Thursday, May 19, 2011

Auteur(ists?) 8-Bit Conversion: Sweet Home (1989) for Cinemas and the NES

As long as video games have been around, there's always the guarantee that if a movie is marketable enough, then a video game version can't be far behind. In the United States alone there are dozens of games based on famous film franchises like Star Wars (1977) or the numerous characters Disney owns. Recently different developers have made video game adaptations of Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) and Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), but usually it's incredibly rare to see an auteur's vision made into a video game. It's even more difficult to name cases in the early days of gaming when the scope of what was possible in a game was limited mostly because of the hardware limitations. But Sweet Home (Suite Homu) (1989) is one of the rare instances where a collaboration by two of Japan's most famous auteurs of the last thirty years, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Juzo Itami, resulted in a highly influential video game adaptation of the same film.

Sweet Home (Suite Homu) (1989) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Sweet Home (Suite Homu) (1990) for the Famicom/NES - Dev. Capcom.


Cure (Kyua) (1997) Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Before Kiyoshi Kurosawa re-emerged as the front runner of the new J-Horror movement of the late-nineties with Cure (Kyua) (1997), he started his career directing cheap pinku films until he grabbed the attention of Juzo Itami (who starred in Kurosawa's The Excitement of Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl (Do-re-mi-fa-musume no chi wa sawagu) (1985)) to direct a type of horror movie to compete with the effects driven American film filling in multiplexes in the late-eighties. Written and directed by Kurosawa, Sweet Home is very different to what Kurosawa would later be known for. Instead of his more well known mix of elliptical editing and long shots framed by surrounding architecture in a cruel world, he delivers a more crowd pleasing, albeit cliched, story of a haunted house and the five people who get stuck inside. Under strict supervision from Juzo Itami, perhaps the most consistently financially successful director in the post-Akira Kurosawa years, he put his wife, Nobuko Miyamoto (star of his most his own directed features) and added his influence with his odd blend of comedy, garish colors and bloody effects that are totally uncharacteristic of Kurosawa's later work which rely more on psychological drama as a means of creating fear. After the film was finished, Juzo Itami took final cut away from Kurosawa, edited the film to his liking. After Kurosawa took Itami to court over the film and lost, Kurosawa career wavered a bit and was black listed by the major studios so he had to find creative outlets with independent features and straight-to-video cheapies until he finally re-invented himself and set the path for modern Japanese horror films.

As mentioned earlier, the story of Sweet Home is commonplace: a television producer, his daughter, a camera man, the reporter/art restorer and a television director go to an abandoned mansion to research lost frescoes of the prominent artist, Mamiya. After ignoring several warnings, they discover the house is haunted by the artist's wife who is tortured by the accidental death of her child. One day she turned on the furnace without knowing her child was inside killing the kid and scarring her for life. In typical ghost fury, she kidnaps the producer's daughter. Juzo Itami shows up as an all-knowing figure who explains the entire story and gets the films most spectacular (and long) death sequence after attempting to save the daughter. The daughter is quickly kidnapped again, but the house's curse is lifted when the ghost haunting the house gets the corpse of her daughter back.

The film never reaches the comedic heights of Juzo Itami's Tampopo (Tanpopo) (1985) or A Taxing Woman (Marusa no onna) (1987) or the scares of Kurosawa's Cure or Pulse (Kairo) (2001), but the special effects prove to be something of a high point for the film. Done by special effects master Dick Smith (most famous for creating the grotesque nightmares of William Friedkins' The Exorcist (1973) and for the infamous exploding head in the beginning of David Cronenberg's Scanners (1981)), he manages to makes the moments stick out, especially in the slower paced last forty minutes of the film where Juzo Itami, as a drunk hermit, sings a song, melts a bottle in his hands and spouts tons of expository dialogue.

Kurosawa's fingerprint can still be seen by the gorgeous lighting, minimalist framing, long abandoned rooms and scares that come almost off key, but in comparison to another haunted house film like Nobuhiko Obayashi's surrealist madcap House (Hausu) (1977), it proves to be just a solid if inconsistent horror film. Presented more classically structured and visually than what Kurosawa would later bring, more than anything it proves to be an interesting exercise in horror exploitation for him and a highlight for his early career.


If you try to read about Sweet Home the movie online, chances are you'll find more information about the game instead. Sweet Home the game was created by Shinji Mikami who would later use several basic elements of the game to create the mega video game franchise, Resident Evil (Biohazard) (1996) thus creating the whole survival horror sub-genre of games. But Sweet Home is an experience that stands on its own from the film. Taking the basic premise without the character development and long moments of exposition, the game sticks our five protagonists in a house that they can't leave. Together with items that fit each of the characters (the producer has a lighter, the cameraman has his camera, the art restorer has her dust vacuum; just like in the movie), they try their best to escape from the house alive, discovering the secret of the Mamiya mansion bit by bit.

Of course having to get a movie that runs at just about an hour and forty minutes, the game has to take certain liberties in order to create its own sense of dread and fear. The most visual one is just the scale of the house which is blown up to the scale of a fortress. When in the film, evil shadows destroy your body, in the game, you instead encounter an array of deadly monsters running around the house.

The game handles like your typical 8-bit JRPG with turn-based battles and strategic options for encountering enemies. The enemies drop no items or gold and offer nothing except for experience points that can help you gain levels to fight harder enemies later on. The only items you find are laying around the house and with your strictly limited inventory, you can only carry so many at a time so it requires careful planning and strategy about what move to make next in the game. There are also no inns or beds to rest in. The only way you can restore health after being damaged in battle or by the multiple traps laid out is to drink one of the limited number of tonics lying around the house. The characters can only be teamed up at the most three at a time making you take careful choices about which characters will go where and do what. Instead of building of fear by showing gory effects and shadowy lighting, the game builds up fear by building up the tension if your characters will get to live to see the next room. And unlike other RPG's, when your character dies, they can't be revived. Once they're dead, they're dead.

The connections to the movie are practically non-existent. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is credited as supervisor and Juzo Itami as producer, but none of their trademarks or characteristics are found. Shinji Mikami and Capcom went ahead and took the bare bones of the movie and created a work of their own. So instead of watching these five archetypes explore the dark secret of the mansion in the film version, the game has them as empty ciphers you control which builds the dread and horror yourself. It says a lot for it that twenty-one years since the release of the game, its more fondly remembered than the movie.


As a little treat, check the comments for a link to download the ROM of Sweet Home to play for yourself along with a download to the surprisingly gentle (and sometimes musak-like) soundtrack to the movie composed by future video game creator Masaya Matsuura (Parappa the Rapper (1996), UmJammer Lammy (1999)). It's not a fantastic soundtrack, but it's still something interesting to share.

Also enjoy the commercial for the video game played at the beginning of the Sweet Home VHS:

(Uploaded onto YouTube by user NobodysTapes)




  2. Fantastic article, thank you very much. I'm a fan of Kiyochi Kurosawa's movies but I didn't anything about this film or the game.