There’s a moment in Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank (2014) that I return to frequently. To give some background, that film is about a surrealist, counter-cultural musician who also wears a giant papier-mâché head over his head (he looks like Frank Sidebottom but is not Frank Sidebottom). The moment in question is later on in the film, where the eponymous Frank is trying to hit the mainstream and writes his, self-proclaimed, ‘most likeable song’. The song is an eclectic mess and deeply weird, an attempt to hit a prescribed normality by somebody inexorably removed from that point. After playing it, Frank is so proud of himself. He has made his most likeable song, he has made a mainstream hit. The audience, and the characters in the scene, realise Frank will never make something conventionally ‘likeable’; it’s a great scene.
That scene could be used to describe Shinya Tsukamoto’s second feature, Hiruko the Goblin, originally released in 1991 and now being re-issued for the Japan Cuts festival. Tsukamoto is most famous for his debut, Tetuso the Iron Man (1989), a legendary cyber-punk, body horror movie and one of the strangest movies out there. His later career is populated by extreme, punky and counter-cultural films. He has a high-octane aesthetic with films full of discordant tones, harsh colours, violence and sex. His movies are not conventionally ‘likeable’. Hiruoko the Goblin, well, that’s something different. This film feels at odds with Tsukamoto’s wider filmography, its closest reference point being Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992), the proximity of these releases being rather indicative. Both films show an attempt to court more mainstream appeal, or at least an inclusion of more traditional sensibilities. Tsukamoto’s wider work eschews expected narrative conventions, his stories are fractured, strange and somewhat dreamlike. They don’t care about logical sense but do care about feeling and impact.
Hiruko and Tetsuo II are evidently Tsukamoto films. They are bewilderingly strange and use some of the director’s trademark techniques. The iconic stop motion of the original Tetsuo resurfaces, as do a number of atypical devices. This is, seemingly, just the way Tsukamoto makes movies, even when trying to be traditional. But, these two films also contain clearer narrative arcs and are interested in backstory, explanation and coherence. They are, perhaps, not great at these aspects, but they certainly try. In fact, every scene in Hiruko where characters have to talk and progress the plot is a real low point. A few scenes engage in attempts at pathos or lore dumps. These scenes don’t work. But, gosh darn it, Tsukamoto is trying. This is a colour film (Tetsuo was black and white), it has traditional narrative devices, it has teen protagonists and overt allusions to wider cinema, to known cinema. It is his most ‘likeable’ film! It is Tsukamoto doing what he thinks the people want and, of course, making a completely surreal work that would never get close to mainstream appeal.
As lazy as it is, this is a film best summed up through references (a step that feels fair as the film is overtly referential). Hiruko is Evil Dead II (1987), meets Ghostbusters (1984), with a dash of Indiana Jones (or just traditional adventure fair) and a dollop of Alien (1979). You know, films that people like. Admittedly, Hiruko is an adaptation of a manga, so this all might be remnants of that. Still, the choice is clear and the approach is fascinating. The usage of these films is very knowing, also, going beyond homage and into the range of replication. There are shots that directly allude to Evil Dead II, including a costuming decision and specific gestures made by characters (you’ll know them if you see them). The approach here seems to be an aim to replicate an appeal, to play in the space of known cinema. It sounds like a critique, and it would be, if the film wasn’t so bad at trying to be likeable and known. These attempts seem hilarious in a film full of complete nonsense that keeps lapsing into experimental filmmaking before remembering it is supposed to be palatable.
What we are left with is a brilliant artefact. It is a rather charming film – lightweight, a touch forgettable, but charming. It is also a wonderful oddity, full of outlandish moments and never quite coming together. The lasting feeling, though, is of a film trying to escape its essence; of a filmmaker thinking they can step outside of their impulses and do what everybody else does. Thankfully, Tsukamoto got back to making Tsukamoto films and made some absolutely brilliant features. Yet, those later works make this one even more charming as it sits next to Tetsuo II in his filmography. It shows a Tsukamoto that both could have been and could never have been. This film, specifically, with its focus on teenage dynamics and flirtations with coming-of-age tropes is, certainly, his most ‘likeable’, just like Frank’s song.