Sit down right now. I don’t care that mail has to be delivered. N- no, seriously, you can change that ink cartridge later. Ju- just, shhhhhhut up. Shut up and sit down, because it’s FAM Time.
Today’s very special FAM is Shinya Tsukamoto’s unmatched 1989 cyberpunk film Tetsuo: The Iron Man. To explain this movie can only be done in the very simplest of terms: The man (or The Metal Fetishist) sticks an iron bar into a wound he has made in his leg. Soon it is festering with maggots. He runs, screaming into the street and is hit by a car, driven by the Japanese Salaryman who decides to hide his crime by dumping the body in a ravine. What follows is one of cinema’s more bizarre experiences as the Japanes Salaryman, haunted by the spirit of the Metal Fetishist, begins to undergo a startling transformation wherein his entire body metamorphoses into a shambling heap of scrap metal. This is a movie in which a man’s girlfriend fucks herself to death on his penis, which by that time has changed into a giant drill bit. No, I’m not making that up and, no, telling you that it happens won’t diminish its impact in the slightest.
At first blush this all probably seems fairly pedestrian and in the context of the torture porn/special fx demo reel trash turned out these days you would be forgiven for thinking so; but Tsukamoto’s film is never about mere grotesqueries. Tetsuo is a superb audio/visual experience, its stark, moody black and white images set to Chu Ishikawa’s pounding industrial score. Many have compared it to David Lynch’s Eraserhead but it is mostly a superficial one, insomuch as, like Lynch’s seminal film they both share the same, high contrast black and white, industrial aesthetic. Tsukomoto’s presentation leaves the (purposefully) monotonous dirge of Eraserhead far behind, instead opting for a frenetic and, one might say, decidedly anime-like pacing epitomized by its multiple chase scenes, making for a frantic, fever dream of a movie.
What Tetsuo is about — the subtext, if any — is much more difficult to pin down. One interpretation is that the entire film is a metaphor for being homosexual and while it can be read that way I’m not entirely convinced that that was the intention. For certain, sex is a central component in Tsukomoto’s oeuvre, serving as a catalyst for metamorphosis, but the nature of that sexuality — homo or hetero — appears irrelevant or, at least, equal opportunity, although the final scene may convince you otherwise. Regardless of how one chooses to interpret it, however, Tetsuo: The Iron Man remains a much watch. It’s a powerful, beautiful, and confusing film, one that I find myself revisiting long after my initial viewing and it always sticks with me long after the “GAME OVER”.