Shinya Tsukamoto burst onto the scene with indie cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man, an avant-garde body horror exploration of dehumanising industrialisation. After performing as a virtual one man band, however, Tsukamoto’s second film, Hiruko the Goblin (ヒルコ／妖怪ハンター, Hiruko / Yokai Hunter), was his studio first accepting the opportunity to direct a feature adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter manga. Some have seen this as a huge stylistic departure, shifting from the punk aesthetics of Tetsuo towards warmly nostalgic summer adventure, but it is in fact perfectly in keeping with Tsukamoto’s earlier 8mm work such as Adventures of Electric Rodboy while also reminiscent of the kind of wistful teen adventures Nobuhiko Obayashi among others had been making throughout the Bubble era.
Nevertheless, Hiruko’s main lessons seem to relate to the dangers of buried history and its corrupted parental legacy. The franchise protagonist, Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), is a once promising archeologist ostracised by his peers for his determination to prove the existence of yokai or “goblins”. Still grieving the death of his wife Akane (Chika Asamoto), Reijiro is summoned to her hometown by his brother-in-law, high school teacher Mr. Yabe (Naoto Takenaka), who informs him that he’s found something in a burial mound which he believes was built “by the ancients to appease evil spirts”. Yabe insists that he doesn’t believe in yokai, but thinks it might be a good opportunity for Reijiro to further investigate his theory. By the time Reijiro arrives, however, Yabe has already disappeared along with high school girl Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno) after exploring the tomb alone.
Though set in the present day, Tsukamoto plays with horror serial gothic motifs such as the creepy tombs, suspicious janitor, and the continually befuddled Reijiro dressed in his old-fashioned white suit while armed with an arsenal of yokai fighting gadgets all contained in the Mary Poppins-like suitcase he continually carries around though at one point he seems to try catching escaped yokai with fly paper and is generally found wielding bug spray. Despite constantly working with dirt, an early joke sees him undone by spotting a creepy crawly in his room. This does not bode well for him, because Hiruko’s end game is convincing its victims to decapitate themselves before attaching their severed heads to weird, spider-like bodies.
It does this seemingly by locating a pleasant, poignant memory and promising to prolong it forever. Reijiro’s nephew Masao (Masaki Kudou) is almost seduced on seeing an idyllic scene of missing high school girl Tsukishima dressed in white and enjoying a picnic on a summer’s day only to be suddenly brought back by his uncle. The inheritor of a curse, Masao is often struck by fits of furious burning in which his clothes seem to steam while he later displays strange scars on his back which take on the appearance of human faces. His predicament is largely his grandfather’s fault in having kept from his father the truth about the mound, leading him towards an over curious investigation during which it appears he accidentally released a bunch of demons from their eternal imprisonment. Now all Hiruko wants is to find the spell to open the door so they can all escape for good.
Having been in a sense betrayed by a corrupted parental legacy, Masao nevertheless finds salvation in his history by way of his uncle who has of course memorised the entirety of the “Kojiki”, an ancient chronicle of myth and folklore, and recognises the two passages necessary for opening and closing the stone enclosure one found on a broken stele and the other hidden inside an ancient helmet appropriated by Yabe. Masao can only save himself and lift the curse by learning the truth which had been hidden from him, ironically putting on the helmet while others lose their heads.
Yet Hiruko itself is also perhaps a manifestation of grief, something which cannot be eliminated but must in a sense be contained. Reijiro is almost tricked by Hiruko on being shown a vision of his late wife, unwittingly revealing the opening spell in return for being able to remain within the memory. Masao is similarly seduced by his vision of Tsukishima, but must then deal with the loss of his father who sacrificed himself trying to save others having realised his mistake in unearthing truths intended to stay buried. The fault lies however with Yabe’s own father whose attempt to keep him safe only endangered him.
In keeping with much of Tsukamoto’s work, Hiruko’s threat lies in the loss of bodily autonomy and corporeal destruction forcing the victim into an act of mortal self-harm and thereafter repurposing and remaking the physical form in its own image. Tsukamoto’s characteristically elaborate practical effects and use of creepy stop motion add to the sense of the uncanny, horror lurking in dark corners everywhere waiting for the opportunity to strike. Even so, Hiruko is not without its sense of silliness, Tsukamoto playing gleefully with genre archetypes while conforming fully to the summer adventure movie necessarily filled with a sense of wistful nostalgia. Having contained their demons, Masao and Reijiro emerge at summer’s end, but are greeted with another hazy goodbye if each a little more secure in having learned to accommodate their corrupted legacies.
Original trailer (English subtitles)