This is shaping up to be a fantastic year for fans of Shinya Tsukamoto. Not only are his cyber-punk masterworks getting the special edition treatment but by year’s end virtually his entire catalog will be easily available to North American fans for the very first time.
The latest Tsukamoto title to hit these shores is Hiruko The Goblin released by Fangoria via Media Blasters. Those who know Tsukamoto only through the thoroughly bizarre Tetsuo: The Iron Man or the recently released and starkly beautiful A Snake of June or Bullet Ballet are in for an enormous surprise here. Tsukamoto has a sense of humor! And he’s not afraid to use it! Hiruko the Goblin is a throwback to the cheaply made serialized science fiction of Tsukamoto’s youth and comes complete with all the camp humor and odd characters that you’d expect from that genre along with a healthy dose of blood, gore and genuine suspense.
Hiruko begins with Professor Yabe, a teacher at a remote school and amateur archaeologist. Yabe has come across some strange artifacts on the school grounds – odd runes and stone formations – that have led him to believe that the school may be built on some ancient occult site somehow connected to ancient malevolent spirits known as Hiruko. While exploring a tunnel beneath the school grounds Yabe is followed by Reiko, a young female student from the school. Yabe tries to send her back to the surface but, while arguing, the pair hear a strange sound and are pulled screaming into the darkness by unknown forces.
Enter Hieda, a disgraced archaeologist and former colleague of Professor Yabe. Ever since his wife died under mysterious circumstances some years before Hieda has been obsessed with the occult, convinced that goblins are all around him. He has turned his prodigious inventing skills towards building an array of anti-goblin devices, devices he has never been able to test never having actually seen a goblin but whose very creation has made him an object of mockery among his peers, effectively ending his career. When Hieda receives a letter sent by Professor Yabe shortly before his disappearance describing his find Hieda immediately sets out for the school hoping to find the proof for his many theories.
Finally we have Masao, Professor Yabe’s son who is secretly in love with Reiko. One summer night Masao and two friends are exploring the school grounds when they see the ghostly form of Reiko through a window. Another girl approaches her, the two girls kiss, Masao falls to the ground screaming from a sudden steaming burn on his back, and the second girl’s headless body falls to the ground in a shocking geyser of blood while Reiko simply disappears. Believing that their classmate has been beheaded by the school’s bizarre sickle-wielding grounds keeper and that Reiko is now in peril the three boys rush into the school to save her and are themselves hunted down by an unseen, evil force. One is killed quickly, Masao is saved only by the fortunate arrival of Hieda and his anti-goblin gear, and the two arrive just in time to see the last of the boys beheaded by the evil spirit.
Hieda is an archetypal bumbling hero with his ridiculous inventions ranging from an electric prod to anti-goblin spray. As the plot develops it turns out – of course – that the school was built on a gateway to hell that has cracked open allowing a single spider legged goblin out to wreak havoc collecting heads to attach to its own headless body. Hiruko is hoping to throw the gates of hell wide open and release the goblin hordes within and it is up to Hieda and Masao to somehow lure the goblin back to its own side of the gateway and then seal the gate forever to save humanity.
Hiruko is not a perfect film but it is an awful lot of fun, a surprisingly effective popcorn film from a man known best for his grim visions of humanity. Hieda sports the director’s trademark fishing hat throughout the film and is clearly a stand in for Tsukamoto to live out all of his childhood fantasies. It’s got pretty much everything you could want: likeable lead characters, bizarre secondary roles, a wealth of splat-stick humor, one of the more bizarre movie monsters you’ll ever come across, fountains of blood, surprisingly effective special effects and a legitimate dose of fear and suspense. The temptation is generally to treat Hiruko as a secondary entry in Tsukamoto’s canon, a director-for-hire job that has little bearing on the man’s other work, but it is obvious both from the film itself and from the included interview that this is a film quite near to Tsukamoto’s heart – one that he had a great time making and one that reflects a side of himself very seldom seen in his independent films.
And what of the DVD itself? The special features are limited to interviews with Tsukamoto and the film’s effects director, both dating from the film’s original release, as well as the original trailer and what looks to be an EPK reel following the creation of some of the mechanized goblin creature rigs. The original Japanese soundtrack is included with excellent English subtitles and the transfer is anamorphic widescreen. The transfer itself is not perfect – there is a little bit of dirt and the blacks aren’t true – but it is certainly better than the dodgy Chinese imports that were the most common way of seeing this film up until now. A serviceable release of a nearly forgotten film. Hiruko the Goblin releases May 10th.