When Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hausu (English title: House) opened in Japan in 1977, it proved to be a surprise hit with audiences but not Japanese film critics and it didn’t attract any attention in the U.S. until it was rediscovered in 2009 as possibly the weirdest WFT cult movie since El Topo (1970), Eraserhead (1977) or Repo Man (1984). Originally intended for teenagers, particularly girls, House pits a bunch of young female schoolgirls against a demonic entity and the result is a frenzy of nightmarish images including flying decapitated heads, a cannibalistic piano, a satanic cat, and laughing watermelons to name a few. Obayashi’s subsequent film, Hitomi no naka no houmonsha (English title: The Visitor in the Eye, 1977) isn’t nearly as wild and raucous but it shares the same demented fairy tale ambiance of House and was overshadowed by its predecessor.
Once again Obayashi focuses on a young heroine who is put through some harrowing experiences at her all-girl school. Chiaki Komori (Nagisa Katahira) is a gifted tennis player with a bright future ahead of her until her coach Hiroshi Imaoka (Shingo Yamamoto) accidentally slams a tennis ball into her face during practice. Her cornea is damaged with little hope of recovery until Imaoka is referred to a mysterious eye doctor named Black Jack (Jo Shishido) who suggests a surgical repair with a new cornea but admits the success rate is a 50/50 gamble. Unfortunately there is no cornea replacement available so an unidentified intruder steals one from a local eye bank.
After Black Jack successfully performs Chiaki’s eye surgery, she resumes her tennis training at school. Almost immediately strange visions began to plague her in the form of a dark, caped figure that appears in the presence of water, either in the shower or in the rain. The coach blames the unwanted hallucinations on the surgery but Black Jack discovers that the mystery donor of the cornea was Yoriko Tate (Honey Lane), a young married woman who was murdered at Sagiriko Lake by an unknown assailant. Armed with this information, coach Imaoka and Kyoto (Etsuko Shihomi), Chiaki’s loyal roommate, try to solve the eerie connection between the murder victim and Chiaki’s visions.
Meanwhile, Chiaki begins drawing sketches of the man who haunts her and eventually meets him in a deserted mansion where he occasionally plays the piano. Shiro Kazama (Toru Minegishi) is not an apparition but a handsome, charismatic pianist and Chiaki finds herself falling in love with him. Is he a dream come true or the beginning of a nightmare?
At first The Visitor in the Eye might seem like the precursor to the 2002 Hong Kong supernatural thriller The Eye aka Gin Gwai and all the sequels and remakes that followed but Obayashi isn’t interested in telling a conventional ghost story here. Instead, his movie becomes a shape-shifting genre experiment that moves from mad scientist tale (Black Jack and the cornea transplant) to thwarted love story (Imaoka’s selfless devotion to Chiaki and his guilt over her condition) to crime drama (the solving of Yoriko Tate’s murder) to operatic tragedy (the ill-fated romance of Chiaki and Shiro).
If the film lacks the manic intensity and slapstick horror of House, it nevertheless creates a dreamlike ambiance with its surreal, studio bound sets, eerie lighting and eclectic music score that is alternately moody and playful. There is also a goofy comedic subplot involving two bumbling detectives but the real wild card is Jo Shishido as the unpredictable and somewhat intimidating Black Jack, who is based on the popular manga character first created by Osamu Tezuka for an episodic franchise in 1973.
With more than 200 movie and TV credits in his filmography, Shishido developed a devoted cult following over the years for his many appearances in some of the greatest Nikkatsu Action films from the 1960s such as Takumi Furukawa’s Cruel Gun Story (1964), Takashi Nomura’s A Colt is My Passport (1967) and Yasuharu Hasebe’s Massacre Gun (1967). Shishido’s collaborations with director Seijun Suzuki, however, might be his most memorable work and includes Youth of the Beast (1963), Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! (1963), Gate of Flesh (1964), and Branded to Kill (1967).
Shishido’s appearance in The Visitor in the Eye is more of an extended guest star cameo but it is an outlandish and mystifying performance since there is no context for his character unless you are familiar with the Black Jack manga creation.
For example, there is no explanation for his bizarre features which include a scarred face, half of which is a ghastly shade of green, topped by a mop of wild, gray-streaked hair. Manga fans of the Black Jack series know the backstory on all of this (the result of an explosion) but The Visitor in the Eye presents the surgeon as a rebellious medical renegade who lives in a storybook fantasy realm – his picturesque rural cottage rests on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. He appears to have a Humphrey Bogart obsession and his constant companion is a little girl of 7 or 8 who claims to be his wife but also serves as his surgery assistant/housekeeper. Obayashi’s presentation of the Black Jack household is just as odd and as unsettling as some of the crazy sequences in House and he keeps you guessing up to the final act of whether Black Jack is hero or villain.
[Spoiler alert] The sequences with Black Jack seem to belong in a different movie than The Visitor in the Eye but they certainly add a freakish element into the mix. If the ending of the film is telegraphed long before it arrives, there is still something surprising in the way Obayashi depicts a flashback of a murder as a failed suicide pact. Kazama ends up being less of a calculated murderer than a grief-stricken victim of his own making. There is even a reference – whether intentional or not – to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the sense that Kazama tries to make Chiaki emulate the murdered Yoriko in her look and manner.
The Visitor in the Eye was not that well received by critics and fans of Obayashi’s work who prefer some of his later work such as the bittersweet coming-of-age romantic dramas His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) and Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast (1986) or the almost three-hour war epic Hanagatami (2017), which is often cited as his masterpiece. Still, for fans of House, The Visitor in the Eye is an often lush and romantic follow-up with just enough surrealism and weirdness to classify it as a fantasy film. In fact, the opening credit sequence might mislead you into thinking you are watching an anime feature with its frolicking manga characters but the spell is broken as it transitions into a live action universe of high school age protagonists and adult authority figures.
The Visitor in the Eye is not currently available on any format in the U.S. but you might be able to purchase a Japanese import DVD from online sellers. The only Obayashi films that seem to be available currently as Blu-ray releases are House (from The Criterion Collection) and Obayashi’s Anti-War trilogy from Third Window, a 3-disc box set that includes Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012), Seven Weeks (2014) and Hanagatami (2017).
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