Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Film: Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Release date: 22nd April 2002
Running time: 67 mins
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Starring: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Naomasa Musaka, Shinya Tsukamoto
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Shinya Tsukamoto’s feature film debut – although said feature is barely over an hour in length – needs to be seen to be believed. Made over twenty years ago on a shoestring budget and with minimal crew, the film went on to not only rejuvenate the then moribund Japanese film industry, setting the wheels in motion for the Extreme Asian cinema movement of the ’90s, but also enjoyed unexpected overseas success.
In decaying, industrial seclusion, a strange individual referred to as the “metal fetishist” (Tsukamoto) proceeds to cut open his own leg and insert pieces of scrap metal into the wound believing that it will somehow improve his body. Upon realising that this is not the case, he flees in a panicked state and is struck down by a humble Salaryman (Taguchi) out driving with his girlfriend (Fujiwara). Unsure as to what to do, the two of them dispose of the body in the woods and continue as if nothing had happened.
Time has passed, but ever since the Salaryman’s discovery of a small shard of his razor embedded into his cheek one morning, a sequence of strange events and experiences present themselves. He is chased and attacked by a crazed woman at the train station after her hand becomes strangely mutated. Later that day, the Salaryman starts to develop similar growths; pieces of scrap metal, wires and piping start to break through the skin in a series of bizarre transformations that turns him into a freakish man-metal hybrid. Things continue to get worse when the “metal fetishist” resurfaces, seeking revenge…
Shot with stark and grainy black-and-white 16mm film stock, Tetsuo is an ugly and frequently absurd picture that offers a unique vision, not only within Japanese horror cinema but in world cinema as a whole. Part of its international appeal lies in its ability to integrate adeptly within the canon of already established Western shockmeisters such as David Cronenberg (whose teratological influence can clearly be seen throughout) and David Lynch. The ongoing metamorphosis of the protagonist is reminiscent of Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (1986), whereas the film’s abstract execution and industrial gothic aesthetic frequently has critics dub it: “the Japanese Eraserhead”.
However, whilst Eraserhead is more of a slow burning, atmospheric piece; Tetsuo is a hyper-kinetic time bomb of surrealist expression, pummelling its audience with a never-ending barrage of bizarre, frequently enigmatic and sometimes graphic imagery. The Salaryman’s transformation takes a turn towards the gruesome when his genitals are replaced by a large and incredibly phallic power drill that protrudes in a continually erect state. In a horny delirium, he then tries to have his way with his girlfriend with bloody results; one of several moments that supports a strange sexual undercurrent throughout the film (another is a dream sequence in which the Salaryman is violated by his girlfriend sporting a snakelike mechanical appendage). Similar to Cronenberg, director Shinya Tsukamoto has a penchant for melding psychosexuality with violence.
That’s not to say that Tetsuo is a mindless and bafflingly gore-fest; although some could easily interpret it that way. Upon closer inspection, it offers a near philosophical outlook on the dehumanising side effects of contemporary society which is realised two fold. The first, and most obvious, being the physical transformation of the Salaryman from human to mass of living metal – a possible indictment on the all consuming nature of technology – and the second being the feeling of social alienation created within a huge and sprawling urban space – and spaces don’t get much more urban and sprawling than Tokyo.
As one would expect from a zero-budget film made by a handful of people, production values are raw and cheap, but instead of trying to disguise this fact, Tsukamoto embraces it, lending an intoxicating and distinct flavour to the proceedings. The transformation and gore effects are gloriously lo-fi; something that became a characteristic factor during the subsequent extreme Japanese cyberpunk movement that followed in Tetsuo’s wake. There is also wonderful use of stop-motion photography, as the Salaryman’s transformation and eventual showdown against the metal fetishist becomes more and more complex – allowing them to fly up and down the streets of urban Tokyo at seemingly breakneck speeds. The attention to detail is sublime; pieces of scrap and wires come alive in a gritty and highly organic fashion.
Performances are manic and frequently difficult to fathom; it stands to reason that an unconventional narrative structure requires unconventional acting. Taguchi plays his part with relative ease; simultaneously repulsed and curious about what he is turning into whereas Tsukamoto – casting himself as antagonist – brings an insane and energetic charisma to the table. Fujiwara’s performance is also fine and syncs with the film’s personality admirably.
Camerawork is split between Tsukamoto and his co-star Fujiwara (depending on whose on screen) and its kinetic, mono-chromatic style compliments the content nicely and strangely enough, gives the DIY transformation and effects sequences an air of believability. With manic photography and equally aggressive editing, Tsukamoto has successfully created his own budgetless filmic universe where disbelief can be suspended indefinitely. This is rounded off with an aptly pounding industrial score courtesy of composer Chu Ishikawa giving the film extra propulsion.
Tetsuo is a masterpiece of underground filmmaking; a call to arms to all those aspiring film directors who feel disempowered because they don’t have the financial or technological resources to make unique and challenging cinema. Tsukamoto’s vision is raw, uncompromising and darkly humorous, and although its unconventional, abstract style won’t suit everyone’s taste, it will be a memorable ride for them nonetheless.
Film: Pan’s Labyrinth Release date: 21st May
2007 Certificate: 15 Running time: 119 mins…
Film: A Very Long Engagement Release date: 2nd
January 2006 Certificate: 15 Running time: 134 mins…
The first major wuxia epic with crossover appeal,
Ang Lee’s sweeping masterpiece spawned countless…