Shinya Tsukamoto is one of modern cinema’s true great mavericks, a fiercely independent auteur whose individualistic, idiosyncratic vision has been highly influential in advancing the aesthetic of the cyberpunk genre in the late eighties, garnering him a dedicated cult following all around the world. This vision is traceable back to its mixed origins in his 8mm home movie-making as a teenager; Tsukamoto’s background in Art College and experimental theatre; and his contemporaneous work in advertising. A unique sensibility was evolved out of these diverse beginnings and developed through several iterations of a homespun form of radically independent cinema, in which Tsukamoto would often star, direct, write, light and art-direct a series of experimental Manga-influenced narratives on 8mm film, working with the same core group of actors who’d helped him to stage his self-written plays in the mobile Kaijyu Theatre Group they’d first assembled in in the seventies, all such work culminating with the theatrical release in 1989 of the cult 16mm science fiction-horror film “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”.
One of the most original and unapologetically demented cult offerings of the eighties, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” is one of those films that’s completely out there on its own, ploughing its own bizarre furrow in which man messily melds with metal and technology to produce hybrid forms of physicality, alongside an equally twisted new version of perception, mentality and sexuality. Its use of bleak, grainy black & white industrial imagery, settings which mix animation and live action, and a narrative which unfolds through opaque leaps in an unfathomable logic that’s indicative of a dream, immediately tags it as the perfect midnite movie companion-piece to David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”, but there’s also a childlike love of Japanese Kaiju films mixed in with the surrealist body horror, and a stylised characterisation of movement and transformation rendered in the form of strikingly lit interpretive dance sequences, which bring to the film a bizarro music video aesthetic as well -- all of which probably dates back to Tsukamoto’s Kaijyu Theatre Group days.
With the 1992 follow-up “Tetsuo: Body Hammer” the grungy industrial landscape of the original was recast and re-moulded with a cool, full-colour, chrome-plated patina of cinematic stylishness, and played more as a re-imagining and restatement of themes than a conventional sequel -- disappointing advocates of the uncompromising oil & guts-smelted original. Recently Tsukamoto returned to the franchise to make it a trilogy with the release of “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man”, so now is probably the best time to catch up with the first two instalments thanks to their bundled release on Blu-ray, courtesy of Third Window Films, in the form of personally supervised and approved HD transfers by Tsukamoto himself. The two films feature on one Blu-ray disc and come with a DVD of extras which include among them the newly translated UK premier of the director’s 8mm student film “Denchu Kozo no boken” (“The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy”) -- the 1987 precursor to the original “Tetsuo”, starring the same cast and featuring similar themes and a lot of the same editing and animation techniques.
This forty-five minute film is probably the best place to start when it comes to understanding the development of Tsukamoto’s art and his particular independent sensibility. Watching this ambitious, insanely creative amateur homespun effort brings to mind the similarly enthusiastic juvenilia of Sam Raimi -- right down to the hyperkinetic POV camera rush which Raimi used in “The Evil Dead” to indicate the unimpeded power of the film’s unearthly demonic entity and which Tsukamoto frequently uses simply to compound his films’ sense of relentless movement and abandonment to metamorphosis and change: an impression emerges of a raw, untamed talent at the mercy of a butterfly mind that refuses to settle on one thing for more than a second; ideas here seem to tumble over themselves incoherently in their desperation to reach the screen. The film’s elaborate cardboard sets and costumes were first constructed and made for the experimental play on which it was originally based and add to the sense of it being the product of a manically precocious adolescent, stretching the limits of a home movie medium absurdly beyond their humble limits to create a pocket masterpiece of bewildering oddness.
Pitching up an almost incoherent plot in the realm of a misshapen fantasy comic book sci-fi, “The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy” tells of a misfit Japanese schoolboy called Hikari (N Sehba) who is picked on and beaten up because he happens to have a large pole which conducts electricity growing as a deforming protuberance from his back. Spunky schoolgirl friend Momo (Nobu Kanaoka) defends him in a fight with an impressive display of martial arts against a gang of bullies, and Hikari repays her by revealing the existence of his homemade time machine (a jumble of wires and tubes attached to a circuit box!). While demonstrating its workings Hikari accidently transports himself twenty-five years into the future and finds the world at the mercy of the Shinsengumi Vampire Gang (led by Tsukamoto’s soon-to-be screen alter ego Tomorowo Taguchi). The vampires – who dress like punked-up fashion victims sporting New Romantic-style face make-up -- convert people into a light-draining power source with tubings and metal attachments (the beginnings of the bodily transmutation motif which soon comes to dominate the director’s subsequent work) and at the present moment are found to be powering their activities with a naked woman (Kei Fujiwara) called Eve, threaded-up with their elaborate metal piping and futuristic technology. These vampires wish to drain the world of light and only Hikari can stop them through the agency of his electric rod – a fact he learns from Dr. Sariba, the Shinengumi’s greatest enemy, who turns out to be the grown-up version of Momo, his childhood sweetheart.
This faded 8mm film is shot through with an uncontrolled maniac energy, and features a storybook world in which clouds are animated with cotton wool and a crazy videogame aesthetic is realised in the form of hyperactive fight scenes which become the first instance of the director’s portrayal of speeding bodies moving through urban streets achieved by his trademark use of staccato editing and fast-forward animation loops. Here these methods aid a twisted live-action manga sensibility thanks to the mannered, cartoony acting style and childlike dialogue, and there’s also an element of splatter as well; all of which is augmented by Tsukamoto’s crazy self-penned incidental score, which, in combination with the pseudo-classical synth pieces and speed metal punk tracks that augment it, comes across like some kind of deranged pocket rock opera for the under-fives. Although the tone is frivolous, comedic and energetic, there’s a hint of fetishistic eroticism in the depiction of Kei Fujiwara’s character and her bizarre transformation, brought about as the result of the vampire characters’ perverse attentions. Nevertheless the amateur aesthetic and the colour imagery of 8mm applied to the light-hearted, scatty tone of the piece provides little preparation for what came next.
“Tetsuo: The Iron Man” takes all those homespun underground filmmaking aesthetics used throughout “The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy” and applies them to the effecting of a grungy, stark, 16mm black and white arthouse cult horror sci-fi vibe -- in which Tsukamoto backs up the manic surrealist energy of his previous films with a new emphasis on disturbing imagery. The tone is radically different here, even if the technique and individualism in the work is immediately apparent and many of the cast members the same. Using hand-held portable camera (Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara divide the cinematographic duties between themselves throughout, while both also acting in the film) and an apparently docu-drama approach, the film opens in a dilapidated scrap metal yard, but soon makes apparent its theme of bodily transformation and the melding of flesh and metal when the camera’s tracking of twisted scrap, rusted cable and leaking wires reveals a naked human form nestled among the junk, attempting to force steel rods into his maggot-infested legs! This brutal instance of body piercing and body modification is cut short when a bespectacled office worker and his sultry girlfriend (Tomorowo Taguchi and Kei Fujiwara) run this so-called ‘metal fetishist’ (Shinya Tsukamoto) down in their car (again, the coming together of flesh, bone and steel).
Thereafter the ‘plot’ becomes disjointed -- a dreamlike flow of deranged set-pieces with a pounding industrial rock soundtrack powered by synth drums by Chu Ishikawa, in which Tsukamoto’s character seems to act as a sort of man-machine homunculus (it is not immediately apparent exactly how he is spatially connected to the events we witness but, like David Lynch’s ‘Man on the Planet’ at the start of “Eraserhead”, his actions seem to influence events throughout the film) who presides over the series of transformations which then occur in the bodies of the other characters: first of all, the car driver is chased by a demur female office worker (Nobu Kanaoka) into the Mens’ toilets on the Japanese underground, after she becomes ‘infected’ by a piece of scrap metal and jumbled wire she finds lying on the platform. The metal becomes fused to her arm and leads to her possession by the vengeful metal-man hybrid that controls it, who brings about her transformation into a gleeful, wanton killer. Later, while shaving at the cramped, cluttered apartment he shares with his partner, the office worker finds a metal wire protruding from his cheek, which turns out to be growing from beneath his own skin. Tomorowo Taguchi then gives a highly stylised performance as he gradually transforms into a misshapen man-metal machine, his personality and perceptions altering along with his body.
Tsukamoto’s sensibility is undoubtedly informed by the work of David Cronenberg from this period, particularly in the connection made between bodily mutation and eroticism; and a scene in which Taguchi observes his rapid transformation and the effects on his body in the mirror is taken directly from Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986). Yet Tsukamoto’s imagery is, if anything, even more direct and certainly even stranger. The office worker’s libido and the lust which is shown to exist between he and his partner leads to the outrageous power-drill penis sequence and an even more bizarre fantasy sodomy scene in which the office worker imagines his partner as a gyrating, silver-skinned Salome with a coiling metal phallus that possesses a life of its own attached to her crotch, which then proceeds to anally rape him as the climax to an steamy erotic dance! The relationship between the metal fetishist and the by-now messily transformed Iron Man soon comes to dominate the film, though, especially after the fetishist is reborn inside the office worker’s dead partner’s corpse. The film, like many of Cronenberg’s from the seventies and eighties, takes an unusual stance and seems to suggest that despite the antipathy between the two transforming men, the merging of man and technology is the future, and so is the mass destruction it will entail. After a lengthy battle of wills the two become fused as a mobile heap of lumpen man-metal with two heads, and set out to destroy Tokyo in true Kaiju monster fashion, a conclusion which is presented as though it forms both a desirable and an unavoidable outcome.
The most striking thing about Tsukamoto’s version of the cyber-punk philosophy though is its sheer griminess and its constant juxtaposition between, and eventual messy confluence of, metal and flesh -- bone and steel, oil and sweat, rust and mucus -- which all flow and merge and melt into each other throughout the many hyper-energetic, insanely ramped up set-pieces that form the basis of this sixty-seven minute feature. The film was a one-off original never to be repeated … or so one would have thought. A sequel to the film seemed as unnecessary and unlikely as a sequel to “Eraserhead”, but yet, in 1992, a sequel of sorts did emerge, although it soon became apparent that “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” was more of a commercial re-imagining than a sequel in the true sense of the word.
Once again Tomorowo Taguchi stars as a mild-mannered office worker, Taniguchi Tomoo. But this time he has a family – a beautiful wife called Kana (Nobu Kanaoka again) and a young son, Minori (Keinosuke Tomioka). Gone are the gritty urban industrial landscapes and the moody black and white imagery of the last film; this time Tomoo and his family reside in a sleek and clean metropolis, built amid towering glass & concrete skyscrapers; and as the striking hyperkinetic animated collages Tsukamoto creates illustrate (a device which Darren Aronofsky would later imitate), the salaryman now lives an emotionally suppressed life amid the teeming commuters on the underground and the vast shopping malls of the perfect city. His past is a mystery to him; there are certain features of his childhood which have been somehow obliterated; but that past is very soon to come back to transform him in unexpected ways after his family is attacked and terrorised in a shopping mall by a gang of shaven-headed, muscle-bound thugs. Minori is snatched, and the ensuing chase advances to the very top of one of Tokyo’s looming pristine skyscrapers and, in heightened comic book imagery delivered with the sleek, sophisticated blue-tinted cinematography which dominates the film’s highly stylised aesthetic, Tomoo finds himself dangling from the edge and faced with the ultimate ‘merger’ with the city streets below.
Although Minori is left unharmed, Tomoo attempts to transform himself bodily at the gym through conventional means, but can barely lift the bar on the weight trainer. When Minori is once again abducted, this time from the family home, Tomoo’s rage appears to morph him into a powerful metal weapon after he suffers a forced injection at the hands of one of the gang this is tormenting his family: a machine gun turret subsequently emerges directly from his chest whenever he gets angry, which, unfortunately, obliterates his own son in the confusion of battle. Tomoo himself is abducted and subjected to experimentation in the lair of ‘the guy’ (as usual played by Shinya Tsukamoto himself), who apparently has created this cult of bodybuilding, bald headed followers in a section of wasteland outside the city dominated by a giant heat furnace. Here the mute army is injected with an agent created by a ‘mad scientist’ working for the Guy but, as Kana later realises, Tomoo’s injection was blocked by his filofax so his own monstrous transformation could not have been precipitated by that method …
Once again, the film resolves itself into a confrontation between Tomorowo’s and Tsukamoto’s two characters and, once again, the result is an eventual fusion between their competing transformed bodies. This time the emphasis is on technology as a form of weaponry, with bodies snapping and contorting and becoming forms of heavy artillery (an image almost certainly influenced by Cronenberg’s “Videodrome”). Then, in the final transformation, as the guy and the saleryman learn of their sibling status and how their urge to merge with destructive weaponry has been guided by their upbringing (the memory of the death of their mother during some parental sex play which involved a loaded gun once again connects sex, death and technology with psychology), the two join and fuse to become a lumbering scrapyard tank contraption, intent on wreaking wider carnage.
With a bigger budget and more effects now at the director’s disposal, the look of the film more closely resembles the traditional cyberpunk dystopia of “Blade Runner”, with dark, blue-lit interiors and atmospheric shafts of light backlighting the plumes of steam which regularly emerge amid the furnace fires in the Guy’s dank lair. Tsukamoto still makes use of his traditional animation techniques though, and there is one centrepiece sequence which illustrates his conception of the modern city as a site of transformation, in which Tomorowo avoids the congested traffic while chasing after his kidnapped wife, by clattering at high speed vertically across the fronts of city skyscrapers instead. “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” attempts to add more psychological depth to underpin a narrative about the transformation which overtakes Tomorowo’s character in this film, but at the expense of the raw unmediated insanity of the original; with its emphasis on action and style and visual perfection it also anticipates the qualities of many modern superhero films with their dark, dystopian aesthetic and liking for lengthy extended sequences of biff bang wallop conflict between their antipathetic protagonists. Tsukamoto’s efforts benefit from the lack of CGI which these days dominate such material and his continued use of stop motion techniques even in the midst of such glossy surroundings retains for the film something of the edginess of the original, in spirit at least. The film’s headily striking design and its distinctive visual tropes have been adopted by just about every subsequent cyberpunk offering since “The Matrix”, which makes the film feel a little derivative these days in comparison to the original -- which still seems utterly unlike almost anything else. Yet the creativity and flair of Tsukamoto’s filmmaking from this period is still evident and this commercial reinvention of his industrial aesthetic speaks for itself with the sheer amount of influence it has wielded on a variety of artists across many different mediums.
Both films are included on one Blu-ray disc in what I take to be their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Presumably “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” was shot open frame and matted for theatrical release, but we get the full-frame open matt version here. “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” was shot in 16 mm and consequently there is not quite so much scope for improvement in picture clarity. After an initially worryingly muddy first few minutes, things soon perk up and although there is never the amount of enhancement one normally expects to see in a HD transfer, shadow detail is much improved and picture detail becomes very pleasing, while the transfer maintains the natural look of the original materials. “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” seemed slightly more disappointing to me. You’d think a film made in 1992 would look slightly better than this, but I suspect the rather pallid transfer and softness of image is actually pretty true to how it has always looked, so one can’t realty complain too vehemently!
All of the extras are standard definition and so have been included on a separate DVD extras disc, even though there’s really not that much here. Undoubtedly the highlight is the inclusion of the forty-five minute 8mm film “The Adventures of Electric Rod Boy” which Tsukamoto explicitly cites as the precursor to “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”. The only other extra of significance is a twenty minute interview with the soft-spoken Shinya Tsukamoto in which he talks about his background and the independent spirit embodied by his work; he also talks about his early 8mm films, and how they led to the creation of the grungier 16mm theatrical release of Tetsuo. He remembers the cyberpunk genre and his love for it, especially the films of David Cronenberg, and finally he explains how the bigger budget sequel to Tetsuo came about. The disc also includes original Japanese trailers for both films and a new trailer created by Third Window Films to advertise this release, as well as a selection of trailers for other Third Window Films, and a weblink.
The Tetsuo films remain landmark works in the development of modern body horror and cyberpunk science fiction. They’re the raw, untrammelled embodiment of ideas which have since become mainstream but which have never been expressed elsewhere with such nightmarish directness and intensity. This release brings them together in improved HD versions and is a definite must-buy for anyone interested in cult Japanese cinema.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!