TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)

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Directed by:
Written by:
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Available now from Third Window Films and on VOD

One day I hope to enjoy life with even a small amount of the insane energy found in the 16mm films of Shinya Tsukamoto. This same kind of passion can be found in his early festival shorts, The Phantom of Regular Size, and The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy. The former is more or less a rough test run for his feature length debut, and it contains some of the infamous effects scenes but little narrative. The latter meanwhile is a surprisingly light story about an outcast boy who finds himself in a distant future ruled by vampires. Both movies contain the DNA of what would follow, including the actors, the frenetic camera angles, and the stop motion racing effects. But neither will prepare you for the fully realised nightmare of Tetsuo.

In a dirty factory cupboard of some kind a man obsessed with collecting pieces of metal, and pictures of track athletes, sits alone in a pile of wiring and junk. The Fetishist (Shinya Tsukamoto) seems to think that putting threaded pipes into his open wounds will give him a sense of satisfaction. Maybe it will help his racing speed? In some ways this ends up being true by the end of the story. But things go awry very quickly and in a panic he runs into the street, only to be struck down by a car. This opening tells you everything you need to know about the film. It’s going to be gruesome, it’s going to be stylish, and it’s going to be sexual. Even the oncoming vehicle is given an alluring sheen when smooth jazz begins to play as it speeds towards the camera.

Meanwhile the Salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) is trapped in the first of many bizarre dreams or visions. Initially he finds himself running from a mutated women through a train station. Soon after he finds that a piece of his razor blade is lodged in his face, or seems to be growing from his skin. Perhaps this is a kind of punishment? It’s apparent that he’s responsible for the demise of the Fetishist, who is now influencing these events after being reborn in an strange industrial cocoon. Perhaps these two, one coated in filthy residues, the other well groomed, are simply fated to clash. Maybe they represent the duality of the mind, one half complacent, the other obsessive. Or it could just all be a body horror movie about technology going too far.

These kinds of interpretations are yours to toy with, if you reach the credits of course. You can bring your own psychoanalysis, after all it’s a film that shares stylistic choices with both Videodrome and Eraserhead. With a touch of Jan Svankmayer’s animated effects for good measure. There are a lot of repressed urges, and there’s a lot of phallic imagery. In one sequence the Salaryman becomes excited by the sound teeth biting on a fork. Later as things unfold he finds he’s developed rocket boosters on his heels allowing him to race through Tokyo at high speed. It gives athlete’s foot a whole new meaning. Soon his desires reach new heights that cannot be contained. It’s a sweaty, pulsing, frenzied story during which every character looks ill or near death. But it’s also occasionally fun in a twisted kind of way.

‘Nothing shocks me,’ says Salaryman’s lover (Kei Fujiwara) before she sees the full extent of his mutated skin. Suffice to say her stomach isn’t quite as strong as she first claimed. Although she does seem to want his kisses, even after they battle with kitchen utensils. Darkly comic moments like this pepper the whole story, meaning that it’s not all totally bleak and disturbing. Although a lot of it still is. But after a while the idea of spinning power drill genitals does lend it an element of absurd humour. As does someone bursting through the skin of another character just to present a bouquet of flowers. As personalities and bodies merge the story starts to question the line between love and hate, as well as the line between flesh and steel.

Memories and television broadcasts also blur together in a number of sequences. It’s a low budget effect but this kind of approach is what lends the film a lot of its central appeal. The gritty black and white photography is as extreme as the film’s content at times, with plenty of dramatic angles and lighting to match. The effects showing the metamorphosis of Salaryman to Iron Man look incredible because the monochrome hides the line between each appliance. When everything is silver the themes of the story are that much stronger; and with the sound of Chu Ishikawa’s industrial score it becomes even more striking. Perverse and relentless, but striking. But how else to tell the story of a metal fetishist and a metal man coming together?

In some ways this Japanese take on the cyberpunk genre couldn’t be told any other way. If Godzilla was the representation of atomic power being used, then this must represent the fear of its technological aftermath. New hardware offers advancement but can also cause dependency and sickness after all. The high tech versus low life concept has never been depicted quite like this before or after, even in its cinematic siblings Akira and Pinocchio 964. There’s no coming back once everything is a mass of broken concrete, mutilated pets, and melting wires. There’s rebirth, but only after total annihilation. The sensory overload might begin to get tiring as things progress, but in a way that’s the whole point. Even with late in the game twists and suggestions of childhood trauma being throw in, this is never going to appeal to everyone. It’s not conventional and it’s not subtle. But that’s what makes it engaging.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Be sure to check out the other reviews in this series

BULLET BALLET

A SNAKE OF JUNE

TOKYO FIST

About Mocata 120 Articles
A sucker for classic epics, 80s science fiction and fantasy kitsch, horror, action, animation, stop motion, world cinema, martial arts and all kinds of assorted stuff and nonsense. If you enjoy a bullet ballet, a good eye ball gag or a story about time travelling robots maybe we can be friends after all.

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