91. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)

“One of the most memorable screenings in the early years of Midnight Madness, Tetsuo so stunned the attending crowd that few noticed the print had no subtitles.”–Toronto International Film Festival

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Tomorowo Taguchi, Shinya Tsukamoto,

PLOT: A man who collects scrap metal (identified as “fetishist” in the credits) slices his leg open with a knife and inserts a metal pipe beside his thigh bone, then runs into the street when he notices maggots in the wound, where he is struck by a car driven by a salaryman and his girlfriend.  The salaryman leaves the scene of the accident, and later finds a piece of sharp metal growing out of his cheek; as the days go by, his entire body begins to transform into a machine.  Many hallucinations later, the fetishist, still-alive and also half made of metal, returns to do battle with the now almost completely mechanized salaryman.

Still from Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Shinya Tsukamoto honed his craft working in an experimental underground theater group, and Tetsuo originated as a play.
  • Tsukamoto is also an actor.  Besides playing the fetishist in Tetsuo, the IMDB lists thirty-six acting credits for him, including a major role in Takashi Miike‘s Ichi the Killer (2001).
  • The Iron Man was followed by two sequels: the less surreal, more action-oriented reworking Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and the just-released-on-DVD as of this writing Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009).
  • While Tetsuo has become a cult favorite over the years, it was not well-received on release, perhaps simply because it was too strange and underfunded to find its way onto many screens.  It won only one major award, “Best Film” at the Fantafestival in Rome (an event that has since disappeared).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Shinya Tsukamoto must have spent hours creating elaborate landscapes full of battered scrap metal and wire, and painstakingly animating sequences where the fetishist zooms through urban streets at the speed of amphetamine-enhanced thought; but no matter how much work the director put in to any effect, it’s the simple picture of the salaryman sporting an unbalanced, rotating drill bit penis that no one can forget.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDTetsuo is a carefully patterned, but effectively nonsensical, barrage


Short clip from Tetsuo: The Iron Man

of images of industrial dehumanization.  Men and women extrude cables, wires, gears, drills, threaded pipes, and miscellaneous machine parts from their skin, in glorious showers of blood.  Nightmare visions in grainy black and white flow at a breakneck pace to the pulsing beat of an industrial soundtrack.  It’s a square plug of a movie forced into the round connector of our cinematic expectations, and it emits dangerous sparks.

COMMENTS: Attempts to describe Tetsuo: The Iron Man to the uninitiated run up against a problem of missing touchstones—what other irrational gore movies about men transforming into machines from the inside out can you compare it to?  It’s often cited as an example of cyberpunk, but the label’s applicable in spirit only—sure, there’s plenty of punk, but where’s the cyber?  Tetsuo is not science fiction; there’s no indication it takes place in the future and no logical, scientific basis for the metallic transformations of the main characters (quite the contrary).  It’s something of a horror film, although the constant histrionics, lack of firm rules or obvious stakes, and absurd premise make it impossible to take seriously as conventional horror.  The salaryman shudders and shrieks his way through the entire film, suffering so much agony that it becomes ridiculous and we quickly become acclimated to the potentially terrifying aspects; they become background noise, like the industrial soundtrack. Tetsuo is sometimes called “the Japanese Eraserhead,” and while the two films are only superficially similar (they’re both black and white, low budget, and Neosurrealist), that description at least has the virtue of correctly identifying the audience for the movie: if you’re the kind of person who, upon hearing rumors of the existence of a “Japanese Eraserhead,” would make it your life’s mission to track down a copy, then this is the film you’ve been waiting for.  Of all the strained comparisons made to try to describe the film’s style, the most apropos may be to early David Cronenberg, because the Japanese and the Canadian’s shared obsession with bodily transformations: Tetsuo is with a sort of junkyard version of Cronenberg’s “New Flesh.”

But none of the usual comparisons fully capture the hyped-up, youthful energy of TetsuoLynch and Cronenberg are stately, classical and restrained compared to Shinya Tsukamoto, who starts Tetsuo in attack mode and never lets up for a moment.  Within the first five minutes, before the credits begin, he’s given us self-mutilation, inexplicable maggots, and a car crash scored to mellow 1950s style rock and roll.  We’re then treated to an impressionistic title sequence where a man in a suit does a higgity-jiggity, “I’ve-got-electrodes-attached-to-my-testicles” jitterbug inside a smoky foundry littered with junk.  The man discovers a jagged piece of metal sticking out of his cheek while he’s shaving, enjoys a phone call where the conversants repeat the word “hello” to each other eight times without ever advancing the conversation, and goes to a nearly deserted subway where a woman sitting on the bench next to him mutates into a half-metal monster and chases him through fluorescently-lit, concrete hallways.  The chase and battle are interspersed with shots of metallic landscapes full of abstract iron protrusions encasing a human arm.  After a bloody melee and another spastic jig, he notices metallic coils boiling under the flesh of his forearm and a corrugated pipe sticking out of his ankle, and he escapes via one of Tsukamoto’s favorite recurring effect, a breakneck-speed stop-motion dash through deserted streets.  Of course, he lands in a dream where his girlfriend sports a long flexible-pipe tail which she uses to sodomize him… all this in a mere twenty minutes, and his penis hasn’t even turned into a drill bit yet.  And so it goes, a whirlwind of high-octane images with no narrative consistency, but a constant sense of mechanical menace and of the ever-increasing cyborgificiation of our protagonist.

With no budget to speak of, Tetsuo builds urgency through rapid fire editing, cheap but painstakingly manufactured stop-motion effects, stomach-churning body modification, a pounding industrial soundtrack (which sounded far more intense, abrasive and nouveau in 1989 than it does today), weirdness, and obsession.  Although much of what appears onscreen, including the handheld camerawork and dingy shots of dirty city streets, is reminiscent of other underground and experimental films, much of the style (especially the speedy stop-motion animation) has a hip, stylish “music video” quality to it.  One suspects the movie is far more effective in black and white; the black blood that spurts on a mirror when the salaryman cautiously touches a sliver of metal looks like oil rather than the cheesy Kool-Aid colored karo syrup that usually passes for blood in low budget films.  The many metallic vistas Tsukamoto creates also look mysterious in monochrome.  Sometimes the visions are abstract, unrecognizable mass of coils, wires and iron scraps, so jumbled that they almost take on a liquid quality.  At other times they form definite patterns, as when the fetishist shows the salaryman a “new world” that looks like a necropolis of circuitry with resistors for headstones.  The bio-mechanical creations are impossible to take in at a glance; once the “iron man” is completely built, no one could sketch out the complex contours of his jagged, jury-rigged form.  It looks like he’s been magnetized and every tiny hunk of metal or machinery in a mile radius has attached itself to him in a random mélange.  The visual business of the film makes it an intense experience that has been wisely kept to just over an hour; if Tsukamoto had given us much more of this madness, he would have seen diminishing returns on his investment of imagination.

Though Tetsuo achieves artistry through style rather than symbol, it’s hard to ignore the metaphor at its core: just as the salaryman turns from man to machine, industrial society is gradually robbing us of our humanity. The opening shots, before any weirdness begins, depict a grimy city alley full of stacked bricks and building materials, and throughout the running time the film’s setting is deliberately urban and oppressively ugly.  There’s only one natural setting in the film, and that is only glimpsed on a television monitor.  The streets of the city are deserted, as if humanity has been displaced to make way for its machines.  Tsukamoto goes out of his way to shoot in desolate factories with broken windows, piles of junk on the floor, and discolored walls.  The assimilation of machinery into the human body almost makes sense in this world; the urban ugliness is absorbed into our very cells.  Tetsuo wears this metaphor very lightly, and often delivers it with absurd humor, but it’s always there in the background.

Although it mixes underground film with gory horror, the traditional Japanese surrealism of Seijun Suzuki with trashy cyberpunk sensibilities, and a little bit of Lynch with a bigger dose of Cronenberg, Tetsuo emerges as very much its own beast.  Unlike the man-machine hybrid of its title, its style feels whole and completely integrated.  What makes it original, I think, is what makes all great art feel new: the auteur’s eccentric obsessions, which he bravely follows to their (il)logical conclusions.  There was no such thing as a “metal fetishist” before Tsukamoto became one to make Tetsuo, and showed us the new world of man-machines seen through his eyes.  We can list the influences that birthed it, but Tetsuo may be more notable for its progeny.  Though invented in Europe, the Japanese have shown more natural aptitude for surrealism than has any other ethnicity.  But after the retirement of Shûji Terayama in the early eighties, bizarre Japanese cinema became a bit moribund, with most of its weird impulses being channeled into anime, where they could easily be rationalized and passed off as mere science fiction conceits. Tetsuo, and its 1992 sequel Body Hammer, gave the live action tradition the shot in the arm it needed, and paved the way for the New Weird Wave of the 1990s led by Takashi Miike.  The Tetsuo series also eventually spawned the unique Japanese sub-genre of mechas and bio-weapons, where man-machines battle each other in B-movie plots.  Drawing on Tetsuo‘s general air of weirdness (though toned down for the masses), movies like Meatball Machine (2005), Machine Girl (2008), Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Samurai Princess (2009), and others extracted the gory “awesome” elements from the final mecha melee between the salaryman and the fetishist in Tetsuo from the alienating artistic ingredients to create a commercially viable formula.  These films can be fun, but Tetsuo is the original, the place where gore and gears first merged into something magical.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“As surreally weird as ‘Eraserhead’ and as intense as a Novocainless tooth extraction…”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post

“Weird science-fiction fantasy, by turns surreal and nasty…”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

“Anime fans will enjoy this sustained live-action technotrash fever dream, but the uninitiated may find Tsukamoto’s nearly dialogue-free flight of metal fancy too esoteric and repetitious for their tastes.”–Joe Kane, The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope

IMDB LINK: Tetsuo, the Iron Man (1989)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Midnight Eye review: Tetsuo: The Iron Man – more background essay than review, Tom Mes’ short article discusses the influences on Tetsuo, from Godzilla to David Cronenberg

Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Another essay/review, from the site Snowblood Apple, which includes some nice extras: numerous stills, annotated links to further reviews, and downloadable desktop wallpaper

DVD INFO: Tetsuo: The Iron Man is not currently in print on DVD, but at this writing stocks are still plentiful and it is quite easy to obtain copies of previous releases.  The 1988 Image release (buy) sports no special features, but some reports suggest that it has the superior quality transfer of the film.  The 2005 Tartan Asia Extreme “Special Edition” (buy) adds a sneak peek at Tsukamoto’s then-upcoming feature Vital and a remastered Dolby soundtrack.  Rather than issuing a new DVD or Blu-ray release, Tartan has decided to go the digital  distribution route.  At the time of this writing Tetsuo was available for streaming on Netflix, and can be rented (rent) or legally downloaded-to-own (download) at Amazon and other outlets.

(This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers, including “John”, who simply called it “the weirdest.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “91. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)”

  1. An ur-prototype for the ’90s, and one hell of a twisted love story.

    I rented this at some point in the early ’90s, when I was tender young lad, and it disturbed the hell out of me. As a young teen, I was simply not prepared for the extreme sexuality of the whole thing. I watched it again a week or two ago, and I’m still pretty uncomfortable with it.

    Anyway, the ’90s were a transition state for technology, which this movie exploits in grand fashion. The techno-fetishism on display here is messy. Metal, wires, and magnetic tape eat up the screen. It’s a far cry from the slim simplicity that objects like the iPod have defined for new tech in our present era.

    I was listening to bands like Nine Inch Nails and Pop Will Eat Itself, and the visual aspects of that music took all of its cues from this film, whether they knew it or not. Messy tech. Lo-tech, like Gibson described in his “Johnny Mnemonic” before it got grafted onto a sub-standard movie.

    But back to the sexuality, which is this movie’s bread and butter. You could almost call it misogynistic, except that the main character’s girlfriend is as into it as everybody else. All of the characters are compulsively attracted to the danger of the dehumanizing industry of technology. The girl is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by the danger, it’s only the rotating dongle of pain that does her in, because she remains human for the actual act. Bad for her health.

    The attraction between characters here is hate-filled, but never far beneath the surface. It’s made explicit in the last scene, where the two victims/antagonists/protagonists have melded into one. Their grating clanking monstrosity has only one mission, to spread their infected love to the entire world.

    I admire this film. It has a lunatic genius, and I dig the soundtrack. It’s messed up, though.

  2. This asian body mutation movie is freaky funny and yet creepy at the same time. I enjoyed the movie ‘Tetsuo’ O.K. when the guy’s body begin to mutate into machine-being but I wish they had it way his flesh body joints inflatens or swells into the machine flesh-being. The early and latest 80’s asian horror films are the most craziest, horrifying movies ever made and lot better than today’s horror movies.

    I hope Asian people will make millions of new body horror asian films and even do eighty new crazy ‘tetsuo’ films but should use lots of makeup air-bladders FX.

  3. Hope they make seven or ten more ‘Tetsuo’ horror movie sequels and have them where a man changes into cyborg-beast even 10X more painfully and physically.

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