Hausu is the story of seven young Japanese schoolgirls (Angel, Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Kung Fu, Sweetie, and Melody) who, when Angel attempts to distance herself from her father’s new fiancé, spend their summer holiday in the home of Angel’s Auntie, where they are subsequently killed in a variety of absurd, surreal ways.
These seven girls hark back to earlier ‘A-bomb maiden’ tropes of hibakusha cinema in that they are young and innocent, totally unaware of the danger which awaits them. In fact, it could be argued that the girls are satires of the ‘A-bomb maiden’ as they are utterly one-dimensional.
Retreating from the feminine hyperbole of her soon-to-be stepmother, Angel turns to her mother’s sister, Auntie. Auntie’s story – narrated by Angel to her friends prior to their arrival at the house – is a classic Japanese kitagawa utamaro, a romance doomed by the Second World War. Madly in love with her fiancé, she is left alone when he is drafted to fight in the war, and after bearing witness to her sister’s marriage, Auntie ends up living alone in the same house for her entire life, waiting for her lost love to return.
This story is enacted in a flashback sequence, but the audience views the as if we were watching an old recording of them. We view the story not from the point of view of a character and their memory of the event, but as a filmic recording in sepia tone; the camera becomes a bystander recording the event, its own character as chronicler of disaster.
Through visuals of film reels and changes from colour to sepia to black and white we see the materiality of the photograph and the film. Angel’s retelling of the story becomes conflated with the camera’s filming, thus allowing what is seemingly subjective (a girl retelling a sad family myth) and objective (the camera’s unbiased lens) to converge. During this sequence, we hear the girls squeal in delight at various sights and objects which are not mentioned by Angel, but by the camera lens. For example, Angel does not describe what Auntie’s fiancé looks like, but the camera depicts him as a handsome young man, prompting one of the girls to proclaim ‘he’s cute!’ When a cake appears in the film reel Mac declares ‘that looks yummy!’ Somehow the girls are, like the audience, simultaneously listening to Angel’s story and watching the film reel along with us. This is, of course, impossible, but is an important indicator of the spectral role of photography within Hausu. Clearly, the camera which captures the traumatic past is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
The final, important moment of this flashback/account is when a photographer captures a portrait of Angel’s mother as a young bride, with Auntie standing at her side. Angel’s mother is played by the same actress as Angel, again complicating the relationship between the past and the present, as well as foreshadowing Angel’s eventual spiritual possession and haunting. At the exact moment the camera takes the photograph it emits a shocking green flash, which becomes juxtaposed over another image; the sudden burst of light becomes the burst of the A-bomb, a monstrous mushroom cloud seeming to emit from the camera itself.
This overlay of the bomb onto the camera underscores what will become Hausu’s overriding theme; its insistence that the camera does not allow for forgetting. So long as there is an archive of the traumatic event, mono no aware is worthless. The spirits themselves act as reminders of the past, memory personified, and it is through photography that the spirit/memories are able to seep into the present.
In Hausu, old photographs and film reels encapsulate the tremendous losses through which Auntie has suffered. The photographs themselves, however, are very much alive, even though their exact subject matter is gone forever. The photograph comes alive again every single time we look at it, as we ourselves relive the moment of the image.
The same flash of the camera’s bulb and the atomic bomb, first occurs in the film’s very opening sequence, when Fantasy is taking a snapshot of Angel. We see the girls bathed in a sickly, artificial green light before the flash of the camera shines a radiant red across the screen. Fantasy jokingly says that Angel looks like a witch in the resulting image, highlighting the film’s relationship between the demonic women and their photographic counterpart. The flash occurs again in the eyes of Auntie’s cat, Snowy, where it will reoccur throughout the course of the film.
The relationship between the eye and the camera is obvious; both are capable of seeing and recording images (eyes record in the memory; cameras record via the photograph). In Hausu, witnessing the trauma of the atomic bomb and remembering that trauma become the tasks of the camera, as other characters are incapable of seeing or remembering. It is only Auntie and Snowy who truly see.
Hausu has as its horrific centre the bakeneko character in the form of Auntie. The bakeneko is a folkloric spirit firmly embedded within the canon of Japanese monsters and horror cinema. Bakeneko are women who meet horrific untimely deaths, usually at the hand of a rapist/murderer. The women then become possessed by cat spirits, evolving into hauntingly beautiful women who can morph back and forth between feline and human, using their beauty to seduce men. Once the men have been seduced, the women turn back into cats and kill the men before eating them. Their sole purpose as cat spirits is to seek revenge, not just on their tormentors but on all men. There were many legends circulating of famous bakeneko prostitutes, and they became a popular trope in traditional and popular culture.
Japanese bakeneko, however, are more than just objects of sexual desire or projections of male anxiety, as, unlike their Western counterparts, they become cat-women specifically to seek revenge, driven by the memory of their demise. Even after becoming monstrous and unleashing their fury not just on their tormentors, but on all mankind, these cat-women remain tragic figures.
Bakeneko are not wholly unsympathetic creatures, but they have become so consumed by their own memories that it becomes the only thing keeping them alive. The driving force of the bakeneko is her own traumatic experience and the memory which haunts her, thus necessitating her ghostly presence in the human realm to carry out her acts of revenge. It is this insistence on remembering trauma that makes the bakeneko the perfect villain for Hausu. Auntie has become corrupted by her memory of loss, but unlike other classic bakeneko figures she seeks revenge not on men but on the girls who enter her house. If the girls are representative of the new Japanese generation who are disaffected from and disconnected to the events of the Second World War (when faced with the image of the atomic bomb, one of the girls proclaims that it ‘looks like cotton candy’), then Auntie’s vengeance implicates this generation as villains by means of their forgetfulness.
It is important, then, that Auntie bestows upon Angel (her niece) the gift of sight by way of possession and haunting. Angel becomes fused with the bakeneko spirit of Auntie, and is allowed to witness the trauma and hold the burden of memory. The pivotal turning point in the film is almost exactly halfway through, when Angel is in Auntie’s bedroom, looking into the mirror as she applies Auntie’s red lipstick to her lips. As she gazes at her reflection, her now blood-red lips part to reveal the fangs of the bakeneko. Immediately after, the image in the mirror suddenly becomes that of a young Auntie. Auntie’s visage first smiles back at Angel, but then her eyes grow wide in fear. The eyes of Snowy the cat quickly flash on the mirror before Auntie’s face returns. Then the mirror begins to crack, causing Auntie’s eyes to bleed. The blood drips from Auntie’s eye sockets, then oozes out of the cracks in the mirror. Angel, still staring transfixed at the mirror, begins to crack as well; her face shatters into pieces, her skin falling off and leaving behind a pair of eyeballs engulfed in flame.
Towards the end of the film, Prof finds Auntie’s diary in which Auntie has continued to write during her time holed up in her house. In one of the final scenes, Prof reads one of Auntie’s diary entries aloud. Auntie has written of her fiancé and her disbelief that he is actually dead. ‘He didn’t die in the war,’ she writes. ‘He will return.’ Auntie’s memory has become corrupted and the photographs, the visual testaments to the atomic bomb and the war, are unavailable to her. All she has left is her vengeful memory.
Auntie wears her sunglasses outside because she is, as she says, ‘afraid of the blinding light.’ Is this the unearthly atomic light of the bomb, or the bright flash of the camera? For Auntie, it is both. The war and the camera, as testaments to the reality of history, are in direct opposition to the bakeneko, one who has been warped and demonised by her own memory and her lust for revenge. The bakeneko woman becomes a pathetic symbol for a wider cultural tendency to twist the truth. Unlike her forgetful predecessors, however, the bakeneko does not forget to move on, but instead fixates on the event until she forgets what is truth and what is fiction. She becomes a deadly force in her own right, killing all those who cross her path, just as the atomic bomb killed those unfortunate enough to become its target.
Spectres only exist within collective memory. It is the persistence of memory and the act of remembering that lie at the core of this haunting, ghostly, spectral horror cinema. Whilst hibakusha cinema’s emotional response became that of mono no aware, later horror films acted with a vengeance, featuring the tortured souls of pre-modern Japan wreaking havoc on the living in their quest for revenge. Horror and science fiction films ‘proliferate at times of economic and political anxiety’ on a global scale, and Japan, facing one of its greatest moments of upheaval, turned from hibakusha to horror.
Words by Jo Sterngold