Saturday, August 15, 2020

TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989) Blu-ray Review

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) d. Shinya Tsukamoto (Japan) (69 min)

After a character credited as “The Metal Fetishist” (Shinya Tsukamoto) shoves a length of pipe into his thigh, the excruciating pain sends him limping into the street where he is subsequently run down by the Salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his (intentionally) nameless girlfriend (Kej Fujiwara). Fearing for their reputations, they take the fetishist’s seemingly lifeless body and dispose of it at the bottom of a ravine, pausing to make love in the shadow of their crime. Shaving in the mirror the next day, the Salaryman notices a small metal diode emerging from his cheek; attempting to pull it out only causes agony and a bleeding wound that marks him like a brand. In the subway, he is accosted by a similarly afflicted Woman with Glasses (Nobu Kanaoka), her hand encased in metal, and while he manages to escape her frenzied attack, the relentless metamorphosis continues, his flesh slowly and inexplicably being replaced by iron, chrome, and steel.

Winner of Best Film at the 1989 Fantafestival in Rome, Tsukamoto’s breakout feature is a touchstone of cinematic cyberpunk, a relentlessly frenetic black-and-white 16mm assault on the senses and sensibilities, and a supercharged display of independent filmmaking. Written, directed, produced, edited, photographed, and art directed by its auteur (who also created the impressive if rugged special effects), Tetsuo has drawn comparisons to the work of David Lynch (specifically Eraserhead, with its stark and imaginative nightmare imagery compensating for budgetary constraints), David Cronenberg, Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, Gojira creator Ishiro Honda, and surrealist artist H.R. Giger, while remaining its own defiantly original beast.

Basically a feature-length version of his 18-minute 1986 short Futsû saizu no kaijin (aka Phantom of Regular Size), which also featured Fujiwara, Kanaoka, Taguchi, and Tsukamoto in their respective roles, no catalog of descriptors can adequately communicate the fiery, almost violent energy that Tsukamoto brings to the screen. This is a genuine film experience, one whose fairly straightforward if fanciful narrative is so deeply layered within its powerhouse visuals and incredible sound design (aided immensely by Chu Ishikawa’s industrial driving beat and bluesy torch songs) that it becomes secondary or even tertiary to the proceedings.

Instead, Tetsuo is a movie of moments, with one visceral mind-blowing sequence giving way to the next, until the end credits roll “Game Over” and the viewer is left forever changed. This may seem like mere hyperbole to the uninitiated, but for those who have walked the path, the words “drill-dick” unconsciously elicit moans of recognition and nods of assent.

Born in 1960, Tsukamoto began making films as a teenager, completing his first feature at age 14 (Genshisan) and disappointing his parents mightily after abandoning a financially stable business career to start his hole-in-the-wall Kaijyu Theater. Like many burgeoning independents, he often served as his own editor and cinematographer out of necessity; unlike many of his contemporaries, he continued to hold these posts even as he grew more successful and gained worldwide recognition, all the more impressive considering his inventive and bold camera moves and lighting.

The right film at the right time, Tetsuo enjoyed a successful festival run before exploding onto the Western world via home video where it quickly gained a reputation as the underground film to watch for a generation of geeks just discovering the insane world of Japanese anime, videogames, and V-cinema (with Takashi “Beat” Kitano and Takashi Miike also blazing the trail).

Of the primary cast (and outside of the director himself, who appears in almost all his own films), Taguchi is probably the best known to cinephiles for his collaborations with Tsukamoto, which include his film debut The Adventure of Denchu Kozo, as well as work with Miike (Shinjuku Triad Society, Rainy Dog, the Dead or Alive trilogy), and appearances in Shuseke Kaneko’s Hesei-era Gamera films.

In addition to her acting duties, Fujiwara served as co-cinematographer and costumer on Tetsuo and would go on to assume the director’s chair herself with the cult horror flick Organ (1996). For her part, Kanaoka performed as assistant director duties, helping to construct the phallus-shaped iron and chrome behemoth that represents the fusion of the film’s two primary antagonists.

Tsukamoto would revisit the themes of transformation and metamorphosis many times over the course of his career, explicitly with the sequel/remake Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992) and the concluding chapter Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009), but also with the boxing drama Tokyo Fist (1995), erotic thriller A Snake of June (2002), and the mental breakdown horror flick, Kotoko (2011).

Tetuso is a film unlike any other, and for that reason alone deserves your time and attention. Love it or hate it, you won’t soon forget it.


Audio commentary by Tom Mes, author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto

Jasper Sharp’s “An Assault on the Senses” (16 min)

Archival Interview with Tsukamoto (19 min)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is available now from Arrow Video as part of their Solid Metal Nightmares box set (featuring eight feature films and two shorts by Tsukamoto) and can be ordered HERE:


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