Shinya Tsukamoto: unapologetic termite artist, jack of all cinematic trades — besides merely directing all of his feature-length freak shows, he also writes, produces, shoots, edits, designs, and often acts in them — and an international cult iconoclast of sorts. He may not have the stature or the sprawling filmography of Takashi Miike (the two are close friends, with Miike even describing the younger filmmaker a “madman”; quite the high praise, considering the provenance) but he’s equally as self-reliant an incendiary, one whose oeuvre could be aptly characterized as distinctive in terms of its unrelenting grotesqueness. So a project like Hiruko the Goblin — a live-action adaptation of Daijirō Morohoshi’s Lovecraftian horror manga Yokai Hunter — should have been something of a slam dunk for Tsukamoto, whose strengths as a film artist lie in his disquieting aesthetic sensibilities, ones that could have easily adapted into the original source material’s surrealistic qualities onto the big-screen. Made two years after his now iconic Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989, this was his first “big break,” so to speak, into more mainstream markets: it was a studio job with a much larger budget than anything Tsukamoto had made previously (also his first venture into 35mm after years of shooting on Super-8 and 16mm) and was, at the time, his most ambitious and lavish outing as a director yet (though not his longest, as the amazingly titled Flying in a Hell Town Piss Lodge, from 1977, was two hours as opposed to this film’s hour and thirty).
So perhaps one can blame the final results on the increased production costs, or studio heads liberally interfering with Tsukamoto’s personal vision — either way, Hiruko the Goblin is a deeply, deeply unpleasant and mind-numbing experience, and not in a way that its director had probably intended. There’s its ostensible plot, practically impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with the source material (which has yet to be translated into English, so good luck on that front, Western viewers) by way of how incoherent the slapdash structure is, but what follows is something like this: Reijiro Hieda (former rockstar Kenji Sawada), an eccentric anthropologist — who, in the manga, was reserved and unflappable; here, he’s goofy as shit — receives a letter from his missing brother-in-law about the presence of evil spirits who haunt the junior highschool he teaches at. Naturally, Reijiro goes to check things out, eventually bumping into his cousin Masao (Masaki Kudou) who’s looking for his father as well during summer vacation. There’s a few other characters — including an omnipresent groundskeeper, played by Tsukamoto himself — but none of them matter much: they’re either killed, eaten, or turned into weird spider-like creatures with six legs and human heads. The effects are, admittedly, rather impressive for the time, and the last 20-minutes becomes an outright creature-feature of sorts with how many of the creepy crawlies begin spawning up. Making it to that point, however, is a rigorous undertaking, mostly spurred on by the film’s blatant attempts to liberally insert gross-out gag comedy into every scene, a radical shift in tone from what one would expect. None of it is very funny, nor even vaguely amusing — it’s a lot of shouting and blood-spurting about, if that’s your bag — and it brings the pace to a complete stand-still. It’s frantic, but never exciting; its visual and sonic stimuli don’t add up to much, hurt even further by the general indifference the film seems to harbor towards its protagonists and their primary objectives. It’s difficult to even conjure up much of a strong opinion on Hiruko the Goblin (other than it was generally annoying); a transitional work from a great which all too frequently reveals its growing pains.
Published as part of Japan Cuts 2021 — Dispatch 2.