Shinya TsukamotoJapaneseTomorowo TaguchiRenji Ishibashi
Tetsuo the Iron Man
Medium: film
Year: 1989
Writer/director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Shinya Tsukamoto, Naomasa Musaka, Renji Ishibashi
Format: 67 minutes
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 2 November 2013
Forget however mental you thought Japanese cinema could get. This is twice as mental, with extra mental on top.
Japanese cyberpunk began here. Tetsuo wasn't Shinya Tsukamoto's first film, but it's the one that gave him an international cult following. It's going to be hard to convey just what it's like to watch this, but I'd better give it a go.
Firstly, the plot. This exists in two flavours. The first is the one you can read on the back of the DVD case, or hear by talking to someone who loves the film and has watched it repeatedly. This plot makes sense and involves a Japanese salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara) knocking down a metal fetishist (Shinya Tsukamoto) and dumping the body, only to find that reports of his death were exaggerated. There will be a mention of flesh turning into metal.
The other plot is what you'll get when you watch the flipping thing. After you've finished, with hindsight you might discern points of kinship with the Carefully Explained Plot (above), but you'll be buggered if you saw any such careful explanations in the film itself. Here's what you'll get:
It's in black-and-white, with a hand-held camera and loud, industrial music. The film looks and sounds like a junkyard. Anyway, someone (Tsukamoto) stabs their own leg in a splash of gore, then shoves a corrugated steel pipe into the wound. Pictures of athletes catch fire and burn. The wound grows maggots. Screaming and hooting in pain, our fetishist runs outside in time for the music to change to dreamy saxophone jazz as a car runs him down.
Next, a salaryman is spasming. I'll be generous and tell you that this is Taguchi, but the film's visual and anti-narrative style is so extreme that you've no idea whether or not he's the same man as before. Characters in this film are either male or female. Trying to be any more specific about their identities would require freeze-frame and police identikit posters. Anyway, he has a telephone conversation with a woman in which they spend about a minute saying "hello" to each other and you realise this is the first time you've heard dialogue. You also realise that these actors can act, which is a slight surprise.
There's a woman on TV. Taguchi is chased by an industrial cyber-Zygon baby woman... no, it's her hand. Is she looking at herself in a hand mirror? It's Japan, so even in 1989 it might be a mobile phone. She's the Terminator, with Bride of Frankenstein hair. It's like an electric shock with a face. Evil Dead. Man's voice. Contorting in the corridor like German Expressionism.
Groinal thing. Sexual reversals (power relationship) and female Dr Octopus penis substitute. Anal insertion. Like squeezing a blood zit. Metal sounds when eating. Is it the fork? Man and woman like post-holocaust survivors. Fellatio-like licking of a sausage, before biting into it. Two-foot-long spinning drill penis that destroys a table. Black-and-white David Lynch, like The Elephant Man or Eraserhead. Take a frying pan straight from the hot stove and hold it to Taguchi's face. Sex with monster you stabbed. Deliberate bathos? Phone rings in nice normal house, with our protagonist now looking like a Krynoid. Pre-CGI amazing stop-motion animation through the streets, used for a huge battle scene. This is where the film gets even more mental. Even less dialogue. The second half of the film is just two anonymous men fighting each other and I got a bit sleepy, but the return of dreamy saxophone jazz woke me up for the gay umbilical cord scene. "Our love can destroy this whole f***ing world." Game Over.
Yes, that is the plot of this movie.
It has strong themes, though. The men get metal cancer and kill women. There's lots of sex and sexual reversals, including a woman sodomising a man with what's probably an entire vacuum cleaner. The penis drill is another very loud thematic statement, especially when it starts destroying things. Sex is fatal. At the end of the day, this is a film about a man who kills all the women, falls in love with another man, has a womb experience with him and gives united birth to become a single techno-Frankenstein.
It's massively stylish, obviously. It'll make you want to play it silent to aesthetes and blow their minds as they tried to place it in various expressionist cinema traditions. I can't imagine this film in colour. It would ruin it. The black-and-white is beautiful. However it would also be wrong to show this as a silent film because the soundtrack is integral to the experience.
I was disappointed by some of the prosthetics. Yes, I know this was a low-budget film, but even so that looked glued on. (That's because it was.) I wanted metal sticking out of flesh, like Hellraiser.
Did I enjoy this film? Not really, although I'm unconvinced that anything so mundane as entertainment was intended. The first half had all that sexual symbolism, but my eyes were drooping in the second half. Tomoko on the other hand eventually made it watchable for herself by regarding it not as a movie at all, but instead as a bravura display of extreme visuals. That's how it comes across. It's not hollow, but it comes across that way because it's so utterly uninterested in storytelling. Piecing together plot and meaning as a viewer is a labour of Hercules.
Energy: 10. Style: 10. Accessibility: 0.001.