Almost any director of note has one Contractual Obligation movie, a film which they did so that they could go and do better things. In Shinya (Tetsuo) Tsukamoto’s case, his Contractual Obligation project was a film he did right after Tetsuo, ostensibly to show that he could command a professional film crew on a big budget. That film was Hiruko the Goblin, one of Tsukamoto’s less sung earlier works, and for a good reason: it’s fun and silly and essentially a painless way to blow 89 minutes without too much looking back. This should not be your first Tsukamoto film after Tetsuo, though; come back to it only after you’ve seen A Snake of June, Vital, Gemini, Bullet Ballet, and Tokyo Fist. (Heck, even Tsukamoto’s pre-Tetsuo short Denchu Kozo is a fair amount better than this.)
I’m discovering that a surprising number of Japanese horror and fantasy films are in fact adaptations of existing material, be they manga or novels not yet translated into English. The logic is sound: If you keep the budget tight, you can guarantee a return on your investment thanks to the built-in audience for the material. Hiruko was derived from a comic by Daijiro Moroboshi, a manga author who draws heavily on ancient Japanese and Chinese legends for thriller/horror plots, and the movie is essentially a condensed version of a chapter from the annals of one of his recurring characters.
Hieda and Masao are at odds thanks to the scientist having led
Masao's father to his death years earlier.
The character in question is Hieda (Kenji Sawada — yes, the crazy high-school teacher from The Man Who Stole the Sun), a loopy archaeology professor with all sorts of not-very-popular theories about the origins of civilization in the Japanese archipelago. He’s also a compulsive gadgeteer: when we first see him, he’s excavating a dig using an electric eggbeater with brush attachments instead of agitators. No amount of this sort of work can ever really dissipate the pain of losing his wife, however, and h has to force himself out of his lethargy when he receives word of some strange goings-on at a high school somewhere in the country. Strange, as in a massive rash of deaths and decapitations with no explanation.
The good doctor pairs up with a local student, Masao (Masaki Kudou), who has a weird little problem of his own. Every time one of these horrible events takes place, a mole in the shape of a person’s face etches itself on his back. Not only that, but when he and Hieda break into the school at night, they discover more severed heads crawling around on the floor, with spiderlike appendages. It doesn’t help that one of them is a girl Masao had a crush on. With the aid of the doctor’s knowledge of Japanese lore and some of his gizmos (and, hilariously, a big can of bug spray as their other main weapon), the two delve deep into the heart of a demonic lair where hordes of similar monsters are waiting to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
Hiruko is essentially a showcase for a bunch of simply-rendered but nonetheless enjoyable effects scenes. The animated human head monsters are a neat trick on a tiny budget — imagine one of the incarnations of the monster from John Carpenter’s The Thing crossed with an Alien facehugger — and there’s some stop-motion animation and camerawork that makes the movie more than worth the time. At one point the camera goes screaming down the corridors of the high school like the unseen force in the Evil Dead films, and I had to wonder if Tsukamoto was actually doing homage to Raimi or just making use of an effective zero-budget device. The climax is a bit of a letdown, though — it’s over way too soon — and a lot of the most interesting parts of the story get somewhat short shrift, like how the demonic monsters use their victims’ own memories and fears against them.
Tsukamoto has never made a movie that didn’t elicit my interest in some way, and even when working with someone else’s material you get the feeling he really is having a great time just being behind the camera. I do suspect Tsukamoto did Hiruko as a way of commanding a bigger budget for projects like Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, which came immediately after Hiruko. That or he did Hiruko to prove he could make a perfectly commercial horror/fantasy movie with one hand tied behind his back, as that’s more or less what we have here. It’s good, but face it, he’s done much better elsewhere.