Once again Japan has delivered something which forces me to reassess my threshold for the bizarre.
Not so long ago I wrote about how strange Serial Experiments Lain was, but I think its safe to say that Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) blows it out of the water in that regard. Taken at face value it’s somewhat tempting to dismiss this low-budget oddity as another disposable 80’s ‘video nasty’ and indeed at a glance there’s certainly plenty of violence and horror on display to support this conclusion. However, extreme as much of it is there’s a pertinent and genuinely unsettling message to accompany the excess.
All the same, it’s still difficult knowing where to begin describing a film with such a completely outlandish style of storytelling; while its themes firmly root it in cyberpunk territory this is not the sort of cold, methodical approach I’ve become accustomed to within the genre. Ghost in the Shell approached the issues of the human-machine symbiosis with a calculated sense of detachment, but in contrast Tetsuo portrays its subject matter in a hyperactive frenzy of sexuality and aggression.
The opening credit sequence immediately sets this tone with the Salaryman character (possibly Tetsuo, no one’s directly named) launching into a frantic dance juxtaposed against industrial machinery and a suitably thumping industrial soundtrack. It’s a surreal start which establishes the theme and mood for what’s to follow, being equal parts cool and ridiculous in the process:
The story itself begins with a gruesome scene of the man known only as the “Metal Fetishist” compulsively inserting a rusty bolt into his leg. Following the discovery of maggots in this festering wound he staggers out onto the streets in agony only to be run down by the hapless Salaryman and his girlfriend who – presuming they have killed him – proceed to dump the body to avoid blame.
This is just the start though; as the guilt ridden Salaryman is shaving for work the following day he discovers a small steel spike embedded in his cheek which on closer inspection appears to be sprouting from within. Attempting to ignore this he begins his commute anyway only to be accosted by another office worker who abruptly grows grotesque mechanical features of their own and begins a murderous pursuit.
From here on the film heads in an increasingly surreal direction justifying its reputation as a ‘cyber-fantasy’ with the Salaryman uncontrollably mutating into machinery. As his condition gets increasingly out of hand the tone swings between gross out horror over to pitch black humour. It’s difficult not to be amused by the outright absurdity of a drill erupting from a suggestive location, but then again his application of this new appendage quickly stifles the laughter.
The connection to human-machine symbiosis is pretty obvious, while the connotations to people being consumed by their dependence on technology bears strong comparison to the themes of my own project. Where it deviates from this formula is in its offbeat representation of civilisation’s lust for technological advancement being represented as a very literal lust and sexual drive within the film.
Rather than being a methodically applied upgrade, the cyborg alterations the characters suffer hold more in common with disease; seemingly passed from one person to another and being uncontrollable in their development. Also, as noted the continual sexual references and naming of the outbreak’s source pushes matters into more fetishistic territory. It’s a shocking touch which will likely put off most casual viewers but it certainly gives the message a distinctly unsettling bite.
Shot in black & white on 16mm and made on what was likely a shoestring budget, one of Tetsuo’s most impressive features may actually be how well it fares in the visuals department, turning its limitations into stylistic strengths. The greyscale appearance provokes a grim atmosphere throughout in its reflection of metallic tones, while the absence of colour also lends a strange sense of credibility to many of the props and effects that might otherwise have seemed tacky and disbelievable – the cyborg growths themselves meanwhile bare strong resemblance to typical electrical waste being startlingly chaotic in their arrangement and perhaps making a point of the throwaway society we live in, again connecting with the underlying theme of technology consuming us and our environment.
With CG being in its infancy during the 1980’s and animatronics likely being too costly, the majority of the transformation effects are created with stop frame animation; cheap but so labour intensive it makes you wonder how much time and effort was poured into its more extensive sequences. Again, these mesh with the tone of the film perfectly as the slightly jittery quality of stop frame has an appropriately machine-like quality. Special mention should also go to the high speed chase sequences in which entire streets are utilised in the process to dizzying effect.
Given the pessimistic message underpinning the plot, it’s probably not a surprise that there’s no happy ending for the Salaryman. With the Metal Fetishist revealed to be alive and seemingly channeling much of his misfortune a final showdown see’s them merge together into a colossal abomination: namely a giant cybernetic penis.
In effect, it’s the summation of the films sexual overtones, a monument to humankind’s excess in technology and the perpetual need to supplement inadequacies. On the other hand, I can’t see those of the “ban this sick filth” mentality being so easily convinced, others may just have a long hard laugh at adolescent immaturity of it all. Whatever viewpoint is taken, it’s a surprising and genuinely memorable ending that from a thematic standpoint wraps everything up neatly.
For better or worse Tetsuo is pretty unique, with the nearest comparison I can I think of being Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) sharing similar messages and sexual imagery. Like Hardware though, there is perhaps some criticism to be made of the basic narrative and inherent style-over-substance approach taken which will be the factor for most making them either love or hate it.
Either way, it made for a refreshing change from the usual cyberpunk fare (if there indeed is such a thing) and I doubt I’ll ever look at power drills the same way again…