Seven girls enter a cursed house. Only one emerges, the perfect embodiment of ideological womanhood.
As a scholar of girlhood, I found it intriguing that the director of the Japanese cult film Hausu (1977) based the film on the ideas of his twelve-year-old daughter. As I reflect, Hausu acts as a nostalgic bridge between the symbolic representation and lived experience of being a girl. Fundamentally, this audiovisual essay centres on the film’s metaphorical evoking of what it means to come of age as a modern, feminine subject.
On the tumultuous night where each protagonist meets her fate, there are multiple scenes that I see as evoking various cultural and symbolic understandings of the process of becoming a woman. For example, adolescent girlhood is often characterised as being liminal and equated with the passing of time itself, while also occupying a timeless and unreachable space (Aoyama, 2010; Honda, 2010). This is aptly expressed in the scene where one of the girls is trapped behind a giant ticking clock as she stares at us with knowing eyes.
Hausu of the Rising Sun: Death of the Girl, explores how Hausu illuminates understandings of modern womanhood as a process of becoming that is psychological, bodily and societal. This is artfully articulated in certain eerie motifs which may be seen as relating to feminist philosophy. Two key theorists that inspired this essay, Simone De Beauvoir (1949) and Sandra Lee Bartky (1982), both observed womanhood as being shaped by ideological and social factors. One of De Beauvoir’s statements was particularly influential in shaping my interpretation: “the girl, unless she is particularly graceless, accepts her femininity in the end” (1949: 139). Each of the film’s girl protagonists may be seen as embodying a characteristic element that could potentially deviate from or threaten the patriarchal model of graceful, ideal femininity (such as gluttony, intelligence, active strength and artistic creativity). Each girl must undergo a process of homogenisation to emerge as a socially acceptable woman in the 20th century.
In Hausu, becoming a woman is represented as being produced via the death of the girl’s subjectivity and agency, in which only one “type” of woman is ideal: the embodiment of youth, beauty, grace and femininity. In Japan in the early 20th century, ryōsai kenbo, meaning “good wife, wise mother”, was promoted as an ideal of womanhood (Monden, 2014). From this, the concept of shōjo also emerged to refer to girls who deferred marriage by extending their education. Shōjo was therefore a period of preparation for—and, notably, digression from—one’s social destiny as a female subject: marriage and raising children. These tensions between ryōsai kenbo and shōjo are evident in Hausu, embodied by the protagonist Oshare who becomes the representation of both in her trajectory. The house thus becomes a domesticating catalyst for the girl’s coming-of-age transformation, in which fighting against it is a bitter battle that the girl cannot win.
My approach to analysis involves observing metaphors and motifs which relate to a film’s cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound, and editing. I then apply these observations to literary theory, the film’s context, and my own personal experiences.
I believe that certain media texts have the ability to resonate with us in particular and peculiar ways because they subconsciously relate to an aspect of ourselves and our selfhood. While my peers brushed the film off as meaningless and absurd, my memories and experiences as a teenager led me to interpret it in the way that I did. Thus the value of analysis lies in its ability to act as a window to the interpreter’s heart – a philosophy that underpins my visual essay-making as a subjectively-informed practice.
Watching Hausu, a horror film by definition, became an unintended means of facing what I had once seen as being the death of my girlhood. I was able to negotiate this, not just through film analysis, but also in the serendipitous discovery that I made shortly following my creation of this visual essay. I found a newspaper clipping of the film among my old teenage birthday cards – an image of Hausu where one of the protagonists is holding the severed head of another girl, smiling. I was taken back to a memory of mine, age fifteen, where, after finding this image in the TV guide, I tore it out and kept it. I pinned it to the wall of every bedroom I inhabited from my teens to my early twenties. I remembered the times I had absentmindedly gazed at this image, not knowing which media text it was from, but being magnetically drawn to it. Intriguingly, similar to my process of analysis which searches for subtle motifs that might enrich my understanding of a film, I came to realise that the film was a motif within my own life, in the form of this fragment of paper.
Just as we may interpret films for their motifs and metaphors, so too may we interpret life for its inexplicable moments and synchronicities. That is, adopting a certain interpretive gaze may transform what, superficially, might seem absurd into something hauntingly meaningful.
Aoyama, T. (2010). “The genealogy of the “girl” critic reading girl”. In Girl reading girl in Japan. Aoyama & Hartley (eds.) Routledge. 56-67.
Bartky, S. L. (1982). Narcissism, femininity and alienation.Social Theory and Practice, 8(2), 127-143.
De Beauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. Translated from French by Borde, C. Malovany-Chevallier, 2011. J. Vintage Books: New York.
Driscoll, C. (2002) Girls: Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Theory. Columbia University Press: New York.
Hausu (1977) dir. by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Toho International Company, Ltd.
Honda, M. (2010). The Genealogy of Hirahira: Liminality and the Girl. [Translated from Japanese by T. Aoyama & B. Hartley] In Aoyama & Hartley (eds.) Girl Reading Girl in Japan. London: Routledge, 19-37
Monden, M. (2014). Layers of the Ethereal: A Cultural Investigation of Beauty, Girlhood, and Ballet in Japanese Shōjo Manga. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body, & Culture, 18(3), 251-295.
Dr Thomas-Parr is based at The School of East Asian Studies at The University of Sheffield. Her auto-ethnographic research focuses on cosplay subcultures and feminine adolescence in the UK. Her research interests include girlhood, film, sociology, and popular culture and she creates visual essays on the topics of girlhood and coming-of-age in global cinema, available on YouTube, Vimeo, and Critical Commons, under the title, ‘Through a Different Lens’.