With a pale-faced supernatural villain and school children as protagonists, Hiruko the Goblin is an unmistakable piece of Japanese horror. Now fully restored and showing as part of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival, this early effort from prolific director Shinya Tsukamoto may stick too close to formula for some and too unnerving to win over those who eschew horror, but what it does offer is well executed enough to satisfy fans of the genre.
As well as the very many familiar tropes of the country’s monster cinema, there are clear nods to western horror along the way. Tsukamoto utilises the POV shot a la An American Werewolf in London and the long tracking shots made famous by The Evil Dead, as well as making visible nods to The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street as well. It is clearly well-versed in the genre, both internally and from outside of its own borders.
Hiruko the Goblin follows two central characters. Firstly Reijirou Hieda (Kenji Sawada), an archaeologist discredited for voicing his opinion that mythical creatures, including goblins, may be real. A laughing stock exiled from the scientific community, that all could change for him when he receives a letter from his brother-in-law informing him of the discovery of an ancient tomb that may in fact finally prove his fantastical views right.
Hieda heads back to his hometown, the site of this tomb’s discovery, in hope of finding any such goblin and clear his name. It is there he comes across his nephew, Masao (Masaki Kudou), who along with friends are there investigating the mysterious disappearance of his father and a fellow student, Reiko (Megumi Ueno).
While his uncle is looking for the apparent goblin, a belief Masao does not share, the youngster is looking in the same place for Reiko, for reasons heavily implied. Reiko’s repeated appearances in which she lures Masao to her through song at first make him believe she is alive and nearby, but after seeing a few too many unusual sights he starts to believe something more is going on.
It’s something almost every audience member will be able to see coming, even if the film wants us to think otherwise by having Masao go full Dana Scully on the matter: it turns out there is a goblin and it’s on a hunt for humans. It’s also not hard to see, as it starts to pick off minor characters one by one, who will be left to vanquish this monster.
A spider-like creature with a bleached-white human face, the eponymous monster makes for a creepy presence but is not used for any particularly scary moments. Brought to life through use of animatronics and stop-motion animation, it is best used when skittering across the floor at high speeds or suddenly appearing in the corner of shots, behind our unsuspecting heroes.
The plot is somewhat convoluted, though doesn’t have to be too closely followed as it can be understood at base level. It turns out they cannot stop this goblin through conventional means, which makes the final act more compelling, in addition to showcasing some of the film’s more memorable images. The main thread to pay close attention to is the matter of Masao’s ancestry, as it goes a long way in explaining why burns start appearing on his back in the forms of Hiruko’s victims.
It would be fair to say some of the effects here are very of their time, but the film’s intricate and caring restoration makes it possible to see past some dated graphics and for a well-made genre film. The photography smooth and crisp once more, the somewhat creaky CGI that is used here is now the only thing that gives away this is a product of some years.
Back in its day, Hiruko the Goblin was Tsukamoto’s follow-up to his cult cyberpunk film Testuo: The Iron Man. While that film is credited with bringing new aesthetics and viewpoints to the independent film scene of Japan, his horror successor did not meet as much praise on the same points – and for good reason. There was far more territory Hiruko the Goblin could have been explored but instead it doesn’t do much to innovate and sticks more to the established conventions.
That said, it makes the most of sitting inside horror conventions and serves as a clear and present precursor to films like The Ring and The Grudge. J-horror fans will get the most out of it and while there have been far more effective and memorable horror films to come out of Japan, Hiruko the Goblin is far from the worst.