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Review: The Tetsuo trilogy (1989-2009) - Cyberpunk body-horror made in heaven

Review: The Tetsuo trilogy (1989-2009) - Cyberpunk body-horror made in heaven

Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto -  Property of Kaijyu Theatres - Cert 18.  Available to watch in the US through the Vudu streaming service.    

Reviews contain spoilers, but no discussion of the endings.

Shinya Tsukamoto has made at least two films that can be considered minor classics (one of them is worthy of its' own review at another time).  Often quite unlike anything you've seen before; intelligent, challenging and demanding - a number of his films should have won festival awards and been championed by art-house cinemas the world over - and there was a smattering of that - but they, and he, never got the attention he truly deserves.

The reason?  He makes films that the average person would just not be able to sit through; too demanding, too weird - he makes films that are hard to watch.  Which is a good thing.  Its good that some films make you feel like you've just been in a fist-fight; good to be reminded of everything the medium is capable of.

He's a god-send if you think you've seen everything cinema has to offer.  Endless invention, excitement, actual emotion.

He's not alone in plowing this industrial/cyberpunk aesthetic (and it's only one string to his bow - his films cover many topics and looks) - his contemporary Shozin Fukui is where film enthusiasts go when they consider Shinya Tsukamoto's cyberpunk/industrial/body horror too mainstream.  But Shozin Fukui is also an article for another time.

Yes, that's what we're dealing with here.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) was compared, favourably, to the famous and hugely influencial anime Akira that had released to cinemas the year earlier (previously a manga - comic book - that Tsukamoto will certainly have been aware of) and David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) (post-industrial imagery, grainy black and white visual, stop motion photography, mutations and more).  While there are a number of shared themes and influences clearly, though, Tsukamoto is his own man - there are an absolute mass of themes and imagery that run through each of the three films - and he's here primarily to deal with these, not anything else.

Tetsuo opens with a character, or a version of a character, that appears in all three films (this man or "The Metal Fetishist" is always played by Tsukamoto himself). Obsessed with enhancing his body with metal and evolving into another level of human he's hit by a car driven by a salaryman (an office worker who often works so hard as to neglect everything else, such as family) and his girlfriend is in the passenger seat (Tomorowo Taguchi and Kei Fujiwara) - they don't want trouble, think he's close to death, and decide to dump the body out in the countryside.

They dump the body and, sexually aroused at the extreme nature of taking a life, they have sex against a nearby tree.  At some point they become aware that he is, just, still alive.  They comment on it, but continue, and it's assumed that they then eventually leave him there to die.

He has not died.  Instead (and the theme of women and what they symbolise in these films is something we'll get to) he repairs himself - somehow - and then mutates a normal woman, making her into a possessed cybernetic would-be assassin, travelling by train who happens to be sat near the salaryman.  A pursuit and attack then follow - making use of stop-motion photography down suburb streets.  The salaryman finally manages to kill her when his own body starts to mutate in order to fight off the threat - more metal, more power - and kills her.

After a deeply disturbing dream where his girlfriend has morphed into a metal tentacled creature and raped him The Salaryman mutates further.  A giant drill-penis appears at his crotch.  She fights him off, even plunging knives into the still exposed skin that is left, but ends up impaled and dead on the power drill.

Later The Fetishist attacks again, this time by plugging himself into the metal that runs through the Salaryman's apartment building and finally emerging from the shell of the dead girlfriend. After another pursuit and fight the two characters end up merging into one gigantic machine - somewhere between a tank and tower of metal.  They agree that they need to turn the whole world to metal, and they strike out into the world to make this happen.

The model-work is breathtaking in its invention and complexity.  And Tsukamoto had a budget of...what?  Next to nothing.  It boggles the mind.

Clearly, while this is a story that makes sense within itself - in its own world - you can park your ideas about traditional narrative at the door.

The film was a big-hit, as art-house films go.  People hadn't seen anything like it.  There is an easy comparison here (though less extreme).  Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1981) played to audiences looking for something different, was somewhat raw in its presentation, filmed in black and white and then, after that earlier success and new access to bigger budgets, essentially remade bigger and in colour.

Which brings us to Tetsuo II.  

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer shares its post-industrial/body horror themes with the earlier film, but is by far the most cyberpunk influenced of the three films.  Cyberpunk does not just concern the evolution of man into machine, but also shared information, linked minds sharing information (I'm reminded of the linked-mind cult of Neal Stevenson's novel The Diamond Age - though this group lack direct linked-conscious and instead, for the moment, rely on a deeply held and shared belief system), and there's a certain aesthetic (trench-coats, shades, partially shaved heads, banks of monitor screens, often water in various forms) that is here is spades where it is less so in the other two films. Cyberpunk also, narratively, often treads themes and tells its stories in the style of noir thrillers (see the grand-daddy of them all, the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, the ending the most noir thing I've ever read). 

Where Lynch's Eraserhead is an obvious influence/companion piece to the first film, Blade Runner is perhaps as much an influence here.  And Blade Runner is noir as all hell.  Rain, trench-coats, detectives, double-crosses, beautiful dames; it's got the lot.  

The imagery here is endlessly inventive, with a handful of tremendously constructed scenes.

Picked at random in a shopping centre Taniguchi, there with his wife and young son, is assaulted by two men and seemingly injected by a strange-looking device with some unknown substance.  The men kidnap the son and run off with him, Taniguchi and his wife in pursuit. Eventually they track the men to the roof.  Initially led to believe that his son has been thrown from the roof, he and his wife find this not to be the case.  Taniguchi is physically attacked again, but allowed to live and the mysterious men leave.

He's the target of an extreme, quasi-religious, cult - obsessed with evolving into the next version of mankind; one who is as much machine as human.  They have a scientist researching how this might be brought about, and they needed a test-subject.  The Metal Fetishist from the earlier film is among their number.

Again, the family is attacked and the son kidnapped and we find ourselves on another skyscraper roof.  Enraged at being toyed with and being helpless, something snaps in Taniguchi and his body mutates in a way to help him deal with the situation.  His arm mutates, painfully, into a cannon.  The villain holds the child up and Taniguchi takes a shot, enraged - driven by anger.  He wasn't able to see clearly or control his shot.  He has just blown his son to pieces.

After the mutation is considered a success every member of the cult is given a shot of the formula.

There's a twist in Tetsuo II that I won't discuss here, but it deals with how much power, destruction and mutation an individual is capable of is a result of how much hate, and the will to destroy, is already in a person.  A major-plot point seems to be a very unlikely, random, coincidence - but in reality it is anything but.  Fate is at play here.  People, evolution, shared histories - they are all connected and unavoidable.  The world is only going one way.  The ending is everything Tsukamoto would have wanted for the end of his first film, but now he has the budget to do it.  It really is something.  

Tetsuo: The Bullet Man

Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (sometimes just called "The Bullet Man") is, weirdly, in English.  I can only assume that in order to secure a larger budget this was how Tsukamoto got the financing he needed.  It stands on its own as a film, and being in colour (just about) and in English would have made it easier to sell to foreign audiences - at least that's what I'm sure he told his financiers.  All that matters is that Tsukamoto got the budget to take Tetsuo where he obviously always wanted to.

The first time I saw it, a few years ago now, I was disappointed.  The English being spoken by actors to whom it is a second language is a hindrance; especially when, say, having to act upset and also whisper their lines.  It's not the deal-breaker it could have been though - moments like this are not too regular, and dialogue largely taking a backseat anyhow; this is primarily a physical, visceral experience.  And the things like barely heard speech somehow don't end up being a hindrance - they add to the insane other-worldliness of the thing.  This isn't a film like other films; it's going to behave the way it wants to behave, you can park your usual expectations at the door.  Again. 

The pieces of Tetsuo II largely appear again in The Bullet Man.  The inspired editing and visual invention aren't as heavily present as in the earlier films, but the themes are visual cues are largely the same.

Sex has been a re-occuring theme in all three films.  A scene featuring a man making love to a woman against a tree is in each film, presented as a traumatic event for the person observing. The monster the main character becomes in the second film is largely due to his witnessing a violent sexual situation as a young child.  Women are intensely desirable, but also something to be feared - the harridan mutation from The Iron Man, the mother - and what she represents - in Body Hammer.  But both of the last two films also present women as salvation; the only thing that can possibly bring our monsters back.

There are a mass of similarities and references through-out all three films.  The Fetishist, always at some point, wears a black t-shirt with a white cross on it - like he's making himself a target; which he is.  In the first two films he possesses some mutation powers, but he wants more - from the protagonist - and he's literally put a target on himself, hoping for a merging with the main character and therefore more metal and more power.  In the third film he has no power but hopes to gain it, again from the main character.

Each film features a car hitting a person, which in turn leads to anger and mutation.  For instance, in The Iron Man it's The Fetishist himself who is hit by a car, then dumped in the woods.  In The Bullet Man the Fetishist has no powers - but he's learnt of the mutation experiments on children, and, wanting to provoke such a reaction in the main character who is now an adult (and in turn be evolved himself) he kills the mans' son by hitting him with a car.

There is always, early on in each film, the line "I've been feeling very strange since..." but which never resolves.

There are more like how the main character always looks and dresses exactly the same.

These films are not for everybody.  I'll go further; these films are not for most people.  Tetsuo II - Body Hammer is by far the most accessible and most likely to be enjoyed by someone unfamiliar with these sort of films.  Seeing as the films lack an on-going story I'd suggest most people watch this one first, and then go to the first film if they enjoy the experience.  It's like The Evil Dead - if you were trying to get someone to watch one of the Evil Dead films then you'd choose to show them Evil Dead 2.  It's the same story, in colour, more polished and easier to engage with; and it's the same here.

As for which is the best of the three films - the first has incredible energy, a raw punk energy and is highly experimental and inventive in a way that's quite unlike anything else.  The second film is more polished and occasionally actually beautiful, but no less inventive and I personally love the more overt cyberpunk stylings and story.  The third is the inferior film, but look at what its inferior to; its still highly enjoyable.

The Iron Man and Body Hammer are impossible to compare, for me.  They're the same, but oh so different.  But if you're watching them for the first time, watch Body Hammer first.

Trying to watch The Iron Man unprepared might make you want to escape to the hills - a confused gibbering mess of a human being.

Chris Coates

 

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