Metallophobia, retribution, body horror, cyberpunk and revenge are just some pieces of the sheer insanity that is cult classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Whoo boy. That was weird. That was weird for Japan. And yet, at the same time, it was not all that difficult to follow. At least, less so than one might expect going into it. Director Shinya Tsukamoto is often compared to David Lynch – especially thanks to this, his debut film Tetuso: the Iron Man. Both directors are hardcore surrealists who blur the lines between dream, metaphor and reality. And in the case of Tetsuo and Lynch’s Eraserhead, both films feature industrial settings, are black and white, and showcase a lot of experimental filmmaking and effects. However, both directors and their respective movies differ quite strongly from one another. Eraserhead told a small, but quite powerful story centred around the main character’s fear of sex and commitment. Tetsuo looks like it’s going into a similar territory, with an added technological twist, but then reveals itself to be telling a larger, more straightforward (if even crazier) horror story.
Quick recap: The film starts out with a man, called the Metal Fetishist (Shinya Tsukamoto) in the credits, ripping his leg open to insert a steel bar inside it. When the wound gets infected, he runs to the hospital only to get hit by a car. We cut to an unnamed salaryman (I guess his name is Tetsuo, but it’s never mentioned, played by Tomorowo Taguchi), who discovers metal is growing on and around his body. At a train station, he is chased by a woman who is also covered in metal – seemingly possessed by the spirit of the Fetishist – but ultimately defeats her.
As the story progresses, his body becomes increasingly covered in metal, and his drill dick kills his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). We learn that he and his girlfriend were in the car that killed the Fetishist. After they dumped his body in the woods, they had sex, seemingly with the Fetishist watching. As the past comes back to haunt the salaryman, the horrors increase and escalate until the movie reaches its climax, with salaryman and fetishist battling, metal a metal.
That’s the easiest way to describe the events of the film. It’s very difficult at the start to get a strong sense of what’s going on. The movie makes no attempt to establish scenes or characters and instead you’re left with a weird, unspoken language of cinema as the only clue to what’s happening. It makes for an uncomfortable start, but as it goes on and you accustom yourself to the story, it becomes clearer.
Not to say that I know what’s going on all the time though, and sometimes it seems like even the movie doesn’t know. It’s clearly heavily inspired by Cronenberg and Lynch – and every review of this film will tell you that – but there’s also hints of Lang’s Metropolis, the works of H R Giger and Salvador Dali, notably his surreal short films he did with Luis Bunuel L’Age d’Or and Un Chien Andalou. The manga Akira is also said to have been a heavy influence here, and maybe that’s where Tsukamoto gets the out-of-nowhere name Tetsuo from.
Tetsuo is more than just a mish-mash of bizarre imagery and grotesque scenes. Most of it comes nicely together and tells a pretty good story. It’s difficult to tell if it was intended to be literal – as in the salaryman is actually turning into a metal man – or metaphorical, like he is repenting for what he is doing and is haunted by his past actions, but it doesn’t really matter. Once you get going with this, you start to appreciate some of the work that’s gone into it.
For example, the Iron Man makeup and suit is pretty impressive to look at. While it’s clearly a mask or a costume that lead actor Tomorowo Taguchi is in, the attention to detail is phenomenal. Wires, diodes, screws and all sorts are stuck together to make a pretty frightening and very cool piece of production design. It gets better as the film goes on, too, eventually resulting in this two-person hell-on-wheels that zooms around town. It’s quite a sight to behold. It’s a marvel of both costume design and some truly cool stop motion animation.
There’s equal attention to detail throughout, as well. The soundtrack and sound effects are great, bringing just the right amount of dread and unease to the film, intensifying with every new layer of metal that the salaryman grows. Every noise is carefully picked to make you wince. The comparison to Eraserhead is quite apt here, as both used industrial noises to keep the audience on edge. But while Lynch’s film kept a steady, irritating hum going, Tetsuo cranks that up to eleven more than once, with one key scene featuring what’s meant to be an erotic eating scene undercut by the shrieking sounds of grinding metal.
Shinya Tsukamoto brings all of these elements together into a cacophony that’s the best emulation of a human trainwreck as you can get. It’s a film that will be remembered and studied for a while to come. Though hardly mass-appeal, Tetsuo is one of those love-or-hate kinda films. It’s equal parts excellent and awful, baffling and comprehensible, ugly and striking, and it packs a lot into its tiny 67-minute runtime. Frankly, there’s very little else like it. But if you find yourself at the hate end of things at the beginning, wait it out, and you might find that you like it more than you think.
Verdict: It might not be your cup of tea, but Tetsuo: The Iron Man is definitely worth watching once.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s [totally subjective] Patented Ratings System:
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Body horror: 10/10
Sex: 10/10, 0/10 for actual sexiness
Dialogue: None for at least 20 minutes
Gross-out factor: 5/5
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Also known as: 鉄男 (Tetsuo)
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto
Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto
Tomorowo Taguchi – Man
Kei Fujiwara – Woman
Nobu Kanaoka – Woman in Glasses
Shinya Tsukamoto – Metal Fetishist
Naomasa Musaka – Doctor
Renji Ishibashi – Tramp