Color, 1991, 89 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto
Starring Kenji Sawada, Masaki Kudou, Megumi Ueno, Hideo Murota, Naoto Takenaka
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US RA NTSC), Third Window (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Media Blasters (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Des Films (DVD) (France R2 PAL), Raro (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Obviously not wanting to be pigeonholed after his attention-getting 1989 debut, Tetsuo the Iron Man, Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto has spent his career subverting expectations with a wild and unpredictable slate of films ranging from action to horror to unclassifiable experimentation. His second feature, Hiroku the Goblin, proved that by moving in a more commercial direction by adapting a manga by Daijiro Morohoshi, Yokai Hunter, resulting in a hugely entertaining monster bash with inventive practical effects, a twisted sense of humor, and genuinely nightmarish imagery galore. Seen as an outlier at the time since it was followed by the sequel to Tetsuo, this is easier to appreciate now as a salute to local horror cinema that would evolve in his 1999 film, Gemini.
While exploring the catacombs on the grounds of his school at night, schoolteacher Takashi Yabe (The Happiness of the Katakuris' Takenaka) and one of his students, Reiko (Ueno), are attacked by an unseen monstrous force that drags them deep into the darkness. Beforehand Takashi had written a letter about his findings to his brother-in-law, archaeologist Reijirou (rock singer Sawada), who goes to investigate the disappearance. Mr. Yabe's son, Masao (Kudu), has been doing some investigating on his own and wears large bandages on his back to cover strange smoking wounds that look like dead faces, coinciding with random fits. When two murders are committed, Masao and Reijirou first suspect the creepy janitor but soon discover that the culprit is actually a malicious yokai spirit called Hiroku, now inhabiting Reiko's body and capable of unleashing an array of grotesque horrors on anyone who tries to stop it.
Though obviously reminiscent of classic Japanese monster films including the yokai cycle, Hiruko the Goblin (originally Yôkai hantâ: Hiruko, which doesn't feature a goblin anywhere) adds a few dashes of modern splatter and the frenetic look of Sam Raimi and Hong Kong cinema with plenty of whooshing camerawork. It's a lot of fun and never overstays its welcome, delivering loads of inventive monster effects (some of which will make fans of John Carpenter's The Thing smile) and bizarre plot twists including a crazy sentimental ending that must be seen to be believed. The fact that this would be considered mainstream just goes to show you completely unhinged Tetsuo was by comparison.
Though it received a successful theatrical release in Japan in 1991, it took a while for this one to catch on elsewhere with the release of later films like Gemini getting it programmed in the U.S. as part of Tsukamoto retrospectives. A DVD release eventually popped up in 2005 from Media Blasters as part of the Fangoria International line, featuring a really excellent transfer that ranked as one of the better Japanese-sourced masters of the era. Optional English subtitles are included on that release along with a Tsukamoto interview (7m57s) about his approach to the film as an extension of his Super 8 monster movies as a kid, an interview with special effects creator Takashi Oda (4m2s), a "goblin creation" effects featurette (2m28s) showing the creature at work, a trailer, a photo gallery, and bonus trailers for Choking Hazard, Rojo Sangre, One Missed Call, and Deadly Outlaw Rekka.
For the film's 30th anniversary in 2021, a 2K restoration was undertaken in Japan complete with a limited theatrical reissue. Later that year Mondo Macabro bowed the film on Blu-ray first as a limited red case edition and then as a general retail release in 2022, with Third Window doing its own U.K. edition with the same specs and extras. The presentation looks great, featuring similar color timing and framing as before while upping the detail level quite a bit. It looks great throughout and very similar to the theatrical presentation circa the early '00s. The LPCM 1.0 mono track (with optional English subtitles) is also in excellent condition. Tom Mes, author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, provides a very thorough new commentary covering the film's "odd man out" status at the time, Tsukamoto's role in modern Japanese cinema, and the ramifications of this one later on in his career. Ported over from the DVD are the Tsukamoto and Oda featurettes and the special effects featurette, while the trailer is presented in a nice remastered scan. A new interview with Tsukamoto, "Yokai or Goblin" (27m32s), explains how he came to the manga (mashing together two stories with his own ideas), the difference working for a major company versus his very indie debut, the story behind the English title, and the expectations he was facing at that point in his career. He also provides a short intro (2m50s) marking the film's 30th anniversary, explaining in a nutshell how he feels about its place in his wild and now very worthy filmography.
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray)
Media Blasters (DVD)
Reviewed on April 17, 2021.