In Profile Shinya Tsukamoto
Arguably one of the most important and influential figures in contemporary Japanese cinema, Shinya Tsukamoto is a director, actor, producer, writer, editor and cinematographer best known for his groundbreaking Tetsuo movies of the late-80s and early-90s.
Since his feature film debut Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), Tsukamoto has gone on to garner worldwide critical acclaim and a huge cult following, whilst being one of the first to spearhead the now popular extreme Asian cinema trend of the 1990s and 2000s.
Born on New Year’s Day 1960 in Tokyo, Japan, Tsukamoto’s interest in filmmaking began during his school days in the 1970s, producing 8mm movies with friends and presenting them in class. After a brief dalliance in theatre during his time at university, Tsukamoto returned to filmmaking by the mid-80s with short films The Phantom Of Regular Size (1986) and The Adventure Of Denchu Kozo (1987); the former – a blueprint for Tetsuo: The Iron Man that followed a few years later; the latter – a film based on one of Tsukamoto’s stage plays. Tsukamoto’s films, with a couple of exceptions, are set in his home city of Tokyo; with whom he has a complicated relationship: “It’s strange,” Tsukamoto has mused in the past, “part of me loves a city like Tokyo, but part of me would quite happily destroy it.”
When Tsukamoto’s official debut Tetsuo: The Iron Man took international audiences by surprise with its lo-fi, hyper-visceral imagery, it became a cornerstone genre text and the centrepiece of Japan’s short lived extreme cyberpunk movement of the late-80s and 1990s. It also served as an effective manifesto for Tsukamoto that laid out many of the themes, conventions and obsessions that went on to return in many of his subsequent works; chiefly: the identity threatening force of the urban metropolis and modernity’s potential for dehumanisation, as well as abject psychosexual exploration reminiscent of venereal horror originator David Cronenberg. The film’s slowly transforming protagonist (Tomorowo Taguchi’s salaryman turning into a super-powered scrap-metal monstrosity) is comparable to the Canadian director’s remake of The Fly (1986).
Tsukamoto’s penchant for the frenetic, visceral assault that was slowly making its way from festival to festival had all but disappeared completely by his sophomore follow-up Hiruko The Goblin (1990); an adaptation of two storylines from Daijiro Moroboshi’s manga series Yokai Hantra (Demon Hunter). Its similarities to the more tongue-in-cheek style splatter movies of Sam Raimi (Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987)) and early Peter Jackson (Bad Taste (1987), Meet The Feebles (1989)) stands it as a strange exception to Tsukamoto’s otherwise thematically unified filmography; more in keeping with his experimental theatre days than with the films he would go on to produce. It’s also the first of two studio commissioned films in the Tsukamoto catalogue, both for Sedic International (as well as moving away from the sprawl of Tokyo), with the rest being independently financed.
Hiruko The Goblin’s existence was largely the result of studio reluctance to bank roll a second Tetsuo film, which surfaced through independent means a couple of years later. Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer (1992) was essentially a re-imagining of the ideas put forward in the first Tetsuo film, making it more of a companion piece rather than a straight sequel. Once again, Tomorowo Taguchi’s salaryman transforms into a metal monster and does battle with the film’s equally metallic antagonist (played again by Tsukamoto). The results are less immediate and lack the bizarre, visceral coherency of the first movie in favour of a more accessible narrative structure.
Rage in the city
Tsukamoto’s filmmaking began to shy away from the science fiction/horror iconography that had characterised it so far in favour of more mature visions that still retained the director’s thematic concerns – the symbiosis of city and citizen – and the hyper-kinetic presentation of said material. Tsukamoto’s films Tokyo Fist (1995) and Bullet Ballet (1998) continued his exploration of the body transformed by rage, albeit only figuratively as opposed to the literal metamorphosis in the Tetsuo films.
However, his last film of the 1990s Gemini – his only other ‘director-for-hire’ work – moved away from the contemporary cityscape and explored Tsukamoto’s staple concerns in a period countryside setting. Based on a story by Edogawa Ranpo (one of Tsukamoto’s favourite authors), Gemini revolves around a destitute peasant stealing the identity of his estranged twin brother who is the town’s highly respected and successful doctor. The film serves as a transitional piece in the Tsukamoto filmography.
The body fantastic
At the turn of the century, Tsukamoto returned, not only to independent filmmaking but to the domineering metropolis of Tokyo with psychosexual drama A Snake Of June (2002). Concerning the surreal sexual re-awakening of the repressed wife of an aging salary man, A Snake Of June harks back to the monochromatic invasiveness of past work such as Tetsuo and Bullet Ballet, whilst simultaneously suggesting Tsukamoto’s future output – abandoning visceral violence in favour of a more psychological study of the pure body, free of transformation – although Tsukamoto’s recurring theme of transcendence remains. This updated manifesto continued through to his next feature Vital (2004), which again obsesses over the human flesh and the consciousness contained within.
Return to horror
After contributing a short twenty minute work to multi-segmented Japanese film Female (2005), Tsukamoto returned to the horror genre with the short feature Haze (2005) – a film about a wounded man (played by Tsukamoto) trapped in a abstract labyrinth based on the multiple layers of hell – along with Nightmare Detective (2006) – a police procedural about a suicide case and alternate realities. It was followed by a sequel; Nightmare Detective 2 (2008), which continues the story, with Tsukamoto stating plans on making the series a trilogy at some point.
In the meantime, though, after seventeen years, Tsukamoto has returned to the world of Tetsuo with a third outing. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009) is Tsukamoto’s first English language film, although still set in Japan. An American living in Japan with a Japanese family is provoked into transformation when his young son is killed by a hit and run driver. An American version of Tetsuo had been talked about for years; at one point a co-directorship between Tsukamoto and Quentin Tarantino was considered back in the mid-90s, but failed to materialise. This incarnation has been seen as a compromise of sorts; making it more accessible to a world audience whilst retaining a modicum of integrity. The film premiered at the 2009 Venice film festival to a somewhat negative and underwhelming response; not unlike the initial reaction to Tetsuo II when that was first unveiled.
Tsukamoto’s films feel very immediate and personal, each one coming across as a labour of love.
Returning to Venice in 2011, Tsukamoto won back those previous detractors with his followup film, Kotoko. Re-visiting the territory explored in A Snake of June and Vital, whilst incorporating nightmarish horror elements from other work both past and recent, Kotoko was a great success. It won Venice’s Best Film Award in the Orrizonti section, the first Japanese film ever to do so, and went on to garner acclaim at other festivals.
Like David Cronenberg, Shinya Tsukamoto has developed an intrinsic, unified body of corporeal work where each film is simultaneously a similar yet differing exploration of a core nexus of recurring themes. By performing most of the key roles himself – directing, writing, editing, producing etc., as well as acting in many of his and other people’s films (Takashi Miike’s Ichi The Killer (2001), for example) – Tsukamoto’s films feel very immediate and personal, each one coming across as a labour of love; even with his infrequent studio efforts. Staying fiercely independent, despite his expanding worldwide following, Tsukamoto’s uncompromising style has helped pave the way for contemporary Japanese cinema’s international breakthrough.
2009 Tetsuo: The Bullet Man
2008 Nightmare Detective 2
2006 Nightmare Detective
2005 Female (‘Tamamushi’ segment)
2002 A Snake Of June
1998 Bullet Ballet
1995 Tokyo Fist
1992 Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer
1990 Hiruko The Goblin
1989 Tetsuo: The Iron Man
1987 The Adventure Of Denchu Kozo
1986 The Phantom Of Regular Size
Iron Man – The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, Tom Mes, 2005, FAB Press
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