Hiroku The Goblin (1991) review [Japan Cuts 2021]

Introduction

To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Shinya Tsukamoto’s unique and creative adaptation of Daijiro Morohoshi’s Yokai Hunter, Mondo Macabro in the U.S. and Third Window Films in the U.K. will release Nikkatsu’s 2K restoration to the audience. Read our review to learn why one should not pass the opportunity to buy Tsukamoto’s early horror-gem on Blu-ray.

Review

One day, after finding very strange old mound, Yakashi Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) contacts Reijiro Hieda (Kenji Sawada), a discredited archeologist and small-time inventor, to come and investigate the place. There is, according to Yabe, a chance that this mound, which could have been built by the ancients to appease an evil spirit, might prove his outrageous theory about ancient yokai. 

Yet, before Yabe and Hieda can meet, Yabe and Reiko Tsukushima (Megumi Ueno) strangely disappear. Around the same time, Yabe’s son, Masao Yabe (Masaki Kudou), starts suffering from sudden burn marks on his back. After being saved by Hieda from an incoming beastly attack at his high school, they suddenly find themselves teaming up to fight off an evil that haunts the school.

Hiroku The Goblin (1991) by Shin'ya Tsukamoto

Hiroku The Goblin, despite the references to the Kojiki and Japanese mythological elements, is a film that does not have any true thematical depth nor does it intend to have such depth. The enjoyment of Tsukamoto’s narratives resides solely in his effective play with different atmospheres and his fluid integration of a wide variety of practical effects.

Yet, the lack of a thematical depth does not stop Tsukamoto’s well-crafted narrative to echo something psychological. The element that allows Hiroku The Goblin to evoke such thing is the very design of its main evil. What’s most disconcerting about this design is not its spider-like legs, but the female face that adorns its monstrous body, a face that seduces and leads the seduced youthful male other with her oral protrusion to his bloody doom. So, what does this design evoke? What psychoanalytic aspect does it allow to be echoed?

Hiroku The Goblin (1991) by Shin'ya Tsukamoto

In our view, this design enables Tsukamoto to accentuate an important fear that marks many youthful male subjects – the fear of the sexuality of the female other. Yabe’s refusal to romantically approach his crush is of course function of his shyness, but, in our view, Tsukamoto offers, by delivering a horror of a female monster that seeks jouissance, a creepy visualization of the unconscious fear – a fear not to be rejected by but to be romantically consumed by beauty – that has fed his inhibiting shyness all this time.    

One easily feels the age of Tsukamoto’s narrative at the level of Tatsushi Umegaki’s musical accompaniment. Yet, this does not problematize the enjoyment that one can have with Hiroku The Goblin because Tsukamoto smartly and even slightly mischievously embraces the quirky feel of the diverse musical pieces. A campy atmosphere, for instance, is not only supported by campy music but also by a campy and often somewhat lighthearted style of acting. The same is true for more tensive and horrifying sequences. To craft such moments, Tsukamoto does not only rely on subtle threatening musical accompaniment, but also on a more serious yet still quirky style of acting.

Hiroku The Goblin (1991) by Shin'ya Tsukamoto

And what about the composition? Does it support the evoking of atmospheres as well? In short, yes. Tsukamoto styles his composition according to which atmosphere he wants to evoke. While campy moments are more have on fluid dreamy-like cinematographically movement, moments that need to heighten the tension or evoke a sense of uneasiness rely more on close-ups and zoom-ins to highlight emotions, e.g. of fear, shock, or sadness, and shaky framing to emphasize the threatening presence of something horrifying and violent (Cine-note 1).   

Tsukamoto’s composition, in fact, allows the encounter between the style of acting, the myriad of effects, and the music to reach its optimal effect, be it by charming the spectator with its silly campiness, by making the spectator feel uneasy by the sensible but often seductive threat that resides in the darkness, or by shocking him with bloody violence or some Lovecraftian-inspired body-horror. The visual pleasure of Tsukamoto’s narrative lies, in other words, in the playful interaction between its effective composition, the creative visual elements (e.g. Hieda’s home-made steampunk-like inventions) and practical effects, and its rich musical accompaniment.

Hiroku The Goblin (1991) by Shin'ya Tsukamoto

While we have mentioned the effects a few times in passing, there is, of course, more to say about these practical effects and the stop-motion elements. In short, the myriad effects still hold up after all these years. Their age might be plain obvious at times, but Tsukamoto’s skill to fluidly and convincingly integrate these effects e.g. blood splatter, the decapitations, the creepy movement of the Yokai, … etc. into the fabric of his narrative plays an instrumental role why Hiroku the Goblin is such an enthralling narrative. It is, furthermore, because these effects succeed in vividly signaling the presence of something horrifying that the alternation between the naive campy moments and the deadly and creepy horror that, at any time, can burst forth attains its disconcerting flavour and captivating power.

Tsukamoto’s Hiroku The Goblin is a classic, a narrative that expertly blends two contradictory atmospheres, a campy one and a threatening one, into an unforgettable experience that is as touchingly lighthearted as is it disturbingly horrifying. His first studio project does not only confirm Tsukamoto as a master of crafting atmosphere, but also a master of delivering satisfying yet unsettling horror.  

Notes

Cine-note 1: Shaky framing only marks the more savagely dynamic POV shots. The use of these shaky and energetic pov-shots is not only effective because it sensibly evokes the presence of a bloodthirsty yokai, but because it forces the spectator in the position of the monstrous gaze. In other words, by using these kinds of shots, the spectator is put in the position of a ‘beast’ without, at least for a while, being able to grasp its ultimate desire or knowing its identity.   

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