To mark its 30th anniversary, the cult director sits down to discuss the inspirations behind his 1991 adventure-horror, including kaiju monster movies and Ridley Scott’s Alien
It was way back in 1989 that Shinya Tsukamoto announced himself to the world with a vision of scrapheap dystopia set to the industrial sounds of beating iron. The film was Tetsuo: Iron Man, a fiercely independent and boundlessly creative body horror that bore parallels to works like Eraserhead, The Fly, and The Terminator. It would be the defining work of Japanese cyberpunk filmmaking, launching the career of one of Japan’s great contemporary filmmakers while also helping spark a major global revival for Japanese live-action cinema thereafter.
But in 1991, between Tetsuo and its similarly revered follow-up Tetsuo: Body Hammer (1992), 30-year-old Tsukamoto took a left turn with what remains one of his most fascinating projects to date. A comparatively large budget (approximately US$2m) studio production expelling much of the sensational style of his 16mm cyberpunk classic, Hiruko the Goblin was a psychotronic horror fantasy combining a teenage boy’s countryside adventure with spectacular physical effects and Lovecraftian themes. It was a box office disappointment in Japan, and the experience would recalibrate the direction of Tsukamoto’s subsequent career – as arthouse works such as the idiosyncratic boxing drama Tokyo Fist and rain-drenched erotic mystery A Snake of June defined his auteurist output thereafter.
A much-sought-after obscurity in the West for many years, Hiruko the Goblin now receives a digital remaster for its 30th anniversary as it arrives in the UK on Blu-ray this month via Third Window Films. To mark the occasion, Tsukamoto sat down with Dazed to discuss what has often been considered the black sheep of his canon. “It was kind of a natural progression,” he explains – and not so different from his cyberpunk masterworks after all.
HIRUKO THE GOBLIN
An adaption of two stories from Daijiro Morohoshi’s long-running Yōkai Hunter manga series, Hiruko the Goblin follows a professor of archaeology named Hieda, who bands together with his young son-in-law, Masao, to investigate a series of strange disappearances at the Masao’s school. The hapless pair gradually stumble across the decapitated corpses of Masao’s fellow students, as well as a grotesque, spider-like monster sporting the head of his high-school crush, Reiko. And as the bodies pile up, a disturbing secret is revealed that could spell the end of humanity as they know it.
It might sound like par-for-the-course for a director whose debut would become renowned for its disturbing, body-brutalising content, but visually, Hiruko feels light-years away from Tetsuo. Urban dystopia has made way for lush green countryside full of clear blue skies and blooming flowers in what is an almost Studio Ghibli-esque setting in Hiruko, with the industrial music of Chu Ishikawa similarly replaced by nostalgic synth-pop and fantasy musical cues. Instead of solid metal nightmares, Hiruko feels like a whimsical childhood adventure gone amok. But there’s a common denominator for both films, says the director, that goes back to his early experiments with filmmaking as a schoolboy.
GIANT MONSTERS AND STRANGE BEASTS
Tsukamoto points to The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo (1987) – a colourful 8mm short about a student plagued with an electricity pole growing out of his back – as a work that combines the elements of fantasy, science fiction, and bodily transformation seen in both Tetsuo and Hiruko. But more than that, he says, Hiruko maintains the feeling of the films he used to make as a teenager. “Everything stemmed from Genshisan,” he says, describing a short film he made when he was 14 years old, about a giant caveman who wreaks havoc and destroys a city. “It’s the prototype of all my work, and (the product) of my favourite things when I was young.”
Indeed, giant monsters and strange beasts link together much of Tsukamoto’s early works – something that he attributes to his love for kaiju monster movies as a child. The director’s memories of being taken to see a film about a colossal nuclear terrapin, in fact, sound strikingly familiar to those adventures undertaken by Hiruko’s leading boy Masao. “I remember really looking forward to going to see Gamera in the summertime, on a holiday,” he says, referring to Daiei Film studio’s big-screen rival to the iconic Toho studio atomic dinosaur franchise, Godzilla. Even more influential might have been a 60s TV drama called Ultra Q, a project by Eiji Tsuburaya – the man behind Godzilla himself – that was lapped up by the young director in his youth.
“I was watching loads of 80s horror movies, so there are a lot of homages to those films. I really liked Alien, and, with Tetsuo, I could see the direct connection” – Shinya Tsukamoto
The basis of each episode, as Tsukamoto describes it, was an ordinary life being transformed by the appearance of a kaiju monster, or a creature from another world. Episodes boasted titles such as ‘The Gift From Space’, ‘Mammoth Flower’, ‘The Primordial Amphibian Ragon’, and ‘Baron Spider’ – signposting much of the aliens, supernatural phenomena, and giant beasts that would appear within. Little wonder, then, that a manga series like Hiruko's basis Yōkai Hunter – about a believer in gods and demons, and his various investigations into the paranormal – would have held so much appeal for Tsukamoto.
“I REALLY LIKED ALIEN”
But there’s also a palpable Western influence in Hiruko – and therein lies much of the appeal for those unfamiliar with the works of Daijiro Morohoshi or shows like Ultra Q.
Frantic first-person creature attacks in Hiruko hark back to the famous POV shots of The Evil Dead, while the human-headed spider is a dead ringer for the nightmare fuel seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Perhaps most striking, though, is the influence of HR Giger’s designs for the Alien films – an influence Tsukamoto readily acknowledges:
“I was watching loads of 80s horror movies, so there are a lot of homages to those films,” he says. ”I really liked Alien, and, with Tetsuo, I could see the direct connection.” Indeed, countless images bind all three works together. Phallic, tongue-like appendages unite Hiruko’s spider-creatures with Alien’s face-huggers, while the metallic penis drill that deforms the titular Tetsuo resembles the iconic chestburster sequence from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic. Both Tetsuo’s dilapidated setting and the subterranean nesting grounds of the Hiruko creatures, meanwhile, resemble locations seen in Alien and Aliens. And the production and pro-creation of the creatures in Hiruko, as Tsukamoto points out himself, involves consuming and recycling human bodies – much as do the dreaded xenomorphs of HR Giger’s creation.
80 EXPERTS COMPLETE AN IMPRESSIVE CREW LIST
These influences might not have materialised so well on-screen if it had not been for the work of Hiruko’s impressive crew – but ironically, it was this facet to the production that was the most alien to the director himself. “Tetsuo was a very, very, very independent film,” he explains of his prior work, “made with a minimal crew. But with Hiruko, there were about 80 experts always with me at the studio, so in terms of production they were hugely different.”
Among those experts were Godzilla series special effects veteran Eiichi Asada, and make-up and prosthetics artist Etsuko Egawa – whose CV, by that point, included credits on David Lynch’s Dune and Ghostbusters. Creature effects artist Takashi Oda, meanwhile, would form a working relationship with Tsukamoto on Hiruko that would span much of the director’s later projects – including Tokyo Fist, Bullet Ballet, Gemini, VitaI, and Haze. But perhaps the most compelling name among the personnel is make-up and prosthetics artist Kazuhiro Tsuji.
While Hiruko was one of his earliest film credits, Tsuji’s subsequent career would see him work on Hollywood films like Batman and Robin, Men in Black, and Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes in the decade that followed. It’s a testament, in many ways, to the overall quality of physical effects work on Tsukamoto's film. Even more impressively, though, Tsuji was coaxed out of retirement in 2017 by Gary Oldman to work on Darkest Hour – for which he received his first Academy Award for best make-up and hairstyling. A second would come just two years later for his work on the film Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, and Nicole Kidman.
“THE REASON I MADE HIRUKO IS FULFILLED”
Despite its many impressive attributes, and an inherently talented crew, Hiruko failed to set the world alight upon release, and Tsukamoto would scarcely make a film like it again. “I was really satisfied with the results,” he recalls, “but I wanted to go back to the really tiny films where I could control every single thing by myself.” He headed to an abandoned iron factory shortly after wrapping on Hiruko, then, to shoot the fiercely DIY cyberpunk sequel Tetsuo: Body Hammer, before emerging as a mainstay at international events like Venice Film Festival in the years thereafter – where his continued metamorphosis would see him win awards including the Horizons Best Film prize for Kotoko in 2011.
But with a nascent audience making their voices heard on social media in recent years, the director feels that “the reason I made Hiruko is fulfilled”. That said, fans clamouring for another Tsukamoto Lovecraftian adventure or cyberpunk thriller might find it worth keeping fingers crossed:
“I have something in my mind that continues the war theme, extending from (recent films) Fires on the Plain and Killing,” the director reveals of his potential next project. But then, he concludes with a grin, “(I’m looking at) moving onto horror, or an erotic film – like the ones I used to make”.