Transformation. Experimental animation. The man becomes a machine. Sexual extremity. Video game aesthetics. Nightmares. Battles. Japanese culture turned inside out. There is a lot to penetrate with TETSUO: THE IRON MAN.
I’m not terribly intimate with the minutiae of Japanese history, but I do know that the nation was formed sometime in the 600s BCE, making it one of the older — if not the oldest — organized nations on the planet. As such, the culture of Japan is to this day often steeped in ancient traditions, and a cultural eye is always kept on the notions of the country’s ongoing legacy. Here in the US, we have trouble fathoming the notion of “ancient tradition,” as the nation is, by comparison, still a child, having turned 240 this year, whereas Japan turns 2,676.
Japan experienced a technological boom as recent as the industrial revolution, and openly embraced their recent status as a giant of capitalism and technology; you likely are using a device invented in Japan at this very moment. As such, the overwhelming wave of technological modernity is something of a concern for a nation so focused on tradition. A quick overview of Japanese cinema since the 1930s has revealed recurring themes of traditional thinking versus the sea change of modern life — is Japan a nation of ancient thought, or of modern struggle? This conflict has produced a deep ambivalence within Japanese social thinking.
This cultural conflict — and the outright anxiety therein — is the very visceral, grinding oil-pumping heart of Shinya Tsukamoto’s 1989 cult film TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (a.k.a. 鉄男, a.k.a. TETSUO), one of the more striking and disturbing horror films of the 1980s, and one of the weirder films to come out of Japan (which is certainly saying something; have you seen Nobuhiko Obayashi’s HOUSE?). TETSUO is rife with sexual imagery and themes of encroaching and damaging modernity, and is often cited as one of the seminal works of cyberpunk art.
TETSUO: THE IRON MAN is about a boring suit-wearing businessman with no name (he is credited as simply “Man”), played by Tomorowo Taguchi. In Japan, these office drones are referred to as “salarymen” — implying that they are not contributing anything of note to society, but simply attending to the nationwide grind to make ends meet. They are corporate meat-bots, riding trains and attending to red tape. For a stellar portrait of what the Japanese bureaucracy is like, see Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece IKIRU sometime — it’s one of the best movies ever made.
Although the events of the film’s opening scenes are abstract, the man apparently runs down someone in his car and disposes of the body; you would be forgiven if you haven’t picked up on that particular plot detail, but you may be able to intuit the horrifying visceral images the film offers: one of the very first of these in TETSUO is a man, from his own POV, stabbing his own leg and making a deep incision along his femur. He then, in a gut-wrenching display, jams a large piece of metal pipe into the wound. Yes, we get to watch this, and the low-rent special effects are so raw as to make you think this might actually be happening. This character, whose face we don’t see, but who is played by director Tsukamoto, is credited as “Metal Fetishist.” Indeed.
The Metal Fetishist finds that the wound is causing his flesh to rot, and he runs out into the street in a panic (maggots everywhere!), and that’s where he’s run down by Man. We then cut to Man having conversations with his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), although they say little more than “hello” to one another over the phone — their relationship is distant and cold and filtered through technology. When Man has dreams about her, their sex is violent and awful; he imagines her to be a gorgon with a large mechanical tube apparatus in an intimate location, and the horrible things she does with said apparatus. When Man awakens, he finds a small piece of metal sprouting from his face. From there, Man will find that he has been, in a way, cursed by the Metal Fetishist, and that his body will become increasingly overwhelmed by machinery that sprouts from inside.
A man turning into a machine may be an obvious metaphor, but it is a salient one in a nation concerned with modernity. What happens to us when we surround ourselves with cold machines? Why, certainly, we become them. Indeed, some people are so eager to blend with the machine world that they try to alter their own bodies from the outside. Whether we are willing or unwilling, the machines will invade our bodies. And this was in 1989 — long before we were broadcasting our minds into the internet. This was just an overwhelming concern with our reliance on urban blight, and its effect on our thinking. This is about the way a city can dehumanize us to the point of bodily mutation.
In many ways, TETSUO: THE IRON MAN might make good companion piece to David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD — another dark and nightmarish film about the negative effects and horrible atmosphere of urban filth. There is no natural light in this world, no nature. We may see a tree in the background, but in TETSUO, humans have lost all sight of their traditions and of their natural origins. Humanity is now so divorced from the natural world that they are becoming machines.
This, of course, is a cultural concern… but there is something more intimate at work: sexuality. Most of the Man’s mutations are prompted by feelings of sexual desire, sexual inadequacy, or other hotbeds of Freudian basics. Indeed, this becomes quite clear when we see that Man’s own genitals have mutated into a rather gigantic drill. His sexual components have become yet another tool, as it were; his sexuality has been co-opted by the machine.
As the film progresses, the sexual imagery becomes more and more explicit (if the penis-as-drill thing wasn’t already). Man and the Metal Fetishist will eventually confront one another, and, in the true fashion of Japanese sci-fi, will do battle with one another. By this point in the film, Man has become completely encrusted with machinery, and is now a clanking, walking pile of junk. Metal Fetishist, meanwhile, seems to have undergone a similar transformation. The metaphorical battle is between those who willingly submit their bodies and their sexual feelings to the glorious modern machine, and those who resist — but who are assimilated nonetheless. Oh, there’s no hope for escape. The modernity will get you.
When they do battle, the two will eventually merge into a single being. In the film’s most psychedelic image, they merge to form a gigantic metal phallus. Once again, that’s pretty obvious imagery, but it’s presented in such a frenetic, raw format that we are disturbed and moved, rather than bemused by its collegiate quaintness.
I can’t speak to any of the particular sexual mores that were actively functioning in Japanese society in 1989, but it’s clear to see that Japanese sexuality was seen as being under threat. Perhaps a boom in pornography was taking place, and Japanese sexuality — especially male Japanese sexuality — was becoming more and more public. It can be said that the Japanese sexual industries (called mizu shōbai) have always operated in a more public forum than in America. Men can be seen reading erotic manga on subway trains. At the same time, Japanese censorship laws are more stringent than in America, and there is an element of prudishness undercutting the publicity of sexual consumption. This is, by the way, all geared toward men; Japanese female sexuality is a distant concern in this world.
Whatever the reason, TETSUO: THE IRON MAN clearly sees a cold, mechanical takeover of male sexuality at play… and wow, is it depicted as horrifying. This is body horror that goes well past the clinical realms of David Cronenberg and the fetishism of Clive Barker right into downright, dirty sexual mutation. Cronenberg may write about a woman with a mutated uterus, hiding the dark side of sexuality inside the human body; Tsukamoto, meanwhile, uses dark, frantic black-and-white images to merge two male characters into a gigantic machine phallus. “Our love can destroy this whole fucking world,” he says.
Tsukamoto would eventually pivot with TETSUO, eventually making two sequels that deal with different, expanded themes. In 1992, he made the sumptuous color film TETSO II: BODY HAMMER, which turns away from sexuality, and toward human rage; anger is the catalyst for transformation in the sequel, and it becomes more more heavily focused on its inner myth. TETSUO II is less essayic and experimental, and more sci-fi and cinematic. It’s the more watchable film, but is less complex. In 2010, Tsukamoto would return to this material again with TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN, which is almost a remake of the original, but folds themes of the first two films together. Oh yes, and it’s in English. Last I checked, TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN is available on Netflix.
Although it’s a cult film of its time, TETSUO is also incredibly timely. In an age where sex is exploding online, thanks to the proliferation of internet pornography, and human sexuality is being facilitated by hookup phone apps, our own libidos are becoming increasingly mechanical; TETSUO speaks directly to this world in a salient way… and it’s a bloody disturbing film to boot.