Love, Lies, and Leitmotifs

House (1977)

House (1977) | Criterion Collection
Criterion


Time passes on, and I’m older…
sometimes I knew it’d pass me by
Lookin’ for someone I could talk to
someone to answer all the whys

– Godiego, “Yes, I Thank You

 

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House was released in Japan in 1977 to a highly polarized reaction. In Criterion’s 2010 making-of featurette “Constructing a House,” Obayashi recalls the movie’s tremendous success with young audiences, noting “long lines [forming] at theaters of kids entirely under 15,” while industry veterans and the critical establishment “dismissed the film in absolute terms” and derided it as “the end of Japanese cinema.” A surface-level viewing of House bears out this early divisiveness; every frame and sound bursts with youthful exuberance, and the film spits in the face of established cinematic storytelling whenever it gets the chance. To the lifelong devotee of classical Japanese cinema, it was indeed sacrilegious, a mutant child born of American genre bombast, anime-style hyperkinesis, and manic psychedelia. Despite the protestations of the old guard, though, the movie was a hit, and in the ensuing decades, Obayashi’s esteem has only grown.  

House tells the story of high school ingenue Gorgeous, who embarks on an ill-fated summer vacation with her six friends to her aunt’s lonely house in the countryside. Auntie, a retired piano teacher who lost her betrothed to World War II, works in tandem with the house to possess Gorgeous and systematically devour her friends, so that they might both feed on the joyous youth that the war stole from her so many years before. This simple story, relatable in theory to all ages, can be hard to make heads or tails of amidst the daunting volume and furor of Obayashi’s aesthetic choices. 

But time has allowed us a clearer perspective on Obayashi’s vision, and the young generation that so loved the film in its infancy is key to this new understanding. House is a classical gothic romance repackaged in a counterintuitive wrapper—its VFX orgy intense to near-illegibility, its sense of humor a bit puerile, and most crucially, its soundtrack a mélange of the nostalgic and the funky, the classical and the experimental. Obayashi’s collaborator Asei Kobayashi wrote the score, but Kobayashi conceded early on that he was “too old” to do justice to a firecracker like House, so the two called in 25-year-old Mickie Yoshino and his band Godiego to actually arrange the tunes. The resulting soundtrack, like the film itself, attempts to span the generation gap by putting each generation’s outlook into paradoxical dialogue.

Although all of House’s music is evocative, its leitmotif is the Rosetta Stone to understanding its complex attitude toward romance, youth, and the specter of post-war Japan that looms over them. It’s initially used as a malleable, expressionistic representation of how the girls are feeling at any point in time, often warm and jovial with a strongly nostalgic character. At the halfway point, however, the leitmotif enters the film’s diegesis in the form of a music box, changing from an emotional signpost into an icon of wartime grief. Its appearance signals a turn in both the girls’ understanding of their dire circumstances and the viewer’s understanding of how House uses music to create a false sense of comfort. Through Godiego’s young hands, Obayashi inspires feelings of romantic warmth and hope as we get to know the girls, only to cast doubt on the meaning and validity of those feelings once the horrors of Auntie’s house obliterate their youthful illusions.

The leitmotif in question is a very simple one. The most-used variation in the film is 40 seconds long (the first 40 seconds of the first song on the soundtrack) and is a piano arrangement with a sweet, almost childish music-box tone. In this arrangement, the right hand alternates between two notes for all eleven bars while the left hand plays the melody in treble clef range. The notation for this passage is below:

 

Credit to Natalie Miller at MuseScore for notation.

The leitmotif’s musical simplicity grants it an immediately recognizable quality, which primes the viewer for its approximately 20 appearances in various permutations throughout the film. This creates an orienting locus of stylistic uniformity amidst the film’s immediate visual carnage. It first appears immediately after the title cards; Gorgeous is shrouded in a sheet for a photo shoot in a candle-lit, empty classroom. After the shoot, the room brightens considerably and Gorgeous starts talking with her photographer/friend Fantasy about summer vacation plans, Fantasy’s love for their teacher Mr. Togo, and a strange moment during the shoot in which Gorgeous looked like a “witch in a horror movie.” The leitmotif also brightens, and the simple piano is replaced by whimsical, energetic woodwind trills and jangly strings. Pairing the leitmotif with talk of witches and horror offers a microcosm of the film’s emotional span there in its first two minutes. Youth is on display, sweetly scored and dead center in the frame, briefly warped by ghoulish imaginings. 

Obayashi, Kobayashi, and Yoshino repeatedly contour the leitmotif to the girls’ feelings. Seconds after Gorgeous and Fantasy leave school, still giggling about summer and romance, the leitmotif transitions to beaming synths and handclaps, then once again to contemplative piano as Gorgeous returns home to some disappointing news. These mood-heavy renditions persist through the first half of the film: a romantic, melancholy rearrangement is played on violin when Gorgeous meets her new stepmother; we hear it briefly in rustic harmonica during a flashback to Auntie’s pre-war romance; a bluesy riff on the tune booms from a distorted electric guitar as the girls adventure through the countryside to the isolated house; acoustic guitar gives it a pastoral warmth while they help Auntie in her sun-dappled kitchen; and one particularly memorable sequence, after Auntie has fed on her first victim and decides to use the resulting energy to playfully torment Fantasy, calls on saxophone, synth, and modulated cat meows

It’s no coincidence that the music is so closely tied to the moods of the girls. House’s soundtrack had been finished a year before Obayashi shot the film, and when he found himself struggling to give effective verbal direction to the novice actresses, he played the soundtrack for them as they acted out the scenes. In “Constructing a House,” Obayashi mentions that the actresses “belonged to a younger generation that found it easier to express emotion through chords, melodies, and rhythms than through words. So instead of talking, I decided to use music to direct their movements.” When the music would transition from a major to minor chord during a scene, for instance, Obayashi claims that “the girls would be walking along cheerfully and then turn melancholy as the chord changed.” Obayashi’s process thus creates an affective feedback loop between us and the actresses, with the soundtrack that we all hear as the loop’s central engine. 

This is one of the many elements that makes Gorgeous’ possession so powerful. At the midpoint of the film, she enters Auntie’s room and sits at a vanity adorned with tokens of youthful beauty—makeup, fancy hairpieces, a photo of a lover long since passed. She finds a powder compact music box which, when opened, plays the now-familiar House leitmotif. At the same time, a piano downstairs calls out to her musically-oriented friend Melody. After briefly studying the sheet music, Melody begins to play the leitmotif as well. Gorgeous, music box still open, watches as her reflection turns into her aunt’s, whose face twists into a terrified scream before the mirror shatters. Auntie’s fractured reflection weeps blood, a sinister cackle resounds, and Gorgeous, shellshocked, is consumed by ghostly flames. When her friends see her next, Gorgeous isn’t quite herself anymore. 

A scene from House (1977) | Criterion Collection

This lilting music-box melody is the prime transformative catalyst not only for Gorgeous, but for actress Kimiko Ikegami. Without the benefit of seeing the visual effects that accompany her possession, Ikegami has only the leitmotif to inform her new thousand-yard stare, the flat affect that crawls into her voice, her slow shuffle down the stairs and to the telephone. Much like the house (and House) itself, the leitmotif’s externally inviting character has been subsumed by its new association with a haunted, heartbroken past—for us, for the actresses, and for Gorgeous, whose dreams of eternal love are destroyed by her new stepmother and the vision in the mirror. 

Its appearances in the second half of the film often spell trouble for the rest of the beleaguered vacationers. The piano version sounds again when the girls find the newly possessed Gorgeous, the violin when she slips out of the house and locks her friends in to be eaten, and, as Gorgeous wanders the garden in a newly youthful reverie, a vocal version set to pitched-down woodwinds is heard:

Let’s put on silk dresses
together, you and me
Let’s go out
to the dance hall
I can still hear
that beautiful song
My silver shoes are taking steps
to that beautiful song 

No narrative context is granted to this song, but the lyrics, combined with the presence of the sheet music and the music box, suggest a powerful sentimental connection to Auntie and the house. They, of course, stand in counterpoint to the fates of Auntie and her long-lost love—why bother going out to the dance hall when you have no one to dance with anymore?

Though the song has become a symbol of Auntie’s all-consuming loneliness to the viewer, it’s still just a pretty tune to the girls, and as fear begins to set in, they ask Melody to play it on the piano to “cheer them up.” This summons Gorgeous back to the house, and while the other two girls run off to follow the sound of her humming, Fantasy watches Melody get a little too into her performance. The piano swallows Melody whole, and her remaining disembodied fingers plunk out a final few bars of the leitmotif before hitting a sour note and being crushed under the piano lid. Between the leitmotif’s obliteration of Gorgeous’ personality and its consumption of Melody, it becomes clear that this “beautiful song” belongs neither to us nor the girls; it’s not ours to find comfort in, but instead a painful relic of an era whose youth saw their dreams and futures leveled by the atom bomb. If Obayashi’s “younger generation” is as musically inclined as he claims, the message must be as unequivocal to them as it is to us, especially when communicated through melodies crafted by their own cohort.

With this in mind, House’s popularity with Japanese youth comes into focus. Although Obayashi is quick to textualize his observations about the differences in perception between younger and older Japanese moviegoers—“it’s like a cotton candy!” one of the girls coos early in the film at footage of an atomic detonation—his intentions in doing so aren’t initially clear. Are the girls simply callous, or is 32 years of distance from unprecedented horror enough to justify their lighthearted attitudes? It isn’t until the final two survivors find and read Auntie’s diary that they recognize not only the tremendous loss and betrayal that the war left in its wake, but how the shadow of that loss has deformed into the specters and nightmares that now assail them. Their only hope as they float upon an ocean of blood, out of options and no exit in sight, is that Mr. Togo might finally arrive at the house just in time to save them. 

He never does; he’s turned into bananas before he even gets there. Weary Fantasy, still holding out hope for the redemptive power of love, is compelled by Gorgeous to sleep an eternal sleep as the leitmotif blares away, left waiting by her beloved Mr. Togo just as Auntie was left waiting by her doomed flyboy. The divide in how each generation perceives trauma is unified by a common truth: relying on romance for salvation is a nostalgic holdover that has long since been defeated by the violent realities of human history. That this truth looks and sounds so sweet is a cautionary flourish from Obayashi about how easy it is to aestheticize historical traumas that we ourselves are still processing. The plasticity of perspective that youth grants us, celebrated formally by this candy-coated horror movie romp, is called into question, just like the calcification in perspective that occurs when we grow older and more set in our ways. 

A scene from House (1977) | Criterion Collection

Despite House’s general classification as a horror movie, though, Obayashi refers to it more specifically as a “ghost-and-fantasy movie” in “Constructing a House” and explains how the film’s genre informed his stylistic approach: “In order to present an exaggerated and beautiful world of fantasy, rather than ordinary reality, we used a ghost story setting…Music too beautiful or sweet for a regular movie, or imagery that looked too pretty or fake, were made acceptable by the context of a ghost story.” Obayashi’s endeavor to comment on real-life atrocity with the exaggerated stylings of the fantasy genre produces a sort of aesthetic paradox, further heightening the intergenerational tension on display: his grandiose, classical romanticism only works when put in dialogue with a “ghost story” that’s really about the destructive urges of humanity annihilating its capacity for love. Although the genre trappings of the film justify nostalgia in G major, they also work to actively repudiate it. This tension is most apparent in the film’s final monologue, set to the violin arrangement of the leitmotif and accompanied by a close-up of Gorgeous as the wind blows through her hair: 

Even after the flesh perishes, one can live in the hearts of others together with the feelings one has for them. Therefore, the story of love must be told many times so that the spirits of lovers may live forever. Forever. The one thing that never perishes…the only promise…is love.

A strange closing note for a movie that spends 90 minutes painting love and its promises as an ineffectual letdown.

The presence of the leitmotif acts, one more time, as our guiding star here. At one point during “Constructing a House,” Obayashi hums a few bars of the leitmotif and comments on its “classical flavor” that “expresses the fantasy aspect of the ghost-and-fantasy genre.” By pointing out that the song’s elegant, burnished classicism is far removed from reality and its corresponding suite of acceptable aesthetics, Obayashi concedes that House’s music is a distortion, acceptable only in the aggrandized sensorium of a genre film. But reality itself is subject to distortion; those things once thought unreal often come storming into our lives without a moment’s notice, like an atomic cotton-candy bloom turning hundreds of thousands of lives into dust. Within the span of human existence, everything is permissible, and the incomprehensible often comes to haunt us, just as an incomprehensible horde of monsters haunts Gorgeous and her friends. 

To this end, music and the transitory emotional states that music induces are illusions, fantasies, temporary self-regulations that allow us a few minutes to negotiate reality’s waking contradictions…but they’re only illusions insofar as the whole of human perception, generation to generation, is also illusory. The “love” that keeps Auntie infinitely suspended in the house, and the youth and beauty foregone as she sat waiting for that love, are illusions. The adventurous horizons and unblemished romance promised to a post-war generation, on which she feeds to sustain her bitter unlife, are illusions. What Obayashi allows us to do through the soundtrack is cope with the eternal war between these opposed illusions, our fears and our futures, by reconciling them rather than turning away from them completely. House’s leitmotif evokes youthful wonder (the “fantasy”) and maps it to an aesthetically and emotionally polyvalent experience, but through the narrative in which it’s figuratively and literally situated (the “ghost story”) it also warns us not to forget the past when beguiled by the beautiful things that spring forth from it. 

Although the undercurrent of incredible sadness that surges through House ages us just a bit, Obayashi still sends us out on one final swell of fantasy, forgiving us our naïve need to believe in beauty even as it walks hand in hand with his damning excoriation of humanity. There’s joy amidst fear, and there will be loss in our future, and from the cinematic overlap of these truths emerges Obayashi’s “story of love.” Like a leitmotif, no matter what form it takes, we all eventually hear the same melody.  

In a garden filled with a million flowers
my spirit flew, swept away by all this power
“Continue on!” someone said to me
and I thank you
yes, I thank you

 

Thank you to Phil Byrd-Smith for assisting me with several musical questions, and to Ann Byrd.