grief of this one family is also expertly intermingled with the wider grief caused by the atomic bomb. Mushroom-cloud imagery is rife within the beautiful animation that pops up throughout, and though I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to confidently interpret this, I do think it’s very interesting that Gorgeous wears a traditional kimono in her final scene, where she is one again presented with the opportunity to reconcile with her stepmother. Hausu is weird and crazy, but there is so much more to this film than strange death scenes and artificial set-design. It deserves recognition for its tender and coherent exploration of numerous heavy topics, as well as for the incredibly unique way it chooses to discuss them. This film has style and substance, and it’s time we took it seriously.

Image “Hausu (House) 1977” by A.Currell is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0