TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009)

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Currently Available in Arrow’s Solid Metal Nightmares set (Region 1)

Welcome to the barrel of the gun, and welcome back Tsukamoto fans. While the genre of the earlier Tetsuo films is perhaps debatable, one of their strengths is the way they feel so peculiar and unique. But with the second iteration (not counting Phantom of a Regular Size) some of that impenetrable exterior was lost. The original might have been part of a new wave of cyberpunk movies, leading to the so-called splatterpunk genre with the likes of Pinocchio 946, but the sequel added mainstream ideas about superhuman metamorphosis derived from family histories and triggered by anger. Which is unfortunately repeated here with more focus on conventional tropes and action. Does it at least blend the repulsive horror visuals with some slick battle sequences?

Beyond an amazing title there’s a lot of recycling and none of if it is particularly interesting. Without the incredible 16mm photography the condensation erupting from a convulsing man is not as exciting. Without the bizarre framing and twisted erotic overtones the inciting incident is oddly cruel. There’s another lost child and another desperate family, but despite the same jazz interludes and body cannons it’s all weirdly watered down. Some would say that all film-makers are always telling the same story during their careers, but this isn’t the way to do it after so many prior highs. A lot of this instalment feels like an imitation or even a fan film which is very unfortunate. It’s a hard feeling to shake right from the start because of the acting and the visuals.

For whatever reason the insane energies of Tomorowo Taguchi have been cut down to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo and instead the lead character is American office worker called Anthony (Eric Bossick). In fact most of the film uses English speaking actors, for reasons that are also unclear, and nobody comes off particularly well. The death of Anthony’s son Tom might be shocking (even before the acid blood begins to pour) but his reaction and that of his Japanese wife Yuriko (Akiko Monou) is pretty stilted. Anthony wants to wallow in despair while Yuriko wants revenge, but neither is convincing. Meanwhile grandfather ‘Ride’ (Stephen Sarrazin) wants to look out for the family’s health but clearly has a hidden agenda of his own.

There could be some subtext here as ideas about US and Japanese collaboration (in both domestic and business spheres) produces bile spewing monsters, but there’s not really that much to analyse. The plot involving a corporation trying to profit from an ‘artificial body’ program is just too boring to warrant deeper examination. Anthony’s deceased mother and a secret basement in the family home also come into play as things progress but it’s all so pedestrian. The other films could hardly be described as having nuanced characters and complex narratives, but by reducing the essential ingredients to this level something has been lost. It all could do with being gutted to have less plot and more visuals; style over substance would work wonders.

The style itself is occasionally interesting, if often bland. There’s a washed out sepia look to the whole affair which can be quite pleasing. But the look of the story, and the action, is spoiled by erratic camera work. One fun moment involving a mail man assassin is intriguing, but a full SWAT team raid is impossible to focus on. Early in the story Anthony can’t even ride a bicycle without the lens shaking all over the place, so when he begins literally climbing the walls it becomes too much. It all looks far better when the camera is locked down and images of x-rays and medical scans are used to create a sinister mood. Even the monster effects are eventually quite good when they build up to larger sizes and the more complex make-up work is allowed to be showcased.

However, beyond spectacle the narrative suffers from too much info-dump dialogue about ‘android DNA’ and a lot of undercooked character motivation. Yuriko goes from claiming that only killing the bad guy will make her feel alive, to suddenly wanting another baby. ‘The Guy’ himself (Shinya Tsukamoto himself of course) seems to be an anarchic hacker tipping off the authorities to the genetics project, but later dons the same old track runner’s singlet with the black X from 1989. Still, at least he’s giving a good bad guy performance that fits with the overall tone. Elsewhere Anthony’s delivery of the line ‘was dad a perverted freak?’ may be funny out of context but it doesn’t do much for the film overall, which is marred by strange whispered lines and dubious ADR, even from native English speakers.

In the end if all you want are some disturbing iron-flesh mutation effects and a few new tracks of Chu Ishikawa music then this might be enough. Both are downgraded versions of what came before, but it’s occasionally striking when it isn’t headache inducing. With better camera work and some celluloid grit it might be more successful, but in this state it doesn’t cut it as a third chapter. For a series that seemed so opaque and overloaded with baroque images and metaphors this is very pedestrian. For a blend of action and horror it’s a big let down when it could have been a lot of fun. The results might have seen wider success if it had been shot coherently; something without subtitles and with lots of creature battles. Instead it’s another cult movie; one for the curious and the completists only.

Rating: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

Further Reading:

A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

VITAL (2004)

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About Mocata 149 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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