This article originally appeared at Den of Geek UK.
Ring, Audition, Dark Water, Onibaba, House, Kuroneko... Ask most film fans to name a prominent Japanese horror, and one of those titles would probably come up. Ask most video game fanatics to name a Japanese horror game, and they’d probably reply with Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or, if they’re feeling a bit retro, Splatterhouse or Castlevania.
There’s one name that almost certainly won’t come up in conversations about either category: Sweet Home. Yet this 1989 horror, and the video game of the same name released with it, inadvertently helped define an entire genre – and even spawn the Resident Evil franchise, which is still going 20 years later.
The Sweet Home movie is a curious genre mishmash with an impressive pedigree. It was written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a filmmaker who would earn much wider critical attention for such movies as Pulse (2001) and Tokyo Sonata (2008). Its special makeup effects were created by Dick Smith, who made Linda Blair look possessed in The Exorcist, and famously blew up heads in David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Sweet Home‘s producer was Juzo Itami, in the late-80s well known for his “ramen western” Tampopo and as an actor in such films as Lady Snowblood.
Sweet Home‘s style, which echoes everything from Italian bloodbath epics of the 1970s and 80s to Robert Wise’s The Haunting to Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, almost borders on pastiche. Its story sees a group of filmmakers – plus the director’s teenage daughter, Emi, who’s along for the school holidays – enter a deserted mansion to make a film about the work of a famous artist. The artist’s mansion is said to contain one of his last frescoes, and the crew are determined to clean the painting up and present it to the Japanese public for the first time. But by poking around the crumbling old building, the filmmakers stir up the ghost of the artist’s grief-stricken wife, and her supernatural shadow has a deadly effect on anyone it reaches.
Acted and directed with the tone of a horror-comedy, Sweet Home soon switches gear when the supernatural events kick in: the ghost’s shadow is capable of burning and dissolving mortal bodies, with spectacularly gruesome results. In one scene, a cameraman’s lower body is reduced to a streak of crimson goo. In another, an old man (played by producer Juzo Itami) is stripped to his bare bones. If the minimal, recognizable style of Kiyoshi Kurosawa seems largely missing, that’s apparently because he and Itami fell out while the movie was in production. Itami, a decidedly hands-on producer, had his own ideas as to what the film should look like, and changed Kurosawa’s cut considerably before its release.
Kurosawa’s fingerprints can still be found in Sweet Home‘s more vivid moments, however. The sequences where his characters flee from huge, finger-like shadows are wonderfully eerie, and the final third, where TV producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyatomo, the producer’s wife) faces the mansion’s demonic forces alone are really effective – all Poltergeist-style optical effects and loathsome prosthetics.
Sweet Home could be regarded as a fun yet inconsequential footnote in Japanese cinema – or at any rate a relic from Kurosawa’s earlier career that he might prefer to forget – were it not for its innovative ties with the video game company Capcom. Games adapted from movies were common in the 1980s, but Sweet Home was different, in that the game and the film were developed in tandem and released almost at the same time. While Kurosawa and Itami made the film, designer Tokuro Fujiwara worked on the video game – a top-down action RPG set in the very same haunted mansion.
Fujiwara was already an established creative force at Capcom by 1989, having directed or produced classics of the era like Ghosts ‘n Goblins (a platformer with a comic-horror theme) and Bionic Commando. Sweet Home, however, was far slower-paced and story driven than most of his earlier titles, and, because it was developed for the Famicom – Japan’s version of the Nintendo Entertainment System – it could be given far more depth than the quick-fix arcade games of the era.
Kurosawa and Itami appeared to have a fair bit of input into the video game, since they’re credited as the designer and producer respectively. In an interview with Japanese magazine Continue, Fujiawara also recalls that he was allowed to visit the film’s studio and “use the movie as reference.”
“I got to see the movie and take a tour of the film studio,” Fujiwara said, “and use whatever essence I thought would work in the game. I carefully considered how to go about bringing elements from the movie to the game screen.”
While the game departs from the movie in some ways, it’s also one of the most cinematic console titles of its era. The characters in the film appear in the game, each with their own specific abilities – the director has a cigarette lighter, the art restorer carries a vacuum cleaner – which come in handy at specific moments of the game. The film’s deadly shadows are replaced by randomly-spawning monsters, but an air of horror tension still remains. When a character dies, they’re gone for good, and the game’s ending changes depending on who makes it out of the mansion alive. Some of the movie’s set-pieces remain, too, including the cameraman who’s cut in half and the incredible melting old man.
Despite being one of the stronger RPGs available for Nintendo’s console, Sweet Home was never released outside of Japan – perhaps because of its pretty extreme moments of gore, which would have had Nintendo of America running for the hills. All of this might mean that, like the film, Sweet Home could have been categorized as a curio from the 8-bit era, were it not for its direct influence on one of the most important horror games of all time.
Four years after he made Sweet Home, Fujiwara and his colleagues at Capcom began to look at Sony’s first foray into the console market, the PlayStation, and what they might be able to develop for it.
“Once the PlayStation was released,” Fujiwara recalls, “conversation turned towards the idea of launching an original franchise. The basic premise was that I’d be able to do the things that I wasn’t able to include in Sweet Home. It was mainly on the graphics front that my frustration had been building up. I was also confident that horror games could become a genre in themselves.”
Shinji Mikami, who would eventually direct under Fujiwara’s guidance, recalls that he was less certain that a horror title would be a sales success.
“[Fujiwara] said that he wanted us to make a horror game using systems from Sweet Home, which was a horror game for the Famicom that he had directed,” Mikami told Gamespot in 2016. “I was actually a big fan of Sweet Home, and he was someone that I really respected, so I was excited about the project from the beginning. But I was a little worried about how well a horror game would really sell.”
Fujiwara’s PlayStation horror game was originally planned as a direct remake of Sweet Home, before the decision was made to spin it out into its own separate entity called Biohazard – or Resident Evil, as it would soon become known in the west. While much changed during Resident Evil‘s development, with a first-person viewpoint explored before a third-person perspective was chosen, much remained from Sweet Home.
The action takes place largely in a mansion, it features multiple endings, and Mikami notes that even some of the item management systems are closely modeled after those in Sweet Home. Resident Evil‘s designers also toyed with a similar, supernatural threat to Sweet Home in an early build, before adding the now-iconic zombies to the mix as the game developed. Resident Evil launched to huge acclaim in 1996 and, with that, the survival horror genre was born.
While other games had an undoubted influence on Resident Evil – Alone in the Dark gave Mikami and Fujiwara the idea of having a fixed camera, for example – the Capcom classic owes a considerable debt to Sweet Home. Indeed, it’s a little sad that both the game and the film are so obscure in the west. The game is generally regarded as an interesting bit of trivia in Resident Evil‘s early history by gamers, while the film is, in turn, obscured by the game.
To date, Sweet Home has never had an official DVD release, probably because of the bad blood between its producer and director. Sweet Home can be watched in decidedly unofficial form, either on well-known streaming websites or by ordering a DVD from this site, but the muddy, low-definition transfers are far from ideal. As for Kurosawa’s original cut of the film – well, that’s probably in an archive somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.
Kurosawa is now one of Japan’s most respected directors, and his recent film, Creepy, is an effective return to the horror genre he lit up so disquietingly with Pulse. Sweet Home might not be a film he’s especially proud of – hailing as it does from the stage in his career when Kurosawa was making low-budget erotic and gangster pictures – but it remains a fascinating entry in the Japanese horror genre.
Like the gothic house at its center, Sweet Home has been shunned for nearly three decades, but it remains the dark seed from which the survival horror genre first emerged.