The Friday Afternoon Movie: Tetsuo: The Iron Man

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”.

20 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

  1. Kate Says:

    Words cannot express how much I hate that movie.

  2. the.bricoleur Says:

    Great film.

    If you enjoyed this then check out Tsukamoto’s earlier super-8 offering ‘Denchu Kozo no boken’. It has, a boy with an electric rod in his back – they will save the world, time travel, vampires, human mutation, jarring editing, dadaist sound design, cyber apocalypse, and more.

    Anyone seen Tetsuo 3 (The Bullet Man)?

  3. Fausty Says:

    Ichi The Killer.

    That’s all.

  4. Z Says:

    This is my favourite movie! Check out Electric Dragon if you like this kind of thing :)

  5. Mer Says:

    Hey, Kate? Respectfully, I gotta tell ya, it’s disappointing to me that words can’t express how much you hate it, ’cause if there’s one thing that frustrates me (and probably all of my co-contributors here) about comments in Coilhouse threads, it’s intelligent folks like yourself who drop in just to say “I hate this” or “this is utter shit” without actually engaging. (“OMG I love this” really isn’t much better, honestly, but at least it’s not combative in this hollow, dismissive way. Y’know?) I’m honestly curious to know why you hate it. I hope you can find the words.

    Fausty, what’s your point? (Beyond the fact that Miike is also a big-ass freakoweirdo badass director from Japan?)

    Z, Electric Dragon 80.000 V is friggin’ AWESOME. Ross, have you seen it? You will enjoy it immensely.

    I’d give anything to see Der Eisenrost perform. So incredible.

  6. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    Fausty – I’m going to assume that you are aware that both Tsukomoto and his semen are featured in Ichi.

  7. Lydia Says:

    Don’t EVER… EVER EEVVEERRR Fall asleep while watching this movie – however – the dreams you encounter will probably not be as weird as watching the movie itself. XD

    There is a club in my town that seems to silently play this movie on a screen whenever there is an (occasional) industrial night there

  8. Mer Says:

    “Fausty – I’m going to assume that you are aware that both Tsukomoto and his semen are featured in Ichi.”

    Aha! I did not know that! Really?! That’s Tsukomoto (and his spooge)?

    The more you know….

  9. Jack Says:

    I once wrote a paper on this movie for a “Sci-Fi Literature” course when I was an undergrad. Since we didn’t watch the movie as part of the class, I had to turn in a VHS copy of the flick with my paper.

    I got an A on the paper, but the professor admitted that after reading it he was AFRAID to watch the movie I was discussing. I think my reading of the drill-penis as a “technological colonization of sexual discourse” might have scared him off.

  10. CgBeastie Says:

    If you watch Tetsuo and want to see more strange asian gore flicks with half cyborg people, watch Machine Girl or Tokyo Gore Police.. Crazy, fun stuff.

  11. Vivacious G Says:

    Hey, Mer! I can’t speak for other people who leave short comments, but I leave short comments on here a lot so I felt the need to defend short commentors (even though if I don’t like something I usually won’t bother saying unless I feel REALLY strongly about it and want the world to know why) So here’s my not so short comment on why I leave short comments. 1) Sometimes I feel strongly about something, but I don’t know why and I don’t want to analyze why since I tend to overthink everything anyway. It’s a nice mental break for me to just admire something and leave it at that. 2) Sometimes what I read evokes personal pain that I want to keep private but I still want you to know that I appreciate that it was posted. 3) Someone already commented my thoughts 4) (and the number 1 and probably obvious reason) I simply don’t have time to read AND comment but, like before, want you to know I liked what was posted. Ok, all that aside – I do want to say though that I saw this film in the mid-90’s and was fascinated because I hadn’t seen anything so violently strange that could somehow retain threads of beauty throughout it and also leave you with questions that aren’t usually found in the usual mindless rush of violent films. (Of course, having seen other Asian “horror” films since, I don’t find this one quite as violent now, but at the time…) 10 years later I revisited it to share with my partner who also totally loved it. It’s definitely not for everyone and I’m glad there are other people out there who are of like mind. I can’t say I’ll be watching it very often but I’m glad to have viewed it at all. The End.

  12. Mer Says:

    Hi, Viv-G. I’m sorry if my comment seemed angry or irked at short comments in general. That’s really poor wording on my part, because terse comments voicing neutral or positive feedback aren’t at all what I was reacting to, here. I don’t take any issue at all with short happy statements like “whee, this is neat!” I just meant that I’ll always prefer a more meaty chat. But I don’t have a problem with short “thank you” type comments at all. I’m thankful for them! I am sincerely sorry if I made you think otherwise because of crappy wording.

    My comment for Kate is more about addressing the frustration I experience when Coilhouse posts something, and someone drops by just to spit on the subject matter without further articulating themselves. Short, dismissive, NEGATIVE remarks take on a completely different tone than “this is nice, thank you” comments. When someone drops into the discussion just to say “I hate this” without actually engaging, it can feel like the equivalent of someone walking into a presentation (or even just a cozy dinner chat) and saying “BOO”, then leaving. It’s dismissive, and it’s discouraging.

    Meanwhile, a person who disagrees, but respects the forum and the person presenting something enough to actually engage in whys and wherefores? Hey, that’s great! That’s polite and human and interesting. There’s always a lot to gain from balanced, civil debate.

    But again, that’s all a bit off topic from what you were trying to explain/defend. Please rest assured that the kind, brief comments you leave are well received, and appreciated. :)

  13. Tequila Says:

    Tetsuo was a high school favorite. The visuals were so potent in black & white and little looked like that mainstream wise way back then. It was the age of VHS and imports were beyond expensive. If I remember right Fox Lorber brought it over. It was a nice package too…all shiny metallic foil. It was always popping up in zines, parties, and around anyone who liked weird stuff.

    I may not feel the love for it I did then but it’s still a great bit of filmmaking. It exploits its limitations as strengths and I doubt it’d have been anywhere near as fun in color.

    The sequel gets a bum wrap but the title was and still is awesome. Body Hammer…how can one not like that title?!

  14. Ross Rosenberg Says:

    Mer – From wikipedia:

    “Director Takashi Miike reveals on the US TokyoShock DVD release that the semen used in the close-up during the intro sequence, when the film’s title raises out of a puddle of semen, is real. It was notably supplied by Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) who plays Jijii, the mastermind that controls Ichi. Miike gave a bucket to Tsukamoto to fill but was unable to provide enough material for the shot. He passed the bucket to three other crew members to add the remaining amount.”

  15. rubyredshoes Says:

    I watched this with my boyfriend and I am glad that he talked me into watching it with him. I love the over the top crazy story line, in my view there doesn`t even need to be a hidden meaning or whatever. Its just plain entertaining.

    Although they arent similar….except that I cracked up laughing through both of them (I have a strange sense of humour) I beg for everyone to watch tokyo zombie.

  16. Lara Says:

    LOL, when I read the comment that “both Tsukomoto and his semen are featured in Ichi” I thought you were just talking about the fact that he plays a part in it. I had no idea they used actual semen for that scene. Right when I thought that movie couldn’t get any crazier…

    Tetsuo’s soundtrack is really amazing. Chu Ishikawa also made the theme for Bullet Ballet, another film directed by Tsukamoto and which happens to be one of my favorite movies ever. :)

  17. christine Says:

    As outrageous as this movie is, the most memorable scene and my personal favorite is when a guy is running through alleys and the editing is quite choppy, giving it a video game quality.

  18. Mollie Says:

    I remember reading a review of this movie on IMDB describing it as “Eraserhead + Einsturzende Neubauten + crack”, which is pretty apt. It does remind me a little of that film Shogo Ishii did for “Halber Mensch”:

  19. Vivacious G Says:

    I don’t know if these comments are all read but here I am. I wanted to say to Mer – no harm or offense taken AT ALL, thanks for commenting back. In fact, I’m delighted that something made me want to pursue a longer comment. Maybe I should thank Kate! :)

  20. toro Says:

    Well, by coincidence, at a friend request, I just finished watching this movie. And to be honest, I think is rubbish.
    First of all, this is not cyberpunk. Maybe is related to splatterpunk, but definitely is not cyberpunk. Metal is not a technology, it could symbolize it, but the movie is not following that path.
    Second of all, there is no congruent plot in this movie. Probably the author did not intend to sent any message, my assumption is that he wanted to transmit a state of nightmare/irrational fears to the audience. As in my case, it totally failed.
    The only redeeming quality of the movie is the original makeup of the actors. Simple and efficient. Visually powerful even on black and white film.
    In the end: my opinion is that in spite of the huge hype, the movie is worth the effort for one viewing, but is way far from what a masterpiece should be.

    ps. More likely the author of the movie didn’t want to transmit anything, cause the movie really feels like it was produced on the spot without any script. Visual masturbation is still an empty experience. Or the movie should be watched stoned, cause it doesn’t work for a rational person.