Cult Cinema: Hiruko the Goblin (1991) - Reviewed

Shinya Tsukamoto, recently given his due with the Arrow Video boxed set Solid Metal Nightmares, needs no introduction to our readers by this point.  A bona-fide 100% original cinematic visionary, Mr. Tsukamoto first caught the attention of world cinemagoers with his hallucinatory hyperkinetic body-horror epic Tetsuo: The Iron Man in 1989.  Nevertheless, the project itself was produced independently with Tsukamoto doing just about everything behind the camera as well as in front of, and despite the success Tsukamoto still was a cult item at the time. 

Circa 1991 however, that changed when the option to work for hire came his way with the mainstream monster movie Hiruko the Goblin.  While something of a by-the-numbers monster movie on paper, Tsukamoto quickly infused the material with his own surreal imagery, penchant for grisly violence and eccentric approach to cinematography.  Think of it as a standard creature feature with an auteur as idiosyncratic as Tsukamoto behind it.  It’s the kind of film Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson would have made years into their respective careers but Tsukamoto did it in only his second feature. 

Based on short stories by writer Dajiro Moroboshi with extensive liberties taken with the material by Tsukamoto, Hiruko the Goblin follows Japanese superstar Kenji Sawada (The Happiness of the Katakuris) as Reijiro who travels to a remote village on the cusp of a major archaeological discovery.  Zeroing in on an ancient tomb with mysterious secrets, Reijiro and his partner’s son Masao (Masaki Kudo) are besieged by demonic spiders with human heads on their bodies as an ancient demon named Hiruko begins to gather strength.

While wearing all the eccentricities on his sleeve, such as Masao’s peculiar skin condition which causes human faces to burn themselves into his back, Hiruko the Goblin is much closer to John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness than Tetsuo: The Iron Man.  Dialing down the intensity dealt out by Tetsuo in an attempt to make a broadly appealing picture still retaining the stamp of its auteur, Hiruko the Goblin is comparatively an easier pill to swallow even as it grows increasingly weird.

That said, from the outset this is the first Tsukamoto film that doesn’t feel from the ground up like something he would make on his own.  For a staunch indie filmmaker used to doing everything himself, Hiruko aside from the director’s visual flourishes and surreal comedy is a rare example of the filmmaker doing a job to pay the bills.  Having only seen the ones handpicked for Solid Metal Nightmares and his recent remake of Fires on the Plain, seeing Tsukamoto somewhat out of his element was a sight both familiar and strange.

Tsukamoto fans will find much to enjoy though the film’s visual palette which is bright and colorful juxtaposed with the cheery soundtrack by Tatsushi Umegaki feels out of place.  As for myself it’s the director’s weakest effort in an otherwise strong and steadfast career of pushing the limits of the medium visually and sonically.  An entertaining effort which only offers a glimpse of the full potential of the writer-director’s creative powers.

--Andrew Kotwicki