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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Obscusion B-Side: Sweet Home: It's About Family... It's Always Been About Family!

Video games based on licensed properties, like movies, are generally known to vary wildly in quality, primarily due to their heavy need to be released alongside the product it's based on. More often than not, the game winds up being either downright terrible or simply underwhelming, but sometimes they wind up being extremely good, if not even considered a classic over time. All that being said, the game still remains noteworthy to some extent due to its connection to the licensed property. It's absurdly rare for a video game based on a licensed property to be so good that it winds up being more synonymous than the product it's technically based on. One of those rare instances is with Sweet Home.

Come 1989, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) was a graduate of Rikkyo University, & student of film critic Shigekiho Hasumi, who had only two pink films to his name as a professional film director. Working with notorious film director & producer Juzo Itami (director of 1985's Tampopo), Kurosawa made his horror debut with Sweet Home, which he both wrote & directed. Debuting in Japanese theaters on January 21, 1989, the movie would then see a home video release on VHS & laserdisc that September, and on December 15 a video game adaptation would see release on the Nintendo Famicom by Capcom. Directed by Tokuro Fujiwara, the game was technically an RPG, but would go on to become a major influence on the creation of what would become the first Resident Evil in 1996; in fact, the earliest plan was to simply remake Sweet Home into 3D.

As the decades have gone on, the Famicom game has become a cult-classic, especially after a fan translation saw release, while the original movie has mostly become forgotten, even as Kiyoshi Kurosawa went on to become a notable name in Japanese cinema, following films like Cure, Seventh Code, & Journey to the Shore. Unfortunately, a major part of this is due to the film's lack of any sort of re-release, which has its own story that I'll get to later in this piece, but in the meantime let's see what the movie itself had to offer.

Kazuo Hoshino is the director a documentary series where he & his crew look for lost artwork & restore them. They aim to go to the mansion of Ichiro Mamiya, a fresco painter who died decades ago & supposedly left his final works in his home. After his death, though, the Mamiya Mansion has been deemed cursed, so the local government is hesitant to give them the key. After deciding that the end result would benefit the town regardless (either they disprove the curse, or their deaths from supernatural causes will result in big news), Kazuo's crew of himself, his young daughter Emi, producer Akiko Hayakawa, camerman Ryo Taguchi, & art restorer Asuka is allowed in, and after finding the lost frescoes they start filming. After accidentally desecrating a grave marker to gain entry to the power generator, though, the crew find themselves at the mercy of the ghost of Fujin Mamiya, Ichiro's wife who went crazy after her baby was accidentally killed in a furnace accident.

If one wanted to describe Sweet Home in a very simplistic fashion, I think the easiest way to do so would be to say that it's, at least conceptually, one part The Haunting (either version, to some extent) & one part Poltergeist, with a dash of The Shining for seasoning. Like the former, the primary location the story takes place in is a giant mansion that is haunted by the ghost of an angry member of an old family, and the story is about the cast willingly entering the place for their own collective reason, only to have to deal with the supernatural housed within. Like the latter, though, "Lady Mamiya" (as she's generally known as) isn't exactly 100% acting on her own, and the way she kills her victims (literally melting people!) errs more on the side of the supernatural, though she does initially kill someone using a giant, falling axe once. As for the small "dash", it really just comes down to a third-party character who has a prior familiarity with the mansion, and winds up trying to help the characters survive the whole ordeal.

Really, the best way to describe the movie is that it's about "family", both in a literal sense as well as in a figurative & budding sense. This is very much pushed with the fact that it has a cast so small that you have to include the two government officials at the start of the film, Ichiro (who isn't even ever shown on screen), & the Mamiya baby just to get it past 10 characters. The primary three characters here are Kazuo, Emi, & Akiko, who have an overarching relationship with each other. Emi's mother died when she was still a small child, so she pretty much forced herself into this trip as an attempt to finally make her father & Akiko into a couple, as they have feelings for each other, but have their own character flaws. Kazuo, though always meaning well, consistently has problems understanding just how his daughter & producer feel, especially when it comes to him, while Akiko, though very caring & protective of everyone in her crew (& Emi), has seemingly put her career in front of everything else, with thoughts of falling in love & having a family feeling tertiary in comparison. Emi, in turn, is a bit of a tomboy who obviously wants a real mother in her life, but it's that lack of a maternal figure that winds up making her more susceptible to Lady Mamiya, who becomes a bit of a spiritual match, as she wants nothing more than a child to embrace. The biggest storyline in the end is about these characters, but especially Kazuo & Akiko, realizing their flaws & deciding to change themselves for the sake of others.

As for Taguchi & Asuka, they definitely are secondary characters, but both have their importance in setting things up. Taguchi, for example, is the man who breaks the seal on Lady Mamiya, when he uses one of the stone in the grave marker to break a lock so that he can get to the power generator, and his blatant feelings of lust for Asuka showcase him as nothing more than a man who lives moment to moment. Asuka, on the other hand, is an interesting dichotomy, as she's intensely focused on her own personal beauty, yet is an art restorer, which isn't exactly the cleanest job in the world; she even has to wear a gas mask when cleaning Ichiro's fresco! Still, her shallow self-obsession makes her the perfect person for Lady Mamiya to start haunting the others by, and I think one could make the argument that Lady Mamiya herself is just as self-obsessed; these two were pretty much made for each other. Finally, there's Kenichi Yamamura, who is the Dick Hallorann I alluded to earlier, and actually winds up being one of the best characters, due to his disheveled appearance & intensely deep voice almost making him sound more demonic than Lady Mamiya, yet he's the most selfless of them all.

Of course, this is a horror film, first & foremost, so how "scary" is it? Honestly, I don't think Sweet Home isn't meant to necessarily scare viewers out of their wits, but it does a damn good job at establishing mood. The movie utilizes both daytime & nighttime relatively evenly, using both the sun & moon to create light-based shadows that create some really effective scenes, and the fact that one of Lady Mamiya's powers involve manipulating shadows gives a great feeling that the characters are always under her watch & potential wrath. The practical effects, headed up by "Godfather of Make-Up" Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Scanners), are also extremely well done, especially when it comes to Lady Mamiya's other power, which is to downright melt people. One of the characters is literally melted into two halves, and the look of the upper half scratching & crawling along the ground, while the body is literally melting away, is chillingly effective. Lady Mamiya's climactic final form is also amazing, even to this day; a true blue case of "They just don't make them like this, anymore." That being said, whenever digital effects are utilized, primarily in the form of good old green screen, it's absolutely pathetic. Said scene with the melting victim has a shot where the victim is obviously keyed in, clashing heavily with the actual scene, while an outdoor scene looks either like bad green screen, or is literally a case where the actors performed in front of a matte painting.

In the end, Kiyoshi Kurosawa was able to really show off what he was capable of with this movie, even in the early days of his career. There's just a palpable feeling on unease throughout the entire movie, even all the way through the final credits, and when mixed with the strong use of shadows & the outstanding practical effects, it really gives a great first impressions for someone like me, who is pretty much a neophyte when it comes to this Kurosawa; of course, the camerawork & framing should also be credited to cinematographer Yonezo Maeda. Another interesting newcomer at the time who would go on to later celebrity would be Masaya Matsuura, best known for founding game company NaNaOn-Sha (Parappa the Rapper, Vib-Ribbon), who handled the soundtrack for Sweet Home, and it's a good one. There aren't a lot of songs to be found, but each one perfectly fits the mood, covering the gamut from hopeful to mysterious to horrifying, but there's never a true sense of calm; even the "happy" song still sounds a little unsettling.

The cast is a small one, but everyone hits their beats, personalities, & lines very well. Leading everyone would technically be both Nobuko Miyamoto (Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) & Shingo Yamashiro (Battles Without Honor or Humanity series), who play Akiko & Kazuo perfectly, and by the end you do feel that they can potentially make a loving couple. Emi is played by Nobuko "Nokko" Yamada, lead singer of rock band Rebecca, and while it's a little tough to really see what age Nokko is supposed to be portraying (she was in her early 20s at the time, but I think Emi is supposed to be a teenager), she still does a fine job as the resident "child" of the group. Taguchi & Asuka are played by Ichiro Furutachi (the original narrator for Sasuke/Ninja Warrior & Kinniku Banzuke) & Fukumi Kuroda (Queen Ahames in Dengeki Sentai Changeman), respectively, and they are likewise well fitting for their secondary roles; Kuroda in particular handles double duty well, playing both regular Asuka & Mamiya-possessed Asuka. Speaking of Lady Mamiya, she's played by Machako Watanabe, who doesn't appear too often, but makes her moments shine; interestingly enough, Watanabe now professionally practices the art of divination. Finally, Yamamura is performed by Juzo Itami himself, and he might actually be the best one of them all, with his demonic-sounding voice really hitting the performance home.

So now that all of the actual reviewing is done, what exactly is the story about Sweet Home never having been given a re-release, following the original VHS & LD release in September of 1989? Well, turns out that Itami Productions & Toho were actually sued by Kiyoshi Kurosawa when it came to the home video release! While the exact details aren't known, though there are some guesses (like Kurosawa not agreeing to the royalties, or if editing the film in any way for TV without his input would impose on the director's "moral rights", since he also wrote it), it is known that the courts ruled against Kurosawa. Therefore, Itami Pro & Toho were allowed to released the film on VHS & LD, and technically there's nothing to stop the two companies from doing any sort of remastered re-release. Unfortunately, it's likely that the fact that Kurosawa sued them in the first place makes neither company really all that eager to ever do anything with Sweet Home again, and this would obviously affect things like licensing, too. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the main reason why Resident Evil became an original IP was simply because Toho didn't want to license out Sweet Home to Capcom again, due to the circumstances above. This would also explain why, even with the film having some notoriety (Kurosawa, Dick Smith, the Capcom game), it has never been officially licensed for any sort of international release.

Sweet Home is a perfect example of a movie doing everything it had to do just fine, and even become a major inspiration for a completely different medium years later, but legal issues have left it in a state of sheer obscurity. As a haunted house movie, it's a fun one, with the Mamiya Mansion itself being a very memorable one, even if you only see a handful of rooms. As a horror movie of the 80s, it's actually rather subdued, with only three actual deaths in the end, but that does help give those deaths more importance; this isn't a Japanese slasher flick, by any means. But, almost more than anything, this is a movie about family, and how a trying moment can bring people together & make them rise above their own personal hesitancies. Sure, in the long run, Sweet Home likely won't go down as one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's best movies, but that shouldn't diminish the fact that Kurosawa had a very strong end product here, and I'm sure the only reason he sued Itami & Toho in the first place was to make sure that his movie wouldn't be altered in a way that would disappoint him.

In other words, he simply wanted to prevent Sweet Home from suffering the fate that plenty of Hollywood horror films have suffered in their studios' attempts to make them more appealing to the "mainstream". Unfortunately, the end result of his actions have effectively done more harm than good, but maybe one day this movie will find its happy ending. Until that time comes, however, you can always go to YouTube & search for a fansubbed version, which is out there; I do wish it used the laserdisc as the video source, though.

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