Tag Archives: Shinya Tsukamoto

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

LIST CANDIDATE: A SNAKE OF JUNE (2002)

Rokugatsu No Hebi

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Asuka Kurosawa, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yûji Kôtari

PLOT: A sexually repressed woman is blackmailed into living out her erotic fantasies by a stalker.

Still from A Snake of June (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Done in a sleazier and more straightforward style, the script’s voyeuristic hook might have led us into “erotic thriller” territory, resulting in a film destined to play “Cinemax After Dark” at 2:30 AM. But Snake is a fever dream of outsider auteur Shinya Tsukamoto, who turns it into Belle de Jour by way of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s sometimes a little frustrating totry to  follow, but there is no doubt Tsukamoto’s getting freaky, and not just in the bedroom.

COMMENTS: The first half of A Snake of June is fairly conventional (at least, by our standards). Mousy Rinko answers calls at a suicide hotline. Her husband, the older Shigehiko, is a salaryman with a cleaning fetish and little time for romance. Iguchi is a depressed photographer who only takes pictures of household objects: blenders, or waffle irons. When Iguchi calls Rinko and she talks him down off the metaphorical ledge, he decides to reward her by forcing her to live out her sexual fantasies: he stalks her, takes pictures of her masturbating, and then threatens to make them public if she doesn’t dress up in a microskirt with no underwear and wander through a busy marketplace. Although the scenario seems skeevy, it shows character development on Iguchi’s part—he’s shifted his interest  from inert objects to people. He is stalking and manipulating the woman but he is not treating Rinko as an object—he fully acknowledges her humanity as he puts her through erotic exercises he genuinely believes will make her into the happier person she deserves to be.

The first half of the film is told from the perspective of Rinko, and, unlikely as the setup might be, it is presented in a straightforward fashion. Halfway through, the point-of-view shifts to hubby Shigehiko. The stalker arranges to have the neurotic husband drugged, and when he awakens he’s shown (or more likely hallucinates) an sado-erotic snuff cabaret exhibition where the performers are sealed inside tanks which slowly fill up with water, while a cone is strapped to his face, restricting his field of vision. That’s just the beginning of the new strangeness; in a third perspective shift, the narrative begins to focus on Iguchi, and we are treated to a brazen masturbation scene from Rinko (in the neverending Japanese rain, natch) and a violent confrontation between Iguchi and Shigehiko that includes an assault by a slithering phallic piece of corrugated PVC pipe (this comes from the director of Tetsuo, after all). In the end, wife and husband share a meal and make love as if none of the aforementioned weirdness ever happened. It probably never did.

Although we have tagged this movie with “black and white,” it should be noted that it the film is actually tinted a shade of blue-gray that suggests the perpetually overcast skies of Snake‘s rain-soaked Tokyo streets. Dividing the movie into a nearly conventional first half and a surreal second hemisphere that both advances and reconfigures the narrative is an interesting gambit. A Snake of June drags at times, and confuses frequently, but few who see it will forget it, or accuse it of playing it safe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This vision includes some freakishly surreal moments… The results, while uneven, do represent a journey for the audience – exhilarating, worthwhile and memorable after the event – even if, along the way, we’re never sure exactly where we’re going to end up.”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lounge (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Eric Bossick, Akiko Monô,

PLOT:  A salaryman with “android DNA” turns into a metal monster when he gets angry.

Still from Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009) is a virtual English language remake of the same auteur’s original (Certified Weird) Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1985) that’s inferior in every respect except for budget.  See the original instead.

COMMENTS: Besides the basic man-becomes-mineral motif, Tetsuo: The Bullet Man contains several explicit nods to Tetsuo: The Iron Man.  The salaryman’s spastic dance over the opening title is recreated.  The metal transformation is once again set in motion by a hit-and-run accident, although the implications are quite different this time.  And Tsukamoto’s trademark high-speed zoom effect, where he edits a series of stills together at breakneck speed to take the viewer on a roller-coaster ride, is again in play.  But whereas in Iron Man the technique was used to create the cheesy but effectively unreal illusion of the Salaryman and the Fetishist racing through deserted city streets, here the rapid-fire cuts don’t lead us on a journey, but reveal only random, unconnected shots of skyscrapers skewed at various angles.  The editing creates movement and pace, but it doesn’t go anywhere.  Therein lies your metaphor for comparing the two films.  Tsukamoto tries to endow this 21st century Tetsuo with more plot sense, but the movie ends up making less artistic sense.  There is a basic (though logically unsatisfactory) b-movie schema to “explain” things this time out.  Half-Japanese Anthony (the archetypal Salaryman is given a name for this outing, as part of the half-hearted attempt to relocate Tetsuo in our reality) has the misfortune of having inherited “android DNA” that will cause him to mutate into a man/killer machine hybrid if he gets angry enough.  A paramilitary group is intent on assassinating him before he can learn to harness his power, while director Tsukamoto plays a mysterious figure whose goal is to goad Anthony into transforming into a human arsenal, both by threatening his family and by calling him “cowboy.”  The result is many confusing, dimly lit battle scenes; missing, sadly, is the Continue reading CAPSULE: TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009)

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:

FEATURING: , 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 Continue reading 91. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)