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Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a grimy dose of cyberpunk. It’s a low-budget marvel shot in the sharp contrast of black-and-white. It features homemade special effects of stop motion and metal parts to create the dark illusion of body horror. It’s also an underground film similar in style to his previous short films, The Phantom of Regular Size (1986) and The Adventure of Denchu Kozo (1987).
While the film is grotesque enough to sit alongside the gross-out Japanese masters like Takashi Miike, Tsukamoto’s film also feels like it grows better over time. In addition to just being amazing for its low-tech assembly, there’s more to Tetsuo than just the wicked sights of a man transforming into a metal monster. It’s perhaps one of the most vicious depictions of transhumanism that walks the line between eroticism and despair.
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Man Loves Metal
Tsukamoto himself plays the film’s nameless man with a metal fetish. He resides in a secluded part of Tokyo that is a mess of metal pieces and photos of athletes. For the ultimate pleasure, he cuts open his leg and shoves a metal rod inside. It’s a sexual appearance framed in a manner the way one would cram their orifices with devices.
Of course, this is not healthy. The wound later festers with maggots and this horrifies the fetishest. This shock may make the cynics in the audience remark, “well, what did you think was going to happen?” But this reflection of the dangers of vices is rather astute. We do a lot of things that are not good for our bodies: Drinking booze, smoking cigarettes, taking drugs, and so on. They feel good for the moment but later affect our bodies in ways that we might regret.
The metal fascination ultimately ends up being the man’s undoing. In his shock, he runs out into the street and is hit by a car. It may seem like a fitting end for someone who favors a self-destructive means of pleasure but he does not go away. Moreover, the fetish does not go away just because one guy who loves metal rods in his body is dead.
A Metal Salaryman
The story then shifts to a nameless salaryman played by Tomorowo Taguchi. He also harbors a metal fetish that haunts his dreams. Though he tries to internalize this nightmarish affair with the metallic, it is something he cannot hide. This takes on a more literal form when he is shaving and notices a metal spike on his cheek. This desire is taking shape.
The salaryman finds himself in a world where he feels lonely and afraid. He has a girlfriend but feels she is distracted and has different sexual desires with her. He’s trying to deny this aspect of himself but it is a repression that won’t grow smaller. It will only fester and grow like a tumor, protruding its metal parts with each growth.
The Clash of Desires
The salaryman and the previous fetishist soon meet. The fetishist shows off how much power he has when embracing this side of himself. He transforms a woman into a monster that attacks the salaryman. Fearing this side of himself and the fleshy terror that attacks him, the salaryman fights and defeats this monster.
Yet the metal side of himself does not leave. It grows further. It’s a part of him that starts entering his psyche deeper, as he envisions his girlfriend erotically shoving metallic objects into his body in a sexual manner. The denial grows worse as the metal in his body continues to expand.
There’s a striking nature to how this level of repression is constantly framed in sharp contrast with the black-and-white format. The salaryman tries to deny the dull and the grimy, but he lives in a world that looks dull and grimy. Highlighting both man’s relationship with technology and man’s desires that he often fights, there’s a bigger struggle within the salaryman than merely hiding his metallic features.
He’s not fighting an infection but trying to deny part of what he has become. It’s something we’ve all become. Technology is something that has become so ingrained within our lives that fighting this aspect seems like fighting wearing glasses if our vision is terrible or using a car to travel a great distance.
We were born into this type of world and have little choice in how we will use it if we’re not willing to change it. The developed world is filled with marvels of engineering in the form of towering buildings and bridges. Tetsuo: The Iron Man showcases the innards of this love of the modern and how there’s something more cerebral to our world that takes shape within our own bodies.
A Transformation of the Grotesque
The salaryman soon starts transforming even more into The Iron Man. He penis turns into a drill and he tries to attack his girlfriend. When his girlfriend knocks him out, he regains his strength by shoving a fork and knife into an electrical socket. The developed world not only shapes him but feeds him as well. He becomes less of a man of the world and more of a cyborg reliant on the city.
The girlfriend tries to kill the salaryman with a knife. Horrified by what she might become as well, she kills herself. But this does not make the problem go away. The salaryman lives and his transformation continues. He’s still alive and so is the fetishist, taking in more pleasure than pain at his body horror.
The film soon turns into a showdown between the salaryman and the fetishist. At first, it seems like all of this is just a revenge story. The fetishist reveals that the car which hit him was driven by the salaryman. But it’s not as simple as that. There’s something far bigger at play here.
The world that has shaped these men is revealed. We see how abuse and a childhood spent shaped by the metallic world have made them have these feelings and transformations about the world. We also see how it will shape the future, as the fetishist showcases a future that is all metal. There is no more repression and everyone favors the world they have consistently denied reflecting humanity.
After a wild fight between man and metal, the two men merge into a giant metal penis. They have become a being that is beyond mere revenge and sexual desire. Adhering to the prophecy, they set off to make a world entirely made of metal. They have embraced what was denied and want to make the rest of the world feel as honest and free with their desires.
A Maddening Production
Tsukamoto’s was a labor of love all his own. He worked tirelessly for over a year on the project which became a draining experience not just for himself but his crew. In fact, his crew would dwindle as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months. Many of the technical crew just gave up on the project, unable to handle the conditions.
Tom Mes’s 2005 book, Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, featured an interview in which Tomorowo Taguchi specified desperation to escape the production that coursed throughout filming:
“It was very tough so I quickly sensed that if you would stay with them all the time, you would inevitably get the urge to escape. So I figured that if I could keep some distance, I would be able to last much longer and keep a good relationship with them. It’s true that almost every day I went there another crew member would have left. One day I arrived at the house and the lighting crew had gone, so I had to do the lighting for Tsukamoto’s scenes myself. Toward the end, only the actors were still around. Nearly the entire crew had given up and left by then.”
The experience wasn’t pleasing for Tsukamoto either. He apparently so drained from the experience that he considered burning the negatives just to wipe his hands of the entire project.
A Cult Following
Tetsuo was perhaps a film too bizarre to ever be as highly regarded in mainstream cinema. It would be lavished with praise when it debuted at the 1989 Fantafestival in Rome where it won the award for best film. That’s a strong accomplishment for a film that was screened without subtitles, given that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to have the movie translated.
In Japan, the film became a midnight movie hit, packing theaters for late-night showings. It would later find a small theatrical release in the US during the 1990s as well as a home video release. The film would gain a similar cult following in America would lead to the revival of Japanese cinema in the 1990s. It may not be as revered as the stronger pictures like Sonatine and Audition which are more revered but it’s just as important.
The Bigger Sequels
The success of the film would ultimately lead to a sequel film, 1992’s Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. The sequel is more of a spiritual successor than a continuation of the story, focusing on the same themes but with grander ambitions. The central character this time is an enraged father trying to save his son after he is kidnapped by a gang. After failing to save his son, only his wife can save him from becoming a mindless machine of rage.
The sequel takes a much different route. By the end, there’s a metal tank instead of a metal penis and the sympathetic iron man goes back to being human. He and his wife look out on a destroyed city and remark that there is now peace. It’s a remarkably different outlook compared to the dark and absurd conclusion of the previous picture.
And then there’s the third film, 2010’s Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. As the title implies, this is a more violent version where the central character grows guns in his hands. The rage overtakes him and he becomes the expected cyborg, but there’s a different ending. The hero witnesses a vision of what his rage will accomplish and denies this rage. He learns to live with his anger and manage his feelings before it destroys all. It’s quite the journey for this trilogy, where we go from embracing the nihilism of a city bound by metal to learning to live with our monsters and find ways to avoid becoming that which we hate or fester.
We Are All Iron Men
Tetsuo: The Iron Man can be viewed in a number of ways through its dark depictions of grimy city life and the horrors of technology becoming a part of our bodies. It can symbolize sexual repression, technological paranoia, and even mankind’s inability to understand one another. For all of these aspects, the film stands as one of the best in body horror on both a technical and thematic level. It’s also just a wild film made with a heated passion for experimental filmmaking, making it all the more satisfying that Tsukamoto didn’t burn his film away.