Hiruko the Goblin Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 8, 2022 (following a October 21, 2021 site-exclusive limited edition)
Audio: Japanese LPCM 1.0 Mono
Run Time: 89:04
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Hieda (Kenji Sawada) is an eccentric archeologist, disgraced among his peers for his theories on the supernatural. One day, he receives a letter from his brother-in-law, Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), telling him of an ancient burial mound he has discovered in the grounds of the local high school – a discovery that might help prove Hieda’s theories to be true. When Hieda arrives at the school, which is now closed for summer vacation, he discovers that Yabe has gone missing, along with one of the school’s female pupils. Teaming up with Yabe’s son, Masao (Masaki Kudou), Hieda searches for the ancient tomb, convinced that it might be the burial place of Hiruko, a fearsome demon from ancient legends. (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
Following the international success of his groundbreaking cyberpunk headtrip, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Shinya Tsukamoto was waiting on funding for Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (eventually completed and released in 1992) and invited to make his first for-hire movie as director, Hiruko the Goblin (Japanese: Yōkai Hantā: Hiruko, 1991). It was about as far away as he could get from Tetsuo – photographed in 35mm color, instead of 16mm black & white, made using a studio-backed budget, and shot in the modern countryside, rather than a pseudo-futuristic cityscape. Also, although few who have seen it would consider Tetsuo a film without a sense of humor, Hiruko the Goblin’s comedy is on prominent display and brimming with cartoon-inspired slapstick gags and other goofball antics.
The film is based on Daijiro Morohoshi’s ‘70s creature feature manga series, Yōkai Hunter. Morohoshi’s comic was intended for a younger market and Tsukamoto maintains much of the comic’s “boy’s adventure” vibe. If anything, it’s more light-hearted than the manga and, in Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto (FAB Press, 2005), author Tom Mes even points to Edogawa Rampo’s Shonen tanteidan comic series as possibly a bigger influence than Morohoshi’s books (Tsukamoto would later directly adapt a Rampo story called Gemini in 1999). The story has roots in ancient Japanese folklore, namely the yōkai creatures/spirits that had made a big cultural impact during the late ‘60s, following the release of Daiei’s Yokai Monsters series (1968-1969). Hiruko the Goblin doesn’t have quite the same playful energy (comedy and family-friendly elements aside, it’s still definitely a horror movie), but it’s an interesting centerpoint between those films and Takashi Miike’s big-budget millennial pseudo-remake, The Great Yokai War (Japanese: Yôkai daisensô, 2005).
Tsukamoto’s other influences often supersede the manga and include other family-friendly media from ‘80s Hollywood, namely Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The titular yōkai hunter, Reijirou Hieda, is an archeologist in both the manga and film, but Tsukamoto and co-writer Koji Tsutsumi somewhat reimagine him as a lovable dope investigating supernatural happenings with home made, Ghostbusters-esque devices (kept within a trusty suitcase, similar to the briefcase he uses in the comics). Mes believes that Hieda – played by rock idol turned actor Kenji Sawada, seen in Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (Japanese: Katakuri-ke no Kōfuku, 2001) – is a (possibly subconscious?) Tsukamoto surrogate, as indicated by his insecurity, obsessive work ethic, and DIY gadgetry. Many, including this Blu-ray’s box art, have compared the boy’s adventure aspects to Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) and Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985), but Hiruko is too dark, too weird, and has too much gore to really jibe with the so-called Amblin brand of entertainment.
The biggest American influences, in terms of visuals, humor, sound effects, and spirit of its storytelling, is probably Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987). The creatures may owe some of their design to H.R. Giger’s biomechanoid atrocities (the goblins look like little xenomorphs before they steal heads), but their manic, rubbery gyrations and zooming point-of-view shots are pure, uncut Evil Dead. Even Tsukamoto’s use of Lovecraftian tropes – like a journal that helps explain the supernatural lore and implications of cosmic-scale horrors – mirrors Raimi’s use. The film wasn’t well-received upon its release and its reputation didn’t improve a whole lot as its director developed into one of the most important cult Japanese filmmakers of his generation. Fans still struggle to make it fit alongside his increasingly existential filmography. Personally, I understand this impulse and even agree that Tsukamoto never quite seems comfortable with the material and budget, but, the longer he’s around, the more it fits alongside the two Tetsuo movies and Tokyo Fist (1995). If anything, it is his current career that feels disconnected from those early films, their manic energy, and their handmade special effects.
Between this, Mondo Macabro’s Gemini disc, and Arrow Video’s Solid Metal Nightmares box set, only five of Tsukamoto’s feature films are yet to be released on North American Blu-ray. Hiruko the Goblin didn’t have an official VHS release in the US, but there was a bootleg traded among fans that I believe was taken from a Taiwanese Laserdisc. The first official US DVD came from Media Blasters and Mondo Macabro has borrowed some of that disc’s extras for this Blu-ray debut. The 1.85:1, 1080p transfer was created using a new 2K restoration of the original film negative. Most obvious issues with the image quality are the result of the lower-budget composite effects, which makes for choppy edges and blends. Otherwise, Masatoshi Utsumi’s colorful and dynamic cinematography exhibits all the correct bounce and clarity. Even in close-ups, he rarely aims for really hard lines and, fortunately, no one has tried to overcompensate with oversharpened details. There’s a hint of smudginess in some wide-angle shots, but it really is hard to say if this is related to the transfer or the original material. Black levels are consistent, even during the blue-tinted underground scenes, and color blends are soft without a lot of noise.
Hiruko the Goblin is presented in its original Japanese in uncompressed LPCM mono. It’s a pretty ambitious mix, despite the single-channel treatment, blending atmospheric din with clean dialogue with big, brassy bursts of noise to indicate supernatural goings-on. The dynamic ranges make up for the lack of directional enhancements. Composer Tatsushi Umegaki was not known for his Tsukamoto collaborations and, in fact, only has three other credits on imdb.com page, both anime. Not surprisingly, his bright synth music doesn’t have a lot in common with the experimental, industrial scores Chu Ishikawaa composed for almost every other Tsukamoto movie (in his lifetime – he passed away in 2017). That said, it’s still a perfect score for the film.
Commentary with author Tom Mes – The aforementioned author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto and preeminent English-language authority on Tsukamoto’s career submits a robust look at the director, cast, and crew’s careers, the making of the film, Tsukamoto’s developing themes, and his many inspirations from film and folklore. Some of my favorite bits pertain to the ongoing critical/fan reevaluation of Hiruko the Goblin (which has evolved since the publishing of his book) and the history of ghostly and demonic women in Japanese horror.
Intro by Shinya Tsukamoto (2:50, HD)
Yokai or Goblin? (27:32, HD) – In this new interview, Tsukamoto chats about the pre-production period, his affection for the original manga, the difference between yokai and goblins (according to him), the differences between making independent and commercial films, working with the Hiruko cast and composer Umegaki, definitive homage (the Abyss-inspired finale) vs. subconscious/unintended references (the creatures’ Thing-like spider heads), and the natural inclusion of comedy.
Archival Interview with Shinya Tsukamoto (8:00, SD) – This interview was recorded for the Media Blasters release. The director expands a bit upon previous discussion of Hiruko the Goblin actually being more in-line with his short films than the Tetsuo movies.
Archival Interview with Takashi Oda (4:05, HD) – This is another Media Blasters leftover that sees the special effects designer describing his process.
Goblin Creation (2:31, SD) – The last Media Blasters extra is an additional/brief look at the mechanical effects.
Mondo Macabro trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.