Hausu is the type of film in which the plot is really secondary to pretty much everything else that is going on. The story is pretty standard horror film fare. A junior high school student in Tokyo named Oshare (meaning “chic” or “fashionable”, and nicknamed “Gorgeous” by her friends) lives with her widowed father, and is extremely close with a group of 6 of her friends. They are looking forward to visiting a teachers house during summer holidays, when he suddenly has to cancel. Meanwhile, Oshare’s father announces that a guest a will be joining the trip he was planning with his daughter. He has decided to remarry, and introduces Oshare to her “new mommy.” In a huff, Oshare refuses to go with her father and his girlfriend, and impulsively invites her friends to stay at her aunt’s house in the country, despite not having seen her aunt in years. They arrive to find the aunt in a wheelchair living in a run-down house. They begin cleaning up the place, when it is revealed that the aunt is actually a spirit that feeds off “unmarried” women, and sets about killing the girls one by one by having different parts of the house eat them.
But wholly aside from the plot are the films stunning visual effects, parodies of pop culture, and distinctive editing. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi gott his start making experimental films that involved him drawing directly on 8mm film strips. He later moved into directing TV commercials, and directed commercials and work for TV in Europe and the US, including a bizarre series of aftershave commercials starring Charles Bronson. At the time, the studio system was still pervasive in Japan, and aspiring directors had to do a long apprenticeship as a studio employee before getting the chance to direct. Even big directors like Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu were employees of their studio, and had to follow this system. Obayashi had no interest in paying his dues in such a way, and so contented himself working outside the studio system. Then one day a producer at Toho studios summoned him to his office. The producer had seen the long lines outside Jaws and learned that the director was a young man named Spielberg who had started making 8mm films before going on to do TV work and then making features at a young age. Obayashi sounded like the closest equivalent in Japan, and was baffled to learn that he was being offered the chance to direct a big budget film at Toho and was told to make a film like Jaws that would be just as popular. This was not merely a risky decision, it was history being made. Although directors like Dennis Hopper where filming Easy Rider in the middle of the desert in America, never before in Japan had a director from outside the studio system. This was one of many first for Hausu, which would be the first Japanese film to incorporate video footage, use light-weight Panavision films, use an English word as its title, and scores of other innovations.
Given the task of making a film that would be as popular as Jaws, Obayashi knew it would never be possible to make a film about a man-eating shark on a limited Toho budget. At home, he talked to his 13-year-old daughter while she combed her hair in front of a mirror after a bath. He asked her what she thought would be scare. She replied that it would be scary if her reflection jumped out of the mirror and ate her. When he asked what else would scare her, she said that it would be scary if during her piano practice the piano keys started to bite her fingers. She also said it was scary when she visited her granddad in the summer and he pulled up a watermelon that had been let down a well to cool it, and it looked like a smiling face as it came up from the darkness. Obayashi got the idea of making a movie that was not about a man eating shark, like Jaws, but about a house that eats girls. The decided to make it seven girls, “because things usually come in sevens, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and The Seven Samurai.” Many of his daughter’s ideas make it into the final film. “I was very impressed by the imagination of my movie-obsessed daughter,” Obayashi remember 30 years later.
Obayashi started writing a script and collecting unknown actresses who had their background in TV commercials like himself. The Toho publicity office went into overdrive, with countless articles, a film novelization and a soundtrack being released before cameras even started rolling on the film. Toho producers were perplexed by Obayashi script, but gave him the go ahead.
The special effects employed in Hausu really do make the film what it is. Obayashi apparently used all of his skills as a TV commercial director to make the first part of the film set in Tokyo look as unrealistic as possible. The house where Oshare lives with her father resembles the apartment in Hitchcock’s Rope, with its obviously artificial skyline. Thing become even more fantastic after the seven girls arrive at the aunt’s house, and the final scenes can only be described as hallucinogenic.
Since the seven leads of Hausu where all around 15, the decision was made to release it during summer double billed with a film staring Momoe Yamaguchi and Tomokazu Miura who appeared in a cookie-cutter series of coming-of-age films that were released without fail every new years and summer holiday for years. The hope was that some of the “Momo-Tomo” fans would stick around for house. They never expected that Hausu to be the runaway hit that it was.
Beyond making a truly unique film, Obayashi also changed the way Japanese films were made. The long-held apprenticeship system started to break down. Shortly after the success of Hausu, Kazuku Omori, at the age of 26, was invited to make his breakthrough film Orange Road Express at Shochiku and longtime independent theater and film director Terayama Shuji was able to make The Boxer at Toei. Shortly after Yoshimitsu Morita, who taught himself filmmaking with 8mm experimental films, made the highly influential The Family Game.