Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-03-16 03:05

Written and Directed by: Shin'ya Tsukamoto
Starring: TomorŰ Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, and Nobu Kanaoka

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

"You've got a piece of metal stuck in your brain. I can't believe you're still alive."

When itís at its best, body horror thrives on an intriguing paradox: though this genre is obviously renowned for its stomach-churning visceral terror, the best of its brood imagines bodily decay so horrifying that it leads to an existential angst. Itís not enough that a body simply falls apartóit has to transmute into something approaching total, complete annihilation, prompting one to consider just how awful it would be to become trapped in some inhuman state. Cronenbergís The Fly doesnít endure because of its repulsive gross-out effects: it does so because those effects force the audience to envision a truly unimaginable plane of suffering that sends both body and soul into the void of oblivion, never to return. Itís heartbreaking and agonizing because itís impossible to grasp this level of damnation. And while Shinya Tsukamoto doesnít aim for those exact same emotions in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, itís a similarly disturbing portrait of an unravelling body and its damned soul spiraling into utter obliteration. Itís quintessential body horror, and yet itís also quite unlike just about anything else, a truly singular vision of a madman armed with a camera and a desire to push the boundaries of both perception and taste.

Less a conventionally lucid tale and more a jagged transmission of a nightmare, Tetuso unfolds in piecemeal fashion, with cryptic images searing through its audienceís eyes, eventually crystalizing into a hazy recollection of guilt and revenge. We watch as a manóidentified only as the ďSalarymanĒ (Tomorowo Taguchi)ófinds a strange metal protrusion in his cheek while shaving, a gruesome discovery that sets off a frenzied and gruesome chain of events that force the man to reckon with his sins. The nature of his transgression isnít clear at first, as the man sifts through various dreams and memories, allowing the audience to piece together a lurid puzzle that involves a fatefulóand fatalóencounter with another man (Tsukamoto, credited as ďThe Metal FetishistĒ), who seems to be exacting some kind of unholy revenge.

Itís been said that some folks dream in black and white, and I have to imagine Tetsuo captures that experience. A monochrome nightmare that feels like it was imprinted onto 16mm directly from Tsukamotoís fevered brain; it conjures up bizarre, unintelligible images that donít make much sense in a vacuum. Yet, when theyíre fused together into a cyberpunk crazy quilt, these images coalesce into an essential snapshot of twisted body horror. Not only does the Salarymanís body gradually transform into a heap of twisted metal, but his mind also decays, yielding deranged visions of a similarly decaying woman stalking him during his morning commute. Before long, heís haunted by another woman: his (apparent) girlfriend, appearing as an exotic dancer with a metal probe thatís eventually used to penetrate him. Nestled somewhere in between these strange hallucinations is some semblance of reality and memory, both of which become increasingly heightened as they unfold. Their actual interactions are just as strange as the encounter he imagines, as the two have an erotically charged dinner before engaging in sweaty, steamy sex, a copulation that climaxes not in pleasure but with the Salarymanís horrific realization that his penis has transformed into an actual drill.

Suffice it to say, Tetsuo is out there in a way few films are. Its loose, messy narrative is matched only by its fragmented aesthetic, which haphazardly shores together these fragmented images in raw, uncompromising fashion. Tsukamoto is disinterested in coherence, going so far as to draw attention to the artifice of it all with a recurring rewinding effect that links the disparate episodes together, increasing the filmís unhinged, frantic energy in the process. His camera isnít content to gaze at the horrors unfolding: rather, it anxiously fidgets about before entrenching itself right in the midst of the Salarymanís transformation into an overwrought piece of machinery. While this allows Tsukamoto to capture the gritty, textual grandeur of his cyberpunk-tinged effects work, it also heightens this utterly inhuman metamorphosis. At a certain point, Tetsuo begins to feel like something that might be dreamed up by the ďMetal FetishistĒ himself, as every frame becomes completely consumed by snaking rubber tubes, protruding steel beams, and sinewy wires. Mangled flesh lurks beneath it all, with the Salarymanís anguished eyes serving as its final remnants before the climax ascends to a completely unreal plane of oblivion.

Films tend to reflect and refract each other, practically intoning fans and critics alike to fumble for reference points when describing even the starkest of new visions. Itís no surprise that Tetsuo earned comparisons to the likes of Cronenberg and Lynch with its masterful blend of the formerís visceral horrors and the latterís surreal, puzzling dreamscapes. However, its DNA is unmistakably spliced with the impish, demented spirit that defines Sam Raimiís work, most notably in its agitated, hyperkinetic verve that climaxes with a ridiculous, almost Kaiju-esque battle between the Salaryman and The Metal Fetishistís inhuman avatars. Thereís something gleefully unhinged about it, almost as if Tsukamoto is insisting that the Salarymanís fateóand indeed possibly the fate of all humanityóis so bleak that one must simply embrace its absurdity, like Slim Pickens riding the bomb down to his doom. Tetsuo stares into the abyss and dares to laugh at its terror in a way few body horror efforts ever have as it builds to the ludicrous final image of the Salaryman and the Metal Fetishist in their final form, reborn here as a symbiotic phallus symbol looking to unleash some untold disaster on all of Japan. ďGAME OVER,Ē the closing titles announce before the credits, inviting the audience to imagine the worldís fate reduced to the stakes of a video game, thus cementing the filmís ghastly vision of complete and utter transformation. One manís unholy metamorphosis has somehow ballooned to consume the entire world, now destined to become a metallurgic hellscape.

Like most of Lynchís work, Tetsuo also invites viewers to puzzleóand fumbleóover whatever meaning it might hold. Certainly, one senses some anxiety about mankindís relationship with technology here in its central conceit. Itís pointedly mankindís anxiety too, what with the abundance of phallic symbols littered throughout Tetsuo. In fact, it could be argued that Tetsuo is practically haunted by specifically male anxieties about losing control: it hardly seems to be a coincidence that the Salarymanís nightmare has him being raped by his own girlfriend, a vision thatís later complemented by his penis transforming into an out-of-control drill. Sex is inextricably linked with all of these anxieties, too: one of the filmís recurring images finds the Salaryman and his girlfriend fucking wildly in public, an act we eventually learn consummated their decision to bury the Metal Fetishistís body after a hit-and-run accident. We ultimately learn that this is the transgression that inspires the Fetishistís revenge, seemingly from beyond the grave, which, to be fair, is one of the more believable turn of events here. Of course, such particulars arenít important: whatís more pressing is the Salarymanís increasing feeling of captivity and helplessness throughout an ordeal that climaxes with an inexplicable rebirth (via a metal umbilical cord) and some twisted form of self-decared "love" between these two foes that ďcan put an end to this fucking world.Ē

Truth be told, Iím not sure what, exactly, to make of that declaration. Then again, Iím never quite sure what my own nightmares mean, either. What I can be sure of is that guttural feeling of terror they inspire, and Tetsuo feels exactly like one of those half-remembered dispatches from the nether-realm of randomly firing synapses. These pieces donít form a complete whole so much as they leave a lingering impression that canít be shaken. I donít remember dreamsóI feel them rattling around in the distant corners of my brain, sometimes for years at a time. Likewise, Tetsuo is the sort of film thatís haunting in both its grotesque and existential implications, if only because Tsukamoto is relentless in his pursuit of pummeling your sensibilities into submission. Dig deeply enough, and youíd perhaps find metal shards rooted in your brain, threatening to sprawl out and devour your every thought. By the end of Tetsuo, youíre facing down some kind of annihilation: that you donít know the specifics seems nonmaterial, if not even more terrifying. What was once flesh and soul is now nothing but rusted, coiling metal thatís poised to usher in total extinction of mind, body, and soul.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man is currently streaming on Shudder.

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