Japanese domestic architecture has been a wonderfully evocative blessing to world cinema. It can be warm and reassuring, as in Ozu’s masterpieces or eerily disconcerting, as seen in the J-horror film of your choice. Here it manages to be both. That is because Seri is not just sharing her home with her ambiguously single mother. Their house is also occupied by two mysterious women in an alternate dimension (or something like that). From time to time, their realities intersect in Yui Kiyohara’s Our House (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films.
Seri’s father possibly passed away, but she has yet to fully accept his absence. Perhaps that is why she is so attuned to the sound of “ghosts” in the house. Most likely, those are actually, Toko and her new roommate Sana, if that is in fact her name. Late one night, the older woman woke up on the ferry, apparently suffering from amnesia. The lonely Toko took her in, no questions asked. However, viewers soon start to suspect it is the moody Toko who is mixed up in something nefarious, judging from her strange clandestine meetings and the ominous phone calls Sana picks up.
Frankly, it is a tiny bit frustrating that Kiyohara is not more interested in conventional genre thrills, because the elements of the Sana-Toko storyline are so intriguing, we really wish they were not so obliquely limned. In contrast, the very Japanese domestic drama involving Seri’s maturation and her difficulty accepting her mother Kiriko’s new romantic relationship is more fully sketched out, but it still pulls us in quite adroitly.
Kiyohara has a talent for turning small bits of business into huge reveals. In this case, a little bit more really would have been a little bit more, but the wonderfully sensitive yet restrained cast keeps us deeply invested emotionally throughout. As Seri, Nodoka Kawanishi is forceful and engaging, like a “young” Fumi Nikaido (from three or four years ago). Yukiko Yasuno truly radiates a mature elegance as Kiriko, while Mariwo Osawa and Mei Fujiwara powerfully convey a profound sense of Sana and Toko’s shared loneliness, even as they scrupulously maintain the characters’ cautious guardedness.
Our House is definitely a postmodern mind-twister, but it subtlety and humanism make it feel so much fresher and more inviting than its reality-warping cousins. You wouldn’t mind being neighbors with these sets of characters—either or both of them. A bit of patience is required as viewers adjust to Kiyohara’s aesthetic vibe, but it is worth it. Highly recommended for discerning cineastes, Our House screens this Friday (4/6) at MoMA and Sunday (4/8) at the Walter Reade, as part of ND/NF 2018.