“Thirty years ago- The Mamiya family had a long-awaited baby. Ichirou Mamiya was overjoyed. He planned to draw his baby’s growth on these walls. However, his happiness didn’t last very long. One day, Lady Mamiya went to the cellar to turn on the furnace.”
Being a parent, the thought of losing one’s child is one of devastating emotional pain. How one recovers from such a pain is unfathomable. Add in the fact that you caused the death of your own child, albeit accidentally, the pain would be unimaginable. The loss of a child and the pain that resonates through the house where this mother’s spirit resides in the shadows, is the premise of Sweet Home (Suito Homu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1989).
A television crew is granted permission to film at the abandoned Mamiya Mansion, where the acclaimed painter Ichirou Mamiya painted his last fresco. Although at first rejected by the local officials to film inside the mansion, sealed off for the last thirty years, a change of heart is eventually afforded and the crew are permitted to enter. But, this change of heart is purely based on the grounds that the opening of the house could be a tourist spot; if “the curse” is deemed to be real, then the publicity generated would greatly benefit the community.
Thus, the small crew enter the foreboding mansion to locate the legendary last fresco but find instead the power of a mother’s undying love. Television producer Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro) has taken his small crew, consisting of the star reporter/diva Asuka (Fukumi Kuroda), camera man Taguchi (Ichiro Furutachi), Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), his assistant and Emi (Nokko), his daughter, along for this historic discovery.
In the film, the women are presented as the dominant species, with the men, aside from the Yamamura (Juzo Itami) character, presented as buffoonish and childish, lacking any understanding of a woman’s feelings, and thus coming across as not having any deep emotional depth. Akiko is at first an attempted mother replacement for Emi but this is symbolically rejected, when she will not wear a yellow dress that was worn by Emi’s deceased mother. Emi, who has taken the role of the wife, rather than at times the daughter, of Kazuo, is looking for that mother’s love, proclaiming at one point that her mother’s memory gets dimmer and dimmer, and where there used to be a vision of her mother, now she only sees a light. Akiko, a middle-aged woman with no children, has unresolved feelings for Kazuo that appear to be reciprocal, though he never takes the initiative to try and connect with Akiko, being so oblivious to her and her feelings.
The ghost of Mamiya mansion was and is a mother, and she has laid dormant for years, until her resting place is disturbed and she sets out to claim another playmate for her child, that child being Emi. Lady Mamiya, after discovering her child was in the furnace, took the child out, but it was too late. Lady Mamiya was also injured, having lost an eye and sustained terrible burns about her body. After this tragic event, she began to kidnap babies from the local village, feeding the furnace with the kidnapped babies, so her son could have playmates. When this fact was discovered by the locals, they cornered her inside the house and, like her son, she perished within the furnace. Ichirou Mamiya died a little while later, heartbroken, but he kept on drawing until his death.
The fresco discovered by the team is a brilliant, vivid, and exquisitely detailed painting. On these walls Ichirou had planned on drawing the boy as he aged, a testament to his parental love. The crew clean off the fresco, discovering clues to the eventual chaos that was to ensue. The rooms begin to uncover more and more of the mansion’s secrets, as the fresco widens its scope, covering more and more walls in the building. A door is revealed in the fresco, along with a solitary eye, what’s thought to be human hair or shadows, and sadly a casket that in size could only fit an infant. Akiko, while reviewing the photos taken of the expanding fresco, tells Kazuo that they seemed to be
drawn without an outline, without logic, as the painting’s concept changed during its production. They infer that something traumatic must have happened to Ichirou during his work, to influence his creativity.
The father/daughter dynamic is explored, as noted above, in that the men are used as comedic devices for the most part. Emi has grown into the woman her mother was and, although Kazuo won’t admit it, he does not want her to grow up; Emi looks over him and cares for him as if she was his wife, not his daughter. Kazuo repeatedly states that he wants to be taken serious by Mr.
Yamamura, a local man who understands the occult, as he must ready himself to do battle to save Emi with a song to boast his concentration. Mr. Yamamura, although correct in using the power of the mind to overcome the obstacle of the mind’s imagination at work, also ultimately fails at the attempted rescue of Emi.
It was brought to my attention, by my friend Richard Glenn Schmidt, that the film does have some similarities to the 1977 absurdist masterpiece House (Hausu, 1977, Japan, D: Nobuhiko Obayashi). I can see points of reference to that film and a bit of Poltergeist (1982) also. House was a huge moneymaker in Japan and the title alone, Sweet Home, bears an obvious nod to House. The father/daughter dynamic is shared by both films, along with the female/mother replacement entering that dynamic.
The score by Masaya Matsuura for Sweet Home does not marry up to the onscreen action through the first two-thirds of the film, but resolves that compatibility issue in the last third of the film, in indirect and direct contrast to the Asei Kobayashi and Mickie Yoshino score for House, which never did resolve its score and narrative separation. Of course, the haunted house scenario is shared by all three films, as is the ghost angle and entering another dimension. And lastly, when the fresco is revealed, little by little, the phrase “Home Sweet Home,” was painted on the wall in English, just as Nobuhiko Obayashi decided to use the English word House to name his Japanese film. Similarly, a video game by Capco, for home use, was released to coincide with the release of the movie. The director of the game, Tokuro Fujiwara, would later produce the fabled Resident Evil game series, after being inspired by Sweet Home.
Both House and Sweet Life explore the supernatural along the lines of the death of a loved one, and the undying love that keeps the ghost from resting peacefully. Both spirits in these films could be construed as Yurei, who through their hunger for love is never dying, and that will not let them rest… when someone is hungry, one always awakes. When the sacred place is disturbed, the shadows begin to overtake the characters, resulting in the death of Asuka and Taguchi. The shadows may be defined as the Japanese sense of culture that, while giving way to the western forms, ultimately must overtake the present with the sentiments of the past in order for ancient cultural ways to reassert themselves against a burgeoning western presence on Japanese society and culture.
In 1989, the director/writer of this film, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, was not the known director of many classics of Japanese horror as he is today. This effort is early in his career, and he had not developed his unique, genre/cultural rule-breaking style, which can be seen in later films such as Cure (1997), Pulse (2001) and Doppelganger (2003), to name but a few.
Sweet Home, for all intents and purposes, is an American film, wrapped in a Japanese pretence. The structure of the film is built like most American films, and horror films more specifically, divided into acts. The production has a three-part act, and has a resolved western-style coda. The cast enter the mansion and they are developed traditionally character-wise. Some inept comedy touches and few cheap scares build the growing tension of the piece, all leading up to the western influenced monster ending. The effects were masterminded by the legendary Dick Smith, most famously known for his make-up work on Little Big Man (1970), Exorcist (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), amongst many others fine examples, who was fresh off his consulting work on Poltergeist 3 (1988). What Smith brings to this production is a special effects staple of ’80s horror films: the melting, gooey, deconstruction of a person.
For its crassness, this film displays a tenderness and allows the female characters’ feelings to save the day. Akiko, while never a mother, finally puts on the dress of Emi’s mother, and thus becomes a surrogate to her. Akiko proclaims that she has now fostered the child and, although not having given birth to her, knows the pain and hurt that the mother spirit has endured all these years. Although Akiko is not Emi’s mother, she knows a mother’s love and will do whatever it takes to save the child that she has emotionally adopted. The power of the mind along with the power of love will conquer all!