Review © Mandi Apple, 2004.

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, 1988, 67 mins, starring Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Shinya Tsukamoto and Masatoshi Nagase.

Widely accepted as one of the most groundbreaking and seminal cyberpunk movies ever to have been produced in Japan, directed by and starring Shinya Tsukamoto, one of the most critically-lauded directors in the world, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a super-short black and white movie (running at precisely 67 minutes) more suited to the art world than the cinema, is also notoriously one of the most difficult to both watch and indeed understand.

With its cacophonous, grating industrial soundtrack matching graphic, brutally hyper-kinetic imagery, and with one infamous scene in particular grabbing the public's attention (involving... errr, shall we say, the world's largest revolving drill bit and a sensitive part of the human anatomy ;-D), and deranged, incomprehensible plot, Tetsuo has often been referred to as an 'assault on the senses'. And yet on watching it, it's really hard to believe that a movie this far ahead of its time was actually produced in 1988.

Instead, to my mind it looks timeless, as fresh as the day it was first released. That may be in no small part due to the influences Tsukamoto clearly drew on for the aesthetic of the movie, which, in turn, aren't really rooted in any one artistic era: I guess you might say that the burgeoning cyberpunk scene in the 80's among Japan's fashionistas (its most well-known anime movie, Akira, having been released in the same year) is probably the most obvious of them.

However, to term Tetsuo a simple 'cyberpunk' movie is to do it an enormous injustice. There are images and influences drawn from right across the board featured here. Firstly, the feel of the movie and its script is evidently informed by HR Giger's intense, dark art motif of biomechanics, wherein flesh and metal are symbiotic, a melding of man and machine in the form of limbs mysteriously replaced by guns, by demonic creatures who breathe through tubes and produce offspring via internal conveyor belts, by hellish genetic mutations fused with alien schematics. This seems to be really obvious when you consider that the central character of the movie, a bizarrely fetishistic businessman (played with just the right amount of unhinged horror by Tomorowo Taguchi) ends up growing a giant metallic killer penis – and later on, in Tsukamoto's sequel Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, characters positively bristle with semi-automatic weaponry sprouting from their chests.

But, also as in Giger's nightmarish spraypaintings, Tsukamoto appears to be making the point that when metal and flesh collide in physicality, both will be corrupted by the presence of alien matter. Flesh rots and decays in accommodating metal, as one of the characters here explicitly inserts an iron rod into his own leg, which then decomposes, becoming infested with maggots; metal corrodes from the water and salts in human tissue. Even the anti-hero of the movie, the enraged spirit of a hit-and-run victim desperate for revenge (played by Tsukamoto himself), states quite categorically, "Together, we can turn this fucking world to rust!"

Many reviewers have already made fairly simplistic parallels between this movie and the work of David Lynch, namely (for the most part) Eraserhead. Yes, both movies are short, black-and-white, surreal and repulsive – but whereas Eraserhead had much to say on the topic of the flesh, Tetsuo's manifesto is far, far wider. Surrealism does play a significant part in the movie – it puts me more in mind of the epic cruelty and explicit torture featured in Luis Buñuel’s classic Surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou than of Eraserhead, quite honestly . Possibly David Cronenberg is a better example again of a director working in a similar field: Videodrome must surely have informed Tetsuo, with its melding of man and machine and with its theme of "Long live the new flesh", ie skin and metal combined to create a kind of Nietszchean ubermensch (not unlike the salaryman in this movie), and later of course eXistenZ, in much the same vein.

But nipping back again to the '20s for a moment, what about the influence Tsukamoto appears to have taken from the world's first ever cyberpunk/Industrial movie – namely, Fritz Lang's Metropolis? Much of the imagery in Tetsuo appears to hark right back to the silent Art Deco cubism and love of machinery featured in the movie. In fact, one of the scenes in Tetsuo that I find peculiarly redolent of this is the dance of the crazed seductress, brandishing a vacuum-hose-strap-on, caked in Art-Deco-Gothique makeup and looking uncannily like Lang’s vision of Der Maschinen-Mensch, the evil android in the form of a woman created solely to overthrow a proletariat rebellion. In my opinion, Tetsuo is quietly and secretly extraordinary and cultured stuff, beneath all the shock-horror tactics and visceral gore.

However, I daresay that the number of movies which have been influenced by this extreme vision is far greater than the number which influenced it originally. Obvious parallels like Sogo Ishii's excellently visceral and hilarious homage, Electric Dragon 80,000V, spring to mind – like most of his work to date.

And I feel certain that bands such as Nine Inch Nails, with their controversial music-film Broken, have also seen Tetsuo and been not only influenced by the visuals, but by the proto-Industrial soundtrack, which would fit in neatly alongside the output of such pioneers of Industrial music as Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Einsturzende Neubauten, Front 242, and many others. Certainly Broken's banned segments, Happiness in Slavery and Gave Up, also curiously shot in black and white and featuring torture machines and the insertion of metal into flesh, would appear to owe Tsukamoto quite a debt in their graphic gore and sheer barely-endurable nastiness.

Here's a short run-down of the story, as the movie simply isn't long enough to warrant a detailed synopsis: a slightly-bonkers salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his wife (Kei Fujiwara) knock down and kill a young man (Shinya Tsukamoto) in a horrible hit-and-run accident, smashing him to bits on the chrome radiator of their car, then hiding the body in woods to try and cover up their terrible crime. Being a bit on the bizarre and pervacious side anyway, he and his wife really get off on the crime scene (shades of Cronenberg and JG Ballard's Crash, anyone?) and end up having sex right in front of the bleeding, shattered corpse - with the idea that this act somehow invites the soul of the dead man to invade and possess his killer, the hapless salaryman.

However, unbeknownst to the salaryman, the guy he just killed was a 'metal fetishist', and had just been having some good, clean fun sticking nasty, rusty metal rods into his body, the wounds from which were already starting to rot and get infested with maggots. And weird things start happening to him – first of all he discovers something quite unpleasant sticking out of his face when he shaves, and later, whilst waiting to commute to his job, he is chased relentlessly by a nutty woman (Nobu Kanaoka) who has clearly been possessed by the spirit of the 'metal fetishist' he killed, as parts of her body simply mutate into big, rusty weapons in front of his very eyes.

From there on in, the salaryman's own body begins a process of revolting mutations, culminating in an internal punch-up of quite epic proportions...

All that said, though – I know you're probably thinking by now, yeah, yeah, so what, is the damn movie actually any good?! ;-) Well, it's... difficult to say. It's one of those puzzling movies that people tend not to sit on the fence about – it's a love-or-hate flick which some consider to be a visual-media proto-industrial objet d'art, and others consider to be overhyped codswallop with a confused mess of a plot and an unlistenable soundtrack. Both of these opinions, awkwardly enough, are actually quite simultaneously valid.

Yes, I know, the story makes zero sense, although I've read some quite entertaining theories on how Tetsuo is a blistering attack on today's society – though I can’t quite see it myself. Yes, the soundtrack is appalling if you're not a huge fan of noisy industrial music (though IMHO not quite as appalling as Tadanobu Asano's 17-minute so-called 'guitar solos' in Electric Dragon 80,000V! ;-D), but it does juxtapose the equally-appalling visuals neatly too. And yes – the performances are utterly over the top and only just this side of pantomime.

Like Electric Dragon 80,000V, it makes you wonder if Tsukamoto has ever taken amphetamines, and if so, did that have any bearing on this movie? Somehow I can't see that someone who hasn't could have ever dreamed up this kinetic, frenetic style of moviemaking. But that's only idle speculation on my part :-)

Finally, before you ask – no, I don't fully understand all the story. I've seen the movie several times and every time I've watched it I've come away with more questions than answers. It follows its own rules, and when you're watching it, it makes perfect sense. It's only later, when you're attempting to explain it to someone else (as in my synopsis above!), do you end up sounding like you're hopelessly confused.

So in summary: if you're open-minded, have a fairly strong artistic visual aesthetic coupled with a taste for black-and-white short films and industrial music, enjoy a really lunatic plot and don't mind panto-style performances teamed with eye-watering close-ups of ripping, burning flesh, fountains of blood and jaggedy metal thingies being inserted into places where jaggedy metal thingies don't normally go, you'll probably love Tetsuo. If you don't fit into this (admittedly somewhat narrow) set of criteria, then I advise severe caution, and don't blame me if you hate it 'cos I did try to warn you ;-)

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 8/10
Violence: 11/10
Number Of 'Yuck's Pronounced by Reviewer while Watching: 17
Sex: metal dicks and vacuum hoses-a-go-go, what more can you ask for? ;-)
Art Or Horror?: both at the same time
Soundtrack: sounds like the encores at an early Einsturzende Neubauten performance
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: several buckets, but in black and white it all looks grey and unaffecting anyway

*** Recommended - a vaguely unwatchable classic ***

Tetsuo Wallpapers
NB: The Snowblood Apple overlay logo does NOT appear on the full-size versions.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Rasen, 2004

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Shinya Tsukamoto
Tomorowo Taguchi
Kei Fujiwara

Links

http://www.angelfire.com/movies/oc/qa/tetsuo.html - a Q&A-style review that pretty much says it all, really
http://www.thegline.com/dvd-of-the-week/2002/04-16-2002.htm - an interesting and fairly indepth review at The Gline
http://www.moria.co.nz/sf/tetsuo.htm - another great review
http://www.pulpmovies.com/Reviews/ScienceFiction/Tetsuo.html - 5 stars at Pulpmovies.com! They evidently liked it quite a bit :-)
http://www.articles.halfempty.com/art/tetsuo.htm - some interesting notes on slash in the movie and on the use of the visual aesthetic here
http://www.angelfire.com/biz3/notorious1/tetsuo.html - "Eating is not recommended". And by Golly, they're not wrong ;-)
http://www.geocities.com/moviecritic.geo/reviews/t/tetsuo.html - an interestingly subjective article, in which Silver Screen Reviews attempt to prove that Tsukamoto had nothing concrete to say in Tetsuo whatsoever

this review (c) Mandi Apple Collingridge, 2004. all other text and webdesign (c) 2002, 2003, 2004 M. Apple Collingridge, A. Collingridge, Larry D Burns. All characters, situations and images remain the property of their respective owners. The text and webdesign of this site may not be copied, reproduced, mirrored, printed commercially or ripped off in any other way. Do not hotlink directly to images hosted on this site.