Sweet Home DVD
“A TV production crew are making a documentary about the infamous painter Mamiya Ichiro. When they start filming at his old home, they come under attack from the ghost of the painter’s wife." - IMDB
”“Jill, here’s a lock pick. It might come in handy if you - the master of unlocking - take it with you.” -Barry Burton
Sweet Home is oddly reminiscent of the 1982 American classic, but less for the third act giant monster, and more for the perceived battle for creative control between producer and director. While most arguments these days recognize Poltergeist as Tobe Hooper’s work over being a glorified second unit for Steven Spielberg, the same is not as clear here. A cross section of interests, one would think a film that represents the origins of the popular Resident Evil franchise, is a unique example of cross platform promoting, features one of the most important figures in independent Japanese cinema, while being an early work of a major current filmmaker – would be substantially more popular. This comes down to relationships. Sweet Home is responsible for two collaborations that resulted in major artistic voices, but a third – the most prominent – soured to the point where it buried the film.
I can remember reading an interview with Kiyoshi Kurosawa in Fangoria, when J-Horror was all the rage, and The Cure (1997) was beginning to pick up steam. Coming out of the Se7en imitator market, The Cure was so much more cerebral than the many other gritty procedurals in which detectives got a little too close to the serial killers they pursued. With a unique hypnotism hook, Kurosawa was a genuine original – and I have been a diehard fan since. The article attempts to go into his earlier work, but Kurosawa clearly speaks of The Cure as an auteur piece, uncompromised in what appears on the screen, at the time he seemed to want it to be treated as his first work. Part of this could be faulty memory on my part, or a questionable translation from the publication, but Kurosawa’s subsequent films cut a similar style that isn’t as apparent in his earlier pieces. He has crafted a persona that would suggest his career starts in 1997, even though he had been an active part in Japan’s film industry for the previous two decades. Ignoring this aspect of his career lends itself to the perception that Kurosawa was the junior to Juzo Itami – who while senior in years was very much a contemporary.
Getting back to Fangoria, a decade before I was absorbing tales of Ringu – Kazuhiro Tsuji (Kazu Hiro) was reading about Dick Smith’s work transforming Hal Holbrook into Abraham Lincoln. Making several attempts at Lincoln applications himself, and contacting Smith – Kazuhiro began a correspondence with the Godfather of Make-Up. A few years later, when Smith was flown in to consult on Sweet Home’s make-up effects – he met Kazuhiro in person, and invited him to work on the film. Sweet Home is Kazuhiro’s break into the film industry, which would see him subsequently working with the OTHER Kurosawa on Rhapsody in August (1991). He would also work for Itami again, on Minbo (1992). Kazuhiro would then take his trade to America, where he has been nominated for Academy Awards on four occasions – winning twice, most recently with Bombshell (2019). This illustrates a substantially more fruitful collaboration, while the addition of Smith – not far removed from his Amadeus Oscar – shows the levels of resources, respect and genuine power that Itami wielded at the time.
My Kanji comprehension skills would have to undergo the vigorous training of a few more Dragon Ball Z series to unpack the complicated ownership between Itami Productions, distributors Toho, and game developer Capcom. From what I’ve found, it looks as though the game Sweet Home was launched in December of 1989 for the NES almost a year after the film’s January release. It was developed at the same time, with designer Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts’N’Goblins) being on the film set – and both Itami and Kurosawa receiving producer credits. The filmmakers were more open to artistic variations on the game side, and gave Fujiwara pretty broad space for variations on the different elements. Trailers include footage for both, but as the game has a larger legacy, the line between which spurred the other’s creation becomes more blurred. Ultimately, Fujiwara’s Sweet Home is a licensed game – though its unique by the standards of movie tie-ins, it is also extremely innovative by the standards of gaming. The grandfather of the survival horror genre is a top down roleplaying game – visually similar to Enix’s Dragon Warrior series – aesthetically completely different from anything parent company, Capcom, was doing at the time.
Years later, Tokuro Fujiwara would look to remake the game. However, the Sweet Home license had expired – which is the only reason Resident Evil isn’t known as Sweet Home. Producing the game, Fujiwara brought in Shinji Mikami to direct. Mikami was hired by Capcom in 1990 shortly after Sweet Home’s release, working on their Disney licensed games including the baller Aladdin for the SNES. In 1993 he was taken under Fujiwara’s wing to craft Resident Evil, with a three-year development perio, on a scale that makes Fujiwara’s involvement with Mikami appear like a mentorship. Another relationship spinning out of Sweet Home that would foster a major force for its medium. As the graphics got more realistic, the game moved further away from the type of horror presented in the film; so mansion and frustrating inventory system aside, the inspirations for Resident Evil are as alien to this film as they are to the earlier game mechanics. Never intended for release outside Japan, those interested in trying the NES Sweet Home will be happy to know it has an English fan translation as of 2000. It is brutally difficult and How Long To Beat clocks it at 9 hours. Perhaps consider this film the Cliffsnotes version?
“I gotta believe!” One final note on the video game side of the equation, the soundtrack is by composer Masaya Matsuura of PSY.S fame. Along with busting out jams for your Tamogachi needs, he would design everyone’s favourite Sony rap artist, PaRappa The Rapper. God bless you Japan, and your little dog too.
Juzo Itami's biggest international success is the noodle western, Tampopo (1985). It nicely reflects the bulk of his ten features, clever comedies with heavy commentary on Japanese society from strong female perspectives. The lead in the bulk of these is played by his wife, the immensely talented Nobuko Miyamoto – who appears in Sweet Home as Akiko. The year before, Nobuko won the Japanese Academy’s best actress award for her husband’s A Taxing Woman (1988). Sweet Home was lucky to get her. Just as Kurosawa worked for two decades before his breakthrough Cure, Itami had been an actor since the 60s – with his transition into filmmaker occurring in the mid-80s.
Release windows, the nature of independent financing on production cycles, along with it being a touchy subject, makes the Itami / Kurosawa relationship difficult to track down information on. In an interview on AcidLogic by Seana Sperling, Kurosawa briefly reflects on Itami. Describing their working relationship beginning with Itami as an actor on Kurosawa’s romantic comedy, Bumpkin Soup (1985). At the same time, Kurosawa acts in Itami’s The Funeral released in 1984. Which meeting occurred first is difficult to judge, but the interview has Kurosawa describe meeting Itami as an actor, their relationship continuing through the decade, with Itami becoming increasingly more concerned with films for profit than art. There is an impressively cold tone, given how revered a figured Itami is, and the tragic nature of his last few years. The bad blood from this picture runs deep.
I can imagine a filmmaker finding kinship with an actor, who over the next few years has a meteorite rise with massive hit after massive hit in your role of choice, while you languish making television commercials. When finally given an opportunity to flex your creative muscles by this friend, you find that he feels strongly that he knows better, believing that your choices will prevent the picture from finding an audience. That is rough. While it is easy to sympathize with Kurosawa, he is not the only injured party. This would be the last film that Juzo Itami performed in. A thirty year career as an actor coming to a close. He would continue to direct until the end of his life, but this was the final use of a tool he had spent the majority of his life expressing himself artistically through. Whether mounting tensions made it difficult to perform, or he just decided he preferred life behind the lens, there is something inherently sad about that.
The film Sweet Home (1989) is a haunted house movie with the same charm and surreal sensibilities as the beloved Hausu (1977). It is more grounded in reality, with a slower pace, as well as substantially gorier effects – and entirely its own beast. It is a film that I enjoy immensely, but have a hard time watching due to how much pain it represents for a number of artists I admire. I’ve unpacked some of its history above, but in terms of the actual moving images – you should watch them yourself.“ - Some Dude On Letterboxd