Tag Archives: Shinya Tsukamoto

“SOLID METAL NIGHTMARES”: THE SHINYA TSUKAMOTO BOX SET

is more than the sum of his parts–his cold, greased parts. During my progression through Arrow’s 2020 release of Solid Metal Nightmares, I became familiar with the director/actor/screenwriter/producer/creative designer. From his roots as a glibly nihilistic visionary, he grew into a sanguinely nihilistic storyteller. Arrow’s boxed set puts virtually all his history on display for enjoyment and dissection.

The dissection comes in the form of the many extras, some of which are bulleted below:

  • Audio commentaries on all ten features (or near-features) from Tom Mes–an expert in Japanese cinema, I am informed, but those who know me know I haven’t listened to these
  • Half-a-dozen-or-so interviews with the director from over the years, including one exclusive to the set
  • Archival featurettes, documentaries, music clips, and trailers
  • A beautiful, hard-bound book with essays about each of the films included, typically in thematic pairings
  • Reversible title sleeves for the individual Blu-ray discs
  • The requisite double-sided poster (alas, no “postcards” for this; I’d have loved them to send notes to friends and loved ones)
  • And a box

I knew “Solid Metal Nightmares” would soon become a collector’s item, even beyond its designated collector status. I ordered this set back when it was new (I paid some sixty bucks for it new; it now fetches close to two hundred on the secondary market), and the box I received showed up  a bit damaged. I felt the damage was appropriate to the collection, however: every hero and heroine Tsukamoto puts to screen is irrevocably damaged in some way. I’m thinking of sending the package back to the director for him to spruce up with some bolts and metal filings.

Still from Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989)
Tetsue: The Iron Man

These past months a number of you will have noticed random Tsukamoto reviews cropping up on the site, giving a rough timeline of my journey. As I feel is always the case, the movie is the thing to judge—how it’s transferred visually, how the audio feels on the eardrums, and whether the framing integrity is maintained. Rest assured, dear reader, that all the films—Tetsuo: the Iron ManTetsuo II: Body HammerThe Adventure of Denchu-KozoTokyo FistBullet BalletHazeA Snake of JuneVitalKotoko, and Killing—look and feel as close to Tsukamoto’s celluloid (and later, digital) dreams as possible. Nothing is too crisp (I’m looking at you, Tetsuo), nothing is washed-out, and every clink, slam, kachunk, sigh, scream, whisper, and driving soundtrack blasts—or not—as appropriate.

Just about every film included is at least recommendable, but I cannot help raise an eyebrow at one exclusion and one inclusion. The exclusion first: for reasons beyond my understanding, Tsukamoto’s early (and color!) short film, Futsû saizu no kaijin, is nowhere to be seen—which is a pity, as it laid the ground work for the more expansive Tetsuo: the Iron Man that followed a few years later. Ah well.

The odd inclusion—which I was more than happy enough to watch, mind you—is his latest film, Killing. This movie does have some “metal” in it, albeit only in the opening scene where we witness a katana being forged. However, it is a contemplative period drama set in the late Edo period, and tonally is a very calm (albeit rather depressing) vision of Imperial decline. It is a good movie, to be certain, and watching Shinya Tsukamoto as an aging ronin is a treat. But as the finale in a collection dubbed “Solid Metal Nightmares,” it’s a bit incongruous.

Fans of Shinya Tsukamoto who don’t already own this are probably few and far between. To those who didn’t have the good luck of snapping this up on pre-order, I would still argue that the current $200 price tag is well worth the outlay. With a little luck, the folks at Arrow will re-release this, and then put together a set of the director’s other features. (May I suggest “Solid Metal Daydreams”?)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A wholly original moviemaking genius who most certainly paved the way for the outlaw likes of Takashi Miike or Sion Sono, his films often took a surreal, hyperkinetic audiovisual approach to his visceral character studies.  Frequently ultraviolent, psychosexual and dripping with physicality, Tsukamoto’s work resembles nothing which came before in the annals of Japanese cinema.”–Andrew Kotwicki, The Movie Sleuth (box set)

CAPSULE: KOTOKO (2011)

コトコ

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Cocco, Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: A young mother suffering from violent hallucinations loses custody of her son before a mild-mannered novelist enters her life.

COMMENTS: As my trip through Shinya Tsukamoto’s back-catalogue continues, my appreciation for his genius grows. Kotoko manages to be the most straightforward of his films while also being the most disturbing. There is no metal grafting, no superhuman violence, and, despite the narrator’s unreliability, the action is grounded in the mundane. The dark, harrowing side of the mundane. Perhaps not “weird” for our purposes (though it comes close), Kotoko stands out among the auteur’s typical work—and proves that Tuskamoto’s toolkit of perturbation extends far beyond his “typical” mechano-nihilistic visions.

We first meet Kotoko (J-Pop star “Cocco”) as she narrates how she sees “double”. At any moment Kotoko, may witness someone doing one thing—reading along with a toddler, say—only to see that person’s double as well, typically acting as a raging, violent id. She is aware of her condition, an affliction she can only ward off through song. Her sole motivation for enduring is her infant son. After a dramatic breakdown spurred by a child’s screams and spilled stir-fry, the boy is taken into her sister’s custody. Kotoko’s latent self-destructive tendencies worsen until she meets a quiet writer (Shinya Tuskamoto), who overhears her singing on a bus and decides to stalk her.

The first act is unsettling, the third act is nigh-on devastating. But the second—that’s where Kotoko is most bizarre. “What madness ensues?,” you ask. Amazingly, none. The film’s middle tranche is the “romantic comedy” filling of an otherwise dispiriting donut of a story. Cocco and Tsukamoto have a magical, socially inept chemistry. As a shy and somewhat bumbling literary celebrity, Tuskamoto adds “awkward romantic interest” to his acting arsenal (previously limited to “metal fetishist” and “emotionally benumbed salaryman”). During one of his stalking-visits, he fears the worst when Kotoko doesn’t answer her door, so he breaks in and finds her bleeding on her bathroom floor. Kotoko reaches almost mad-cap levels of silly dialogue and physical comedy as he charges back and forth between the bathroom and the place where she keeps the towels, always grabbing the wrong piece of fabric, while Kotoko patiently and bleedingly gestures and corrects him.

Had this continued, Kotoko would deserve a place amongst our esteemed, weird titles. That it does not isn’t a failure in filmmaking, of course, but a testament to the versatility of Tsukamoto. Instead, the rom-com provides the audience a much-needed breather between the setting up and knocking down of the titular heroine. Kotoko is something of a vanity project for the famous J-Pop star, but it is one of the oddest celebrity vehicles I’ve ever seen. Whether teary-eyed, widely smiling, writhing, singing, or dancing, Cocco exhibits a violent vulnerability not typically associated with mega-stars. With Tsukamoto, she finds the perfect technician to bring her vision to life; with Cocco, Tsukamoto gets to prove that whatever the story is, he can tell it–even if there aren’t any gears, cogs, or drill-bits.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…few films can claim to give such an uncompromising view of what it must be like to be crazy, as seen from the inside. Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ comes to mind, or Polanski’s ‘Repulsion.’ Both of these films are not the easiest to watch, especially when seen for the first time, and ‘Kotoko’ is a lot like that.” -Ard Vijn, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: TOKYO FIST (1995)

東京フィスト

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: Shinya Tsukamoto, Kahori Fujii, Kôji Tsukamoto

PLOT: Tsuda Yoshiharu is a mild-mannered salaryman whose engagement winds up on the rocks after an old high school friend suddenly reappears in his life.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Tsukamoto’s take on the boxing melodrama is, for the most part, “only” as strange as one might expect from the auteur of body-mechanics. However, the explosive triple-climax of sports violence, body horror, and metallo-spiritual fervor wrenches Tokyo Fist from the realm of the merely eccentric and slams it squarely into the pulsing weird sensors of the viewer’s brainpan.

COMMENTS: With its jerky camera work and dissonant soundscape, Tetsuo: the Iron Man would seem like lightning captured in a bottle—a one-time occurrence. Heaven knows its spiritual sequel never quite managed to capture the frenetic discomfort of Tsukamoto’s paean to corporeal mechanization. Perhaps it was filming in color, perhaps it was the attempt to graft an actual story on to the madness—whatever it was, Tetsuo II: Body Hammer feels like a softer cousin of the original man of iron. In Tokyo Fist, Tuskamoto reclaims that lightning he captured that first time around, somehow harnessing its electricity to transform a simple tale of romantic betrayal and depression into a jolting and exhausting treatise on violence and revenge.

Tsuda Yoshiharu (Shinya Tsukamoto) represents any black-tied, white-shirted salaryman in greater Tokyo. He sells insurance packages. He apologizes obsequiously. And he’s constantly worn out and perspiring. It’s been so long since he’s had sex with his fiancée Hizuru (Kahoro Fujii) that neither can remember when they last thus exerted themselves. A colleague browbeats him into passing along a “gift” of cash to professional boxer Kojima (Kôji Tsukamoto, Shinya’s real-life brother). As fate would have it, Kojima is an old high school buddy of Tsuda’s. It’s no happy reunion, though, when the boxer starts showing up uninvited, and seduces the good salaryman’s lady.

So what happens next? Tsuda joins the boxing club that Kojima belongs to—pursuing a more traditional variety of “body alteration” than in Tetsuo—and things get violent. This is all to be expected in a boxing/romance/revenge/redemption movie. However, each of those four genre flag-posts is subverted here. Starting with redemption: Tsuda’s quest to buff up and out box his rival turns into something on the spiritual side of suicidal. His revenge becomes moot when Hizuru shows strange signs of her own personal change: what begins with a tattoo escalates to the self-installation of increasingly large piercings in increasingly deep chunks of her flesh. The romance between Tsuda and Hizuru seems almost non-existent, just a cutesy momentum that is instantly derailed by the intrusion of the (occasionally feral) Kojima.

And then there’s the boxing. It’s worth mentioning the “reality” of Tokyo Fist and how it’s captured before elaborating. At the start, everything’s traditionally lit: the “salaryman introduction” drives home a hyper-normality. Increasingly, though, Tsukamoto takes his lighting cues from silent films. Nighttime is always a lush blue tone; the daytime becomes harsh. Eventually the only realism appears during boxing matches. And as expected, Tsukamoto doesn’t shy away from jarring sound. There’s always the risk of an earful of grinding rivets to ruin one’s complacency as the training room montages begin writhing staccato-style on top of each other. Slam editing, slam sound, slamming faces, slamming flesh, culminating in a mystical blood spout finale. This ain’t no Rocky.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This is a film about sex and violence, and viewed as such it approaches the level of a masterpiece, albeit a distinctly surreal one.”–Marv Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

9*. GEMINI (1999)

Sôseiji

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Masahiro Motoki, Ryô

PLOT: Yukio is a successful doctor, decorated for his service in the war. His wife Rin is an amnesiac. Yukio discovers he has an identical twin from whom he was separated at birth—a resentful and savage twin, bent on revenge.

Still from Gemini (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Tsukamoto adapted the story from a 1924 short story by Edogawa Rampo (“the Japanese Edgar Allan Poe”).
  • In an unusual move, fellow director assembled a 15-minute “making of” featurette to accompany the film on DVD.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first glimpse of the twin in the shadows. He looks just like Yukio, but wears ragged robes and a bizarre fur earmuff that covers half of his face. He shakes like he’s having a fit, then approaches the camera by doing cartwheels. It’s scary enough to give someone a heart attack.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Eyebrowless clan; somersaulting doppelganger

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pulling back from the unbridled mania of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and similar body-horror experiments, Shinya Tsukamoto proves that he can generate cold sweats with a more subtle, purely psychological approach. With its deep shadows and determined pace, Gemini generates an uncanny horror that seeps into your bones.

The opening minutes of “The Making of Gemini

COMMENTS: Gemini begins with an abstract, ominous prologue. It Continue reading 9*. GEMINI (1999)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURE OF DENCHU-KOZO (1987)

Denchû kozô no bôken; AKA The Great Analog World

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DIRECTED BY: Shinya Tsukamoto

FEATURING: N. Senba, Nobu Kanaoka, , , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: Young Hikari is bullied because of the electric pylon growing out of his back, but he’s got a time machine; after using it to impress a girl, he finds himself twenty-five years in the future in a land plagued by cybernetically enhanced vampires.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Seeing as how Tetsuo: the Iron Man is Certified and this film has all the same weird ingredients–and then some–it would be remiss if this did not elbow its way into the growing Apocrypha crowd.

COMMENTS: For those with a smattering of Japanese, the title explains the premise: this movie is about the adventure of “electric rod boy”. Within the movie, he is given the more formal (and heroic) title by a mysterious servant of the time-tunnel: The Electric Pylon Boy! (“The” added for saga-worthy emphasis.) When the most normal character in a time-travel-cyber-vampire story has a metal rod growing out of his back, you know you’re in “weird” territory.

Of course, we’d expect nothing less from Shinya Tsukamoto. Two years before he graced the world with his chef d’oeuvre, Tetsuo: the Iron Man, he put together this pint-sized sci-fi epic that, visually at least, laid quite a bit of groundwork for his more famous tale of technological transmogrification. Not content to merely be the writer, director, and nearly every other role behind the camera, Tsukamoto puts in a turn as one of the doomsday vampires with a performance that fully develops his “fetishist” character in Tetsuo.

Back to The Adventure of Denchu-Kozo. Our hero, Hikari, is the butt of jokes—not just because he’s a nerdy weakling, but also because of the strange, prominent (and totally, totally non-phallic, I swear) growth on his back. He’s beaten up, because “boys will be boys,” but said boys get thwacked themselves by the protective Momo, ever armed with her stick. Thanking his savior, Hikari says, “I’ve got a time machine”, and before you can say, “Are you sure this is a good idea…?,” he zaps himself into the future!

What ensues after that involves a lot of wires (growing and otherwise), some highly self-consciously silly montages, and vague allusions to the explosive substance “Adam Junior” (not to be confused with “Atom…”) whose explosions block out the sun sufficiently for the Shinsemgumi vampires to emerge from hiding and conquer humanity. There’s also the first glimpse of the notorious drill-bit penis that everyone knows and loves from Tsukamoto’s follow-up, as well as plenty of that stop-motion/high-speed character movement that I personally can’t get enough of. And just in case you didn’t think this movie was serious, it also takes La Jetée-esque logic into consideration.

But no, this movie is not remotely serious. Denchu-Kozo‘s respect for coherent time loops is fused with so much random crazy metal junk (figuratively and literally) that any pause for intellectual or emotional reflection is almost immediately derailed by synthesizer-backed action platitudes, pylon bonking humor, or Tsukamoto’s character hamming things up even beyond the main course of Ham with Ham. Incidentally released the same year as science fiction classics RoboCop and Bad TasteThe Adventure of Denchu-Kozo nicely bridges their respective tones of cyber-science-fiction and silly-savage-slapstick.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“….[an] insane forty-six minute short… For such a brash and often perverse effort, it is curious to note that it is sweetly naive: it’s really a child’s story, a superhero origin story, wrapped up in a post-Apocalyptic nightmare, only with violence, nudity, and a woman turning into a doomsday machine.” -Mark Cole, Rivets on the Poster (DVD)

CAPSULE: ICHI THE KILLER (2001)

Koroshiya 1

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, ,

PLOT: A sadomasochistic Yakuza relishes being hunted by a mysterious hitman named Ichi, hoping the killer will bring him to undreamed of heights of pain.

Still from Ichi the Killer (2001)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ichi is strange, for sure, but as important as it was in developing Takashi Miike’s cult and bringing his work before more round-eyes, it values gruesomeness and shock value over pure weirdness.

COMMENTS: Ichi is notorious for its violence and sadism, and rightfully so; but, as a Takashi Miike joint, it bears an undeniable brand of quality and style. Also, as is typical with Miike, it’s uneven, almost by design, changing from yakuza intrigue to gross-out torture fest to campy black comedy at the crack of the director’s whip. The complicated plot echoes both Yojimbo (in the way one character pits rival crime factions against one another) and Memento (in the way a vulnerable man’s memories are manipulated to make him a tool of vengeance). Tadanobu Asano gives a cool, cult star-making performance as Kakihara, the ruthlessly sadomasochistic villain with dyed blonde hair and unexplained facial scars that have carved his face into a perma-Joker grin. As with every Miike movie, it contains a few moments of transcendent gonzo poetry—my personal favorite being when Jijii (played by Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto) strips off his shirt to reveal an improbably jacked physique.

Still, even Miike’s best movies tend to have troughs along with its peaks, and Ichi has a number of problems that prevent it from rising very far above its nihilistic base. The ostensible protagonist—Ichi of the title—is not at all believable as a legendary assassin; in fact, his prowess at killing is completely absurd in a way that doesn’t match, or serve, the serious and frightening tone of the Kakihara’s segments. Nor does the performance of otherwise fine actor Nao Ohmori fully exploit the sympathy one might have for the character, had he been portrayed in a less cartoonish manner.

Even more problematic is the film’s violence—not its extent so much as Miike’s inconsistent attitude to depicting it. At times, torture and cruelty are depicted with a realism that makes one cringe and empathize with the victim, while at other times it’s treated with a insouciance (as when a shocked face is detached from its head and shown sliding down a bloody wall). Sometimes these inconsistent tones coexist in the same scene: Ichi witnesses a brutal rape, with the victim’s face painfully swollen from a merciless beating, then dispatches the assailant by splitting him vertically from head to toe with his razor shoe. In some sense, alternating the absurd and realistic approaches to violence makes the scene more nightmarish, keeping the audience off-balance by mixing fearful anticipation with an unexpected result. I can appreciate this effect, to some extent, without actually enjoying or approving of it. The problem is that it’s more authentically sadistic to treat suffering as a joke than to face it head-on; Ichi too often takes on the sadist’s attitude that others’ pain is entertainment. Although torture and gore is pervasive and extreme throughout Ichi—including a man hanging suspended from hooks dug into his skin, among other atrocities—the violence in Miike’s previous Audition is far more harrowing and meaningful, because a fleshed-out human beings whom we can care about suffer (and inflict) it, instead of the pain being just a revolting exhibition occurring between two caricatures.

Ichi the Killer is one of those canonical cult movies (like Donnie Darko) that is constantly being restored, tinkered with and reissued in new home video editions. The latest on offer is the 2018 Blu-ray from Well Go USA, which bills itself as the “definitive remastered edition.” While it is reportedly an improvement on the 2010 Blu from Tokyo Shock, it lacks any significant supplemental features aside from the decade-old commentary track from Miike and original manga writer Hideo Yamamoto recycled from an old DVD release. In any release, it should go without saying to beware the English-language dub.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the kind of deeply horrible and bizarre movie that really can only be viewed from between your fingers, or behind the sofa, for most of its two-hours-plus running time.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “Pretty weird, more leaning on subtle absurdity, but when [Miike] goes for it, he can deliver some really great black comic intellect…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: TESTUO II: BODY HAMMER (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Shinya Tsukamoto

PLOT: After receiving a mysterious injection and having his son killed by members of a cult, a man’s body starts to slowly transform into a weapon of flesh and steel as he tracks down the cultists and their leader, the “Metal Fetishist.”

Still from Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Body Hammer is a larger-budgeted, more conventional reinterpretation of the original Tetsuo that partially attempts to rationalize its world. By common standards, however, it’s still very much a weird movie, packed with bizarre images and occasional outbursts of the nightmarish industrial madness that defined the first. With the List’s increasingly limited slots and Body Hammer‘s more surreal predecessor already certified, there isn’t a lot of pressure to add this one.

COMMENTS: Shinya Tsukamoto’s first Tetsuo, whose status as a landmark of weird cinema and one of the most defining representatives of the Japanese Cyberpunk film movement is contested by few, was a truly unique, aggressively hyperactive, feverish industrial nightmare set in its own immersive realm. To the dismay of some fans, the sequel is clearly a very distinct effort to craft a more accessible movie, with a structured narrative and a focus on its dramatic plot, and more nuanced and realistic characters along with their emotions and motivations (the protagonist even gets a name). The most obvious departure from the first film’s style is the cold, sterilized color palette (with an emphasis on blue and white) that sets up a robustly clinical and artificial world. Before the transformations kick in, it seems like the humans we see are already machine-like and dehumanized, moving lifelessly through an imposing urban environment that dwarfs and assimilates them. Inevitably, the main character’s metamorphosis into a man-machine hybrid mechanism later on may look like a natural evolution in such surroundings.

The first scenes after the opening credits show Tomoo, Body Hammer’s version of the “salaryman”, waking up and having breakfast with his wife and child while discussing a dream from the previous night. These initial moments would be almost casual if it wasn’t for Tsukamoto’s insistence on unconventional angles and a fluid camera that freely hovers and rotates. After the family is assaulted in a mall by a group of mysterious skinheads who kidnap the son and trigger Tomoo’s transformation with an injection, setting the main plot course in motion, we get the first glimpses of the original story. It’s easy to say that the more expository approach of the sequel robs it of the magic and low-budget charm that made the first so memorable and unique, but the sensibility behind it is the same. To describe it simply, Body Hammer feels like an intersection between our familiar world and the alternative, hallucinatory logic that governs the first Tetsuo universe. As such, it’s more accessible, but there are never any signs of the auteur’s vision being hampered by the imperatives of telling a coherent story.

In fact, Tsukamoto’s directorial tics shine through the film. Sometimes, he interrupts the narrative’s course with bizarre montages mirroring Tomoo’s grotesque mutation. It helps that the film grows progressively stranger and closer to its predecessor’s insanely energetic pace, with furious imagery of sprawling wires, cables, pipes and random metallic parts that overpower and merge with fragile flesh, with the difference being that here they are lightly mediated by a contextual plot. As the movie approaches the climatic confrontation between Tomoo and the fetishist, it even presents us an explanatory flashback that clarifies the antagonist’s motivations and introduces a final twist related to his relationship with the main character. This sudden device comes completely unexpected, mainly because we would never guess that Tsukamoto would show such a preoccupation with the narrative’s background. Even this passage, however, is infused with his surrealistic style, and it may actually contain the film’s ultimate surreal set piece, culminating in a murder scene that manages to be simultaneously gory, dreamlike and touching.

The additions to the Tetsuo mythology, possible through the bigger budget, are also welcome. It is, for example, nice to see a whole cult of metal worshipers operating, instead of a sole maniac like the original, as well as further inventive variants of the bloody and biomechanical mutations of flesh, steel and rust.

The consensus on Body Hammer is positive, but a number of fans show discontent with what they see as an ill-fated attempt at making sense out of the perfectly irrational fable that was the original. To a certain extent, they are correct. But the decision to flesh out the character dynamics and lend emotional weight to the chaotic events on screen, works because it passively accepts and coexists with the absurdity of the film’s plot. In the end, Body Hammer is immersed in its mix of alien atmosphere and cold, fantastical reality, making it both a satisfyingly strange movie and a distinct enough one from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Tsukamoto’s preoccupations with meta(l)morphosis, body horror and unchecked masculinity remain firmly in place, as does the writer/director’s way with outrageous images and ideas.”–Anton Bitel, Eye for Film