“T1” and “T2” are clearly the most watchable and breathtaking science fiction films of the last 15 years. Before examining that statement it should be pointed out that this is not a reference to James Cameron’s twin teutonic time twisting Terminator films with all their cartoon carnage, multi-million dollar budgets and critic-friendly Neitzche aphorisms, but instead about the hyperkinetic and visceral cyberpunk/mecha/superhero epics “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” and “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer”, the works of Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto.
Tsukamoto was born in Tokyo in 1960 and started making 8mm films at the age of fourteen. He studied painting at Nihon University and while still a student, became interested in the dramatic arts. His first job involved producing TV jingles for an advertising company. However in 1985, he decided to form his own company, the Kaijyu Theatre, or Theatre of Sea Monsters and after producing three plays decided to return to film making. His first short films, “Futsuusaizuno Kaizin” (1986) and “Dentyuukozounobouken” (1987) were shown on Japanese television and these were the forerunners to his first feature film “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989). After the wild success of Tetsuo, Tsukamoto became a darling of the festival circuits and also produced a horror film called “Hiruko” (1991) before setting out to produce another Tetsuo film, “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” (1992). His next film, “Tokyo Fist” (1995) was a break from the sf/horror genre, but was similar to all his films in that was fast paced, confrontational and produced in his inimitable style.
“Tetsuo: The Iron Man” is not a film to be approached lightly. It is confrontational on every level. Any attempt at reducing the film to a synopsis is doomed to failure; it would either seem like a random series of images or give the impression of temporal continuity / narrative coherence, both properties that are not in the films design. This piece resembles the work of William Burroughs (both in his writing and his films with Anthony Balch) or the films of Nicholas Roeg. Basically (this is the trite coherent approach) a metal fetishist goes crazy after seeing that the metal bar he has inserted in his leg has caused the limb to begin to decompose. This leads him to run in front of a car and its owners dispose of his (still living) body, before making love in front of him. Things go wrong for all and sundry as a symbiotic process takes hold and the corrupt hit-and-run salary man begins assimilating metal and losing control of his mind. The stage is set for an extended and climatic battle of metal and flesh culminating in the merging of capitalism and fetishism into all-conquering homometallic evolution. The blending of fantasy and diegetic reality and the non narrative structure of the film imbue an enormous degree of ambiguity that can easily lead to several different levels of interpretation, so this is by no means a definitive plot summary.
The elements within the film are derived from two main sources, manga/anime and avant garde cinema, although its execution is completely original. The titular Tetsuo (itself a play on words, Tsukamoto used two kanji so that the name literally means ‘iron’ ‘male’) is also a nod to one of the dominant characters in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Manganum Opus (sic) “Akira”, a two thousand page comicbook masterpiece that similarly features man/metal fusions, although Otomo’s vision is of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo, his heroes drug-addled teenagers with blossoming psychic powers. Tokyo is a bombed out wasteland and the fate of its future lies in the hands of superhumans. Otomo managed to finance and direct a film version of this highly influential manga, and it is still the most well known anime here in the UK. Also serving as a visual pun, Tsukamoto’s fetishist is reincarnated as a mutilated version of the popular Dragonball character, complete with spiked hair and the ability to fly.
“Tetsuo” relishes in sexualising industrial and mechanical processes, it caresses any metal present in a given scene, it is drawn to it and fuelled by it. Lingering shots of wire and tubes take precedence over plot exposition, spurting molten metal, glittering backlit swarf and lubricants abound. In this way Tsukamoto is following a subversive cinematic tradition of celebrating deviant impulses – Bunuel’s foot fetishism, Cronenberg’s obsession with disease and bodily mutation, Borowczyk and Svankmajer’s deification of the inanimate. Indeed the debt to Svankmajer is pronounced as wires arrange and disentangle in an animated blur, confrontational/loving heads disassemble, amalgamate and reform into a unified, mutated whole – a technological “Dimensions of Dialogue”. The film shares a similar formalism to Svankmajer’s work, complete with accelerated repetition and cruel humorous revelation. Large portions of the film involve complex pixillation, either to indicate travel or the consequence of superhuman punches, here so strong that they can knock the opponent across half of Tokyo. The effect is closer to Zbigniew Rybczynsky’s “Oh No I Can’t Stop” than the more viewer friendly “Wizard of Speed & Time” (Jittlov, 1988). Driving industrial music, industrial to the extent that machines and metal bars are used as instruments, perfectly complements the films breakneck speed, visual lief motifs and metallic obsessions.
All Tsukamoto’s films delight in the sexualisation of the male body. As sculptured, muscular, athletic übermensch all glistening with sweat, oil and other liquid substances, they exert a masculine aesthetic gaze uncommon in the science fiction genre. Just as the female body is ‘cut up’ in mainstream cinema to objectify and pacify her for the male gaze, reducing female characters to fetishistic icons, so Tsukamoto imbues the male with similar sexual attributes. However, his male characters are at once male and female in the traditional cinematic sense, they are both powerful and powerless, both consumed by their own sexuality and afraid of it. It is no contrivance that the battling iron men reconcile their differences, admit their love for each other and unite Cornelius/Brunner style to dominate this ‘New World’ of industrialism. The fascistic and militaristic overtones are at once ridiculed and glorified – Tsukamoto’s pagan celebration of the human body jumps from Reifenstahl-like objectification to Cronenberg style bodily mutation as evolutionary supremacy. Tsukamoto himself plays the Metal Fetishist in the film, perhaps his on screen alter ego.
The scopophilic pleasure in identifying and enjoying the masochism of the protagonists is another trait inherent in these films. The attention to detail in all the scenes of bodily mutilation and self mutilation is astonishing and filmed with an affection both for the wound and the wounding process. When the metal fetishist inserts an iron bar in his leg the wound is both vaginal and anal, a source of pleasure and pain, he is literally fucking himself. His displeasure resulting from this act is not that of the pain endured but of the realisation that the metal was corroded, the fusion of flesh and metal extends beyond his body alone and the leg becomes infested with maggots. Wounds also represent the externalisation of the characters psychosis and sexual drives, they are at once visible and representational. In a culture where public affection is avoided, this device serves to visualise repressed desires.
A predominant theme in “Tetsuo” is the triangular relationship between the protagonists, and female character development relies upon the masculisation of that character. It is this process that empowers the female within the film but also drives the central male to act upon his homosexual impulses. If this ultimately causes the downfall of the female character in “Tetsuo” then that is unfortunate, the same masculisation in Tsukomoto’s “Tokyo Fist” allows her freedom and power over her male counterparts, accepted as perhaps beyond the male. The demise of the female character in “Tetsuo” is due to her nymphomaniacal tendencies and perverse sexual preferences. Much of the strength of the characterisation is derived from the conflict between the heterosexual and homosexual impulses of the central character. This is made explicit in a (dream?) sequence where the businessman is sodomised by his girlfriend who is sporting a living, serpentine, metal penis of considerable length. When his own penis is transformed into a pneumatic drill his amazement is less the shock of change and more the externalisation of his sexual impulses both for his girlfriend and the fetishist, impulses that reveal the potential his new body has as a weapon.
Budgetary restraints always put a burden on a director, especially for a first film. “Tetsuo” cost about £55,000 to make, a ridiculously small amount of money for any film, let alone an effects-heavy science fiction one. The biggest expense was the purchase of a 16mm camera to shoot it. “Tetsuo” is essentially a one man show, truly the work of an auteur, the boundless talents of Shinya Tsukamoto extend to such credits as acting, co-director of photography, story, screenplay, storyboards, editing and special effects. This list is by no means exhaustive, although it was Chu Ishikawa who was responsible for creating the astonishing score.
In 1992 a sequel was produced, “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” which although far removed from the original in terms of its concept, narrative and style, shares Tsukamoto’s incessant obsession with metal. A film with a definite storyline, “Body Hammer” tells the tale of an ordinary family man whose son is kidnapped by the minions of an evil scientist who has developed a process which creates men who can quite literally turn their bodies into weapons. Lurking in a fiery hell, an army of young bronzed men await their chance to become a part of one super-weapon and to destroy. The son is then murdered and this acts as a catalyst to the protagonist discovering a talent to assimilate metal which he can use to avenge those who destroyed his life. But who really destroyed his life? Why can he not remember his early childhood?
“T2” is a far more linear experience, any temporal breaks are defined either explicitly or through change in stock and lighting. This is not the only area in which the film is less subversive and more coherent than its predecessor. The themes prevalent in “Tetsuo” are augmented but given a broad and clearly defined context. In “T1” the mutation of man and metal is never specifically explained, in “Body Hammer” the corporate and militaristic exposition justifies the existence of the phenomena. Both films use the man-machine fusion to create a super weapon; the former executes this in a passive manner lacking in vision and direction, but the sequel has a definite treacherous purpose and is set within a social environment. Some critics have levelled the accusation that “T2”, like its big buck American namesake, is just a re-run of the first film but with more money. This is not the case. Although both films end with a virtually identical sequence, the process by which that point is reached is fundamentally different. As “Tetsuo” works on a personal and existential level so “Body Hammer” initially sets its targets as the individual against the corporate. The corruption of metal and flesh that is seen as individual sexual weakness in the first film (redemption by admitting socially misunderstood sexual preferences) becomes mob corporate weakness in the face of the individual in “Body Hammer”. Woven into this smorgasbord of conspiracy and self loathing is a truly disturbing set of childhood traumas and parental indoctrination that are reminiscent of Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (1960) in their clinically intense portrayal of a single-minded father willing to exploit his own children to further his scientific ends. His success is perhaps a little too complete. The film’s final scenes are distressing, confrontational and tragic, flashbacks filmed in the most comfortingly nostalgic sepia tone and yet filled with horror.
Guns in “Body Hammer” have a more traditional phallic place than in its predecessor, as they are an assertion of male power and serve to emphasise this at every opportunity. That the guns emerge when the male is aroused, whether from internal genetically altered sources or in the more conventional sense from a holster, adds strength to this reading. Late in the film this demonstration of gun as male sexual power is illustrated in a tense and highly unpleasant flashback that makes no doubt as to the violent nature of male urges. Whereas in “Tetsuo”, flesh is replaced directly by metal, his penis literally transforming into a powerful drill or his face developing a metallic bristle while shaving, in “Body Hammer” the organ awakens from a suitable protrusion, and is therefore much more representational.
The move up to “Body Hammer” allowed Tsukamoto the freedom to employ a larger cast and this is used to great effect in realising the scale of the powers involved. It is however still a triangular relationship with the corporation replacing the fetishist. The larger budget, about ten times that of its predecessor, also allowed Tsukamoto the luxury of 35mm colour film stock. The colours are very saturated and intense and in some instances virtually monochromatic, bleeding reds and electric blues, the contrasts of the colours complementing the emotional conflicts throughout the piece.
Within Japanese sf/fantasy cinema, there are various recurring themes that relate directly to the society and culture of a nation that until 100 years ago had virtually no contact with the outside world and then became one of the most powerful forces of the century. Science fiction films in Japan do not necessarily look to the future for technological innovation and a Utopian society, but generally consider apocalyptic issues. Perhaps this harks back to direct experience. Whereas Western films that deal with the apocalypse project forward to the destructive possibilities of World War III, the Japanese refer back to the horrors of World War II, with the knowledge that not only did the nation survive, it flourished in post war years. Science fiction films, as a result of the nuclear holocaust, reflect the fears associated with atomic radiation and war. The Gojira films of the 50’s for example, feature a giant mutated monster rampaging throughout Japan, and “Akira” (1987) begins with the destruction of Tokyo. In the Tetsuo films, the man-machine mutation dominates in a way that indicates that the welding of flesh with metal will produce an entity with more strength than the simple power of machinery (including weapons) or intelligence of the human spirit alone; a being which can face the future with confidence and defiance.
“Tokyo Fist” (1995) is not a science fiction film. Although primarily concerned with boxing, it does share many of the themes and techniques of the Tetsuo films. Central to the plot is yet again the masochistic love triangle of “Tetsuo” although here the female role is given greater depth, her masculinity increases progressively throughout the film and she wears her wounds and body piercings with pride. That she is seen to be physically superior to her boyfriend (Shinya Tsukamoto again) empowers her further and reinforces his masochism and repressed homosexuality. In some respects “Tokyo Fist” is even harder to watch than “Tetsuo” due to its grounding in reality, the boxing scenes are viscerally far in excess of “Raging Bull” (1980) and shot in saturated colour. In terms of character development, “Tokyo Fist” is a far more mature film and certainly more coherent, and like “T1” and “T2” it is epic in scale but not in length. What takes five minutes of Robert de Niro pontificating in his method manner is distilled into seconds here, and no less powerful. If Scorsese had made “Tokyo Fist” it would still have been a masterpiece but a seven hour long one. “Tokyo Fist” leaves you change from an hour and a half. A film, if you will, that packs a real punch.
There has been a (pretty unsubstantiated) rumour circulating about another Tetsuo film going into production, only this time Tsukamoto would be partnered with director Quentin Tarantino. They met while “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” and “Reservoir Dogs” were doing the festival circuit and have mentioned plans to produce “Tetsuo III: Flying Tetsuo”. Just as the Japanese have an ability to assimilate Western culture and adopt it to become their own, they too return many icons (Godzilla being the current craze) to the West, so an international Tetsuo would certainly be something bizarre to watch out for.
Despite being highly recommended viewing it should be stressed that these are uncompromising films in all respects and are in no way suitable for minors or those with delicate constitutions.
“Tetsuo: The Iron Man” and “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer” are available from ICA Projects either separately or in a two tape set. The two tape set is definitely subtitled.
“Tokyo Fist” is available from Manga video in its original ratio with very clear subtitles. Miraculously, it is uncut.
Shinya Tsukamoto Homepage http://www.atom.co.jp/UNSOUND/Actual/Unsound/UnpopOffice/Artists/Tsukamoto/
Backstage/index.html – is a beautifully designed site complete with a couple of Tsukamoto’s original storyboard pages and notes on Chu Ishikawa also.
Express ‘zine – http://www.express.co.jp/ALLES/2/tsukamoto1.html – is a nice (Japanese but with an English language version) site complete with interview, quicktime movies etc.
1989 “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” – black & white, mono, 67 minutes.
1992 “Tetsuo II: Body Hammer”
1995 “Tokyo Fist”
All Japanese names are quoted in the Western form – that is with forename preceding the surname.