Tetsuo: The Iron Man 鉄男 (1989)

Tetsuo Metal Fetishist Header

Tetsuo: The Iron Man                     Tetsuo DVDBluRay Cover    

Japanese Title鉄男 Tetsuo

Romaji: Tetsuo

UK Release Date: 08th October, 2012

UK Distribution Label: Third Window Films

Original Japanese Release Date: 01st July 1989

Running Time: 67 mins.

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto                                                                       Tetsuo Japanese Poster

Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto

Starring: Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Shinya Tsukamoto, Renji Ishibashi, Nobu Kanaoka, Naomasa Musaka

When I first watched this I was left stunned. I had no idea what I had just watched but it left me marked. Tetsuo: the Iron Man is considered one of the defining titles in the ‘body horror’ movement and a cyberpunk classic. While it may have been shot in black and white 16mm, the creative force in this film is near overwhelming and totally absorbing and it is easy to see why this became an international cult hit and why many hail this as a classic. Now, thanks to Third Window Films, we get to see why this is so highly regarded in a DVD package which is of brilliant quality.

A strange man known as the “metal fetishist” (Tsukamoto) spends his days at a scrapyard sticking scrap metal in his body. He is knocked over in a hit and run incident involving a salary-man (Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Fujiwara). The next day the salary-man finds himself transforming into a half human-half metal monster and he finds out that the metal fetishist might not be as dead as he thought.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s dark vision shows a true creative force fostered from his teenage years when he experimented in making films with an 8mm camera and a lot of the experimentation his famed Kaiju experimental theatre group are said to have had.  Indeed, Tetsuo is based on one of their productions and involves actors from the group. Tetsuo gives a sense of the passion going into the work. It is raw, immediate and it is such a thrill is because Tsukamoto’s vision and ideas are so strong.

The film takes place in Tokyo. Tsukamoto’s Tokyo. It is a place choked with man-made objects, junkyards, labyrinthine tunnels made of concrete and exposed pipes, metal cages and shadows made to look crushing thanks to the black & white cinematography overseen by lead actress Kei Fujiwara. The home of the salary-man is stifled by technology as demonstrated by televisions which show stop-motion nightmares.

Kei Fujiwara in Tetsuo

People are at the mercy of technology. It seems that the city is overwhelming people and humanity is on its way out what with metal playing a prominent part in the body horror.

Let me in. Nothing much scares me.

The mutations affecting people are halfway between Cronenberg’s body horror and Geiger’s biomechanical creations. There is a queasy mixture of sex and mechanical transformation which breaks traditional boundaries in the most painful ways. The dissolution of the human body is visceral. The technique in showing this is two-fold. Firstly the actors provide finely judged performances littered with startling physical performances with expressionistic dance sequences with convulsions and thrusting which is both sexual and painful. Tsukamoto captures these performances in a frenzy of action and images with his sound design, editing and constant use of different camera angles bombarding the viewer into submission.

We are treated to montages of industrial scenes, sinuous wire, and metal pipes like entrails The Salary man in Tetsuoand bones, twisted bodies, extreme close-ups on faces distorted by pain and anger brought on by mutation and hatred. There are nightmarish visions of fevered sex intercut with increasingly disfigured bodies withmetal jammed into flesh. It is visually confident and becomes extremely disturbing with the disgusting and disturbing stop motion morphing sequences which document the biomechanical changes taking place which have to be seen to be truly understood. At the most frantic points Tsukamoto damages film stock. Accompanying this visual frenzy is an industrial soundtrack with insistent pulsing drums. There are interesting sound design choices where simple human functions are accompanied by the sound of grating metal and gunshots. It all adds to the oppressive sense that humanity is changing for the worst.

On top of using these technical aspects Tsukamoto mixes genres with Godzilla style battles, Cronebergian body-horror and supernatural cum-technological possessions which kept me off-guard and marvelling at his confidence and skill in creating this story. I knew I was hooked from the start but the one section that affected me the most – my heart beating, my fists clenched – is the sequence involving a woman styled to look like the Bride of Frankenstein chasing the salary-man. I found it was a genuinely terrifying section which confirmed to me that Tsukamoto’s vision and his audio-visual bombardment had done the trick. There is an oppressive atmosphere and it is relentless.

Tetsuo Bride of Frankenstein

Amidst all of the craziness and horror are more humane moments where the main character wanders around his house forlornly, bewildered at the fact he is transforming into a monster, his penis drill poking out. He is mostly clueless as to what is happening to himself and trying to survive his urban nightmare. Every moment of this film evoked an emotional and intellectual response from me and thanks to the intelligence and inventiveness on screen I was never bored. This is what I want from films!

When I first saw this as a teenager I was left flabbergasted and confused by the visceral and psychic shock the style and content delivered. It may have been over ten years since I last saw it and I may be more aware of cinematic techniques and extreme  cinema but this still blows me away. From start to finish my mouth was gaping open and waves of horror and disgust poured over me. The amount of energy and inventiveness on screen is amazing and disturbing. If you consider yourself a cinephile willing to push the boundaries of your experiences then buy this film.

5/5

8 thoughts on “Tetsuo: The Iron Man 鉄男 (1989)

    1. Thanks! I’m glad to see that we’re in agreement. I was gripped throughout the film and when it ended I wanted more. Why can’t more films be as inventive as this? I can’t wait to get into Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer!

  1. Quizoxy

    I’m starting to watch the film as recommended, and what a twisted four minutes it began with – really mind etching scene. Seems like I will be taking lots of breaks in between the events to settle my thoughts down! Indeed disturbing, really intriguing! I hate moving cameras as it makes me dizzy but at least the way they shoot it is acceptable, looking at the part where the salary-man escaping from the lady he met at the station. Will definitely finish the film as I got a feeling that I wouldn’t want to stop watching now.😀

      1. Quizoxy

        Indeed! I kept on drinking water to keep calm during the whole chasing scene hahaha! Overall the film was nice but the ending was pretty awkward with all the stop motions down the street xD
        I really think that the monotone graphics played an important role in the mood, and the acting skills of the salary-man is amazing!

      2. The black and white really does add to the atmosphere and I loved those stop-motion chase scenes. Heck, I love the film because it’s so crazy and inventive.

        Thanks for letting me know what you thought of it!

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