Describing your dreams to someone else is always an odd experience for both people. You try to put into words these concepts and images that you have only had a brief, though vivid experience with. And your audience can never really follow your description of the dream because the description never congeals into a cohesive vision from the dreamer. Describing the movie HAUSU to someone who has never seen it is a similar experience. For those watching the film, it is vivid and striking, but so rambling that recalling the film and trying to explain it to someone else just results in confusion. And though this may seem off-putting, I think it should actually act as an encouragement to see the film. Everyone needs to see HAUSU for themselves.
HAUSU was a bit of a white whale to American fans of Japanese films. Filmed and released in 1977 in Japan as an answer to JAWS (though when watching the film, this connection is nonexistent), the film only gained distribution in the US in 2009. For years we had heard of the film and seen the striking artwork of the giant orange cat, but had no way to see the film. This aura of mystery added to the film’s reputation of being inexplicable to those who had not seen it.
The film itself can be described in many ways, all of them equally accurate and inaccurate. Because the film is so unconventional there are no true comparisons to other films that perfectly translate the plot or visuals. All of these attempts to anchor the film to our existing points of reference can, however, be a fun way to illustrate all of the ways that we fail at describing the film.
HAUSU is on one level a haunted house film. Seven schoolgirls go to an ailing aunt’s house for their summer vacation. In the house, objects move on their own and come to life. There is also a watermelon salesmen just on the edge of town, which adds to the foreboding atmosphere, who gives the girls directions to the house and says that it has been a long time since the house had any visitors. The house itself seems to be possessed by spirits who have motivation for mayhem.
HAUSU is also a ghost story. The leader of the group, Gorgeous, has not seen her aunt in nearly ten years before she and her friends go to spend the summer in the country with her. Through a narrated flashback Gorgeous tells her friends the sad story of her aunt’s spinster status. The aunt was in love with a promising young doctor. Engaged to be married, the doctor was then drafted for the war. When he does not return, the aunt is left all alone in mourning. She still waits for him to return as the rest of the world moves into the future without her. When Gorgeous becomes peculiarly obsessed with her aunt’s bridal gowns, it is clear that her preoccupation goes deeper than merely childhood dress-up fun.
HAUSU is also really funny. Though not structured like a comedy, a surprisingly amount of the film’s screen time is dedicated to jokes. When the girls’ teacher and chaperone for the summer, Mr. Togo, falls down in his mad dash to meet their train, he gets his butt stuck in a bucket. The bucket then takes him on a ride all around his apartment building and, ultimately, he needs the assistance of the neighborhood cobbler to remove it. A bubbly pop song scores this action, reminding the audience that this incident is playful—not a dark sign of other malicious bucket attacks to come.
But most importantly, the facet of HAUSU that makes all of these elements more cohesive and disjointed is the fact that HAUSU is classically absurd. A number of incidents throughout the course of the film make no sense whatsoever and are just weird. After giving the girls directions to the house, the friendly watermelon salesman has a good laugh with an animate watermelon. At another point, the aunt exits the kitchen through the refrigerator. And while I will leave the majority of these absurdities up to the audience to discover on their own, I do want to mention that one character turns into a bunch of bananas.
It is HAUSU’s multifaceted and seemingly disjointed nature which makes it impossible to describe to someone who has not seen the film for themselves. However, even with all of these independent factors the film is never disorienting. The playful tone keeps the film together and makes it feel like one escapist fever dream rather than a slew of random scenes strung together.