Tetsuo the Iron Man (1989, dir. Shinya Tsukamoto)
A mysterious man lives in a junkyard and fetishizes metal to the point that he cut open his body to insert iron rods and wires into it. He’s struck by a car and apparently killed. A salaryman (Japanese corporate drone) is haunted by strange techno-nightmares, even attacked in the subway by a woman transformed by a piece of metallic effluvia. Where this film goes and mood it evokes is truly unpredictable and very much of its time.
Tetsuo is a techno-horror film akin to David Lynch forming a death metal punk band. The energy in the picture is non-stop, grabs the viewer by the shoulders and violently tosses them around until they can’t take it anymore. In the 1980s, body horror was a growing sub-genre thanks to the likes of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker. The way a human body could betray its nature was of increasing interest as medical science evolved a breakneck pace, the AIDS epidemic slashed across humanity, and urban spaces became increasingly smother in pollution. Self-mutilation wasn’t a new concept and many cultures still practice scrying script into the skin or slicing off bits of their reproductive organs as a sacred ritual. The addition of technology into the mix is what took the exploration of these ideas in a new direction.
Tetsuo is a ghost story at its heart. One man wrongs another man, and the wronged man comes back to haunt him. Very simple, on the surface. A significant factor in what is happening in Tetsuo is the transformation of the Japanese culture at the time. Westernization was flooding Japanese culture, and traditional Japanese life was uprooted. Technology and industrialization were the greatest representation of that takeover and the unnamed man has become so absorbed in this new world of wires that he attempting to physically merge with it. The merger of the Fetishist and the Salaryman in the finale is sparked by their discovery of the New World, a possible future landscape where the planet is devoid of all natural life and now a techno-organic construct. The decision to close out the film with the words “Game Over” rather than “The End” is also a telling detail in reflection on the relationship that developed between Western culture and Japan through the medium of video games.
Tetsuo is a rough film to get through. It’s has zero interest in traditional narrative conceits and from the very opening it makes sure you know that. The film is almost virtually hyperlinked within itself as the narrative jumps around to fill in backstory, hint at the future, and provide the minimal information needed to understand it. The soundtrack is designed to shred your sense and it truly evokes the sense of being overtaken by some faceless industrial presence.