(1989) Written and directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Starring: Tomorô Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka and Shin'ya Tsukamoto; Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Amazon Prime
“In my films, technology is terrifying but still convenient. The theme is the conflict between these concepts. We love technology but it will conquer our lives if we don’t pay attention to it.” – Shin'ya Tsukamoto (excerpt from interview with Raffi Asdourian)
When I attempt to process my third viewing of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, I’m reminded of the ubiquitous meme with two of the stars from the American Chopper reality show (For the record, I’ve never watched an episode, so I’m probably missing some context) with two burly guys engaged in a heated argument, and appearing to come close to blows (Inserting any dialectic argument into screenshots of said argument = instant comedy). At any rate, it’s a fair approximation of the dialogue in my brain as I came to terms with Shin'ya Tsukamoto’s landmark film.
What the hell did I just watch? From start to finish, Tetsuo is a parade of grotesqueries, peppered with spare dialogue. It’s a tedious exercise, full of repetitive music and interminable scenes. I’m not sure how anything that was only 67 minutes could seem so slow, but there you go. If Tsukamoto was looking to disgust, alienate and bore the viewer, then mission accomplished.
Wait a minute, you’re missing the point. Tetsuo is a salient commentary on modern society’s love affair with technology, and the consequences thereof. It’s not the point whether the characters are relatable – they’re meant to represent the human condition, not individuals (The players not given proper names, but labeled as archetypes: The Salaryman, Woman in Glasses, Metal Fetishist, etc…). The Salaryman’s (Tomorô Taguchi) transformation is beyond his control, as he begins to take on the attributes of the individual (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) he accidentally killed with his car, and gradually loses his humanity in the process. With its stark 16 mm black-and-white cinematography and themes of alienation amidst a bleak urban landscape, Tetsuo begs comparison to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). The Salaryman’s weird evolution recalls David Cronenberg’s so-called “body horror” films, especially Videodrome (1983). One comparison, closer to home for Tsukamoto, is Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), in which the main character suffers the torments of Buddhist hell after running over a pedestrian. Another film which Tetsuo parallels is Akira (1988), in which the primary character, Tetsuo, has a similarly disturbing transformation after his motorcycle collides with a genetically altered child.
With Tetsuo: The Iron Man, there’s a perverse joy of low-budget filmmaking and a DIY ethic that’s easy to get behind. It doesn’t ask to be understood or enjoyed. Tsukamoto takes no quarter with his uncompromising, oddly erotic, hellish vision. While I’m not sure I like it, I respect it. Sometimes, when re-watching something I’m on the fence about, the third time is a charm, but I haven’t quite warmed up to it. I probably never will (not entirely at least), and I’m okay with that. I’m glad it exists, and perhaps that’s sufficient. For some, one viewing will be more than adequate to last a lifetime. Others might not be able to get enough. As for me, I think I’ll wait another decade or two.