Shinya Tsukamoto’s Hiruko the Goblin is an exciting introduction to the Japanese body horror genre. As a film, it tries to be both serious in jump scares and comedic in its pompous display of new macabre body distortions and random technology that are exclusively Tsukamoto’s invention and signature…. and a lot of decapitations, too.
The story follows a school ground haunted by evil spirits. The first victims of the evil spirits were the junior high schoolteacher Takashi Yabe (Naoto Takenaka) and his student Reiko Tsukishima (Megumi Ueno). Yabe’s brother-in-law Reijirou Hieda (Kenji Sawada) investigates the school hauntings together with his nephew Masao Yabe (Masaki Kudou) who also wants to explore, more than ever, the rationale behind the disappearance of Reiko, his love interest. The two, Hieda and Masao, battles out the evil spirits that plague the school ground and its unlucky souls, including two of Masao’s friends and a school janitor named Watanabe (Masaki Kudou).
The story happens in almost a day, or overnight. But Tsukamoto’s style in lavish depictions of perspective shots of the goblins and the seemingly disorienting close-up shots of his characters’ faces, body parts, and other objects, has expanded the storytelling structure beyond its quaint detective-style storyline. It is a film that lingers on details, especially the face (and body) and its tortured expressions of ecstatic horror.
The body horror elements strategically emerge in scenes in which the character’s body transgresses into the supernatural. Two types of transgressions occur in the human body in Hiruko the Goblin. First would be the beheading which transmutes into a symbolic erasure of human identity and reason, bearing in mind the collocation of head as the center of humanity. The second would be the head-becoming-spider, which completes the transformation of the head as a supernatural, extra-human identity, leaving human world entirely.
The first transgression, the beheading, is witnessed from the perspective of the two lead characters Masao and Hieda, which stand, for us viewers, the ground of the film to rational reality. Establishing the rational base is highly important in horror films. Without the anchor to normalcy, horrific elements are incapable of transgressions.
The act of beheading a human body has been practiced in some ancient cultures around world as a form of ritual sacrifice for good harvest. In the Philippines, there is a headhunting culture that uses the decapitated head as a trophy for a battle won. But in Hiruko the Goblin, the act of beheading or decapitation is self-inflicted. It is practiced by the self onto oneself, which as the movie contrives us, is the way how the evil spirits attack humans – the evil spirits, in their human-head bearing spider form, connects to the consciousness of the human by inserting their hyperextended tongues to their human hosts. This infiltration of Hiruko (the evil spirit) into the consciousness of the host is both physical and psychical, the evil spirit conditions the mind of the victim to commit seppuku through decapitation of the head by any means. Hiruko (the evil spirit) attacks the human psyche by showing the victim an illusionary world with the fear for life removed, easing the victim to commit suicide. Hiruko commands the psyche to execute a self-destruction, the erasure of identity.
With this, Tsukamoto’s body horrors are compelling because, like his other films, the body and the mind exists as one contradictory helm. The supernatural element penetrates not only the body, but also the mind, as almost a material contradiction, reminding us that the affective dimension cannot exist without the duel between the concrete and the non-concrete.
The second transgression, head-becoming-spider, in which the head that results from the decapitation, becomes the aggregate of Hiruko, the evil spirit, itself. This transgression of the human becoming extra-human has been Tsukamoto’s fascination since Testuo: The Iron Man (1989). But in this movie, he did not create an extra-human transgression to create horror itself. Tsukamoto uses the figure of the spider bearing the head of the human to physicalize the notion of manipulative digressions. In Japanese culture, the figure of the spider may mean a manipulative spirit or a cunning stealth, both of which are determined forms of deception. The transformation of Masao’s father, friends, and love interest into spider-heads commands the disfiguration and disintegration of genuine relations and the rise of an equally deceptive and manipulative extra-human politics.
This leads to Hiruko’s world being eternally in conflict with the human. For the relations to renew itself, a rebirthing process must be played and replayed. Prior to the actuation of renewal, the important step to take is a determination of rationale, the root cause of the problem. In conventional horror narratives, the resolution follows when the protagonists determine the root cause of the problem. By then can reformulate the problem that leads to its eventual resolution.
In Hiruko the Goblin, the return to normalcy and the seizure of bodily transgressions comes from the establishment of the balance between the human world and the world of Hiruko by closing the gate that connects them. Indeed, the rebirth of a new age constitutes the severance of the umbilical cord the connects from the mother, the historical root, and yet, the rebirth is but a sublation of the old – the old form remains melded into the new.
A blend of mysticism, body horror, and mayhem, Hiruko the Goblin takes us deep within the folk culture of Japanese life, revealing the timelessness of the body being the receptacle of change, whether actuated by natural or supernatural forces. Tsukamoto assures us that when it comes to the all-too-human body, the limit both exist and does not exist, that it can outdo itself through transgression, extension, and transformation and yet maintain it within the element of semblance as bodies under permanent sublation.
Adrian D. Mendizabal is a MA Media Studies (Film) candidate of the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI). He has contributed several essays on Philippine cinema to NANG 2, La Furia Umana, New Durian Cinema, Transit Journal, Sinekultura Film Journal and MUBI Notebook. He is currently working on a research project exploring the relationship of time and Lav Diaz’s cinema. He is also the Philippine delegate for Cinema and Moving Image Research Assembly (CAMIRA). His main interest is film-philosophy.