(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
Since the advent of industrialization, there has been an artistic preoccupation with machine-organism hybrids. Although the integration of biological and electronic systems is a nascent field, many scientists and researchers believe that our reliance on computers is a sign that the fusion of humans and machines is already underway. Our digital devices have become so ingrained within our existence that they’ve become a proverbial extension of our body and mind, ushering us into a primitive state of proto-cyborgs in which the line between biological neurology and mechanical technology begins to blur. While our smartphones and tablet devices are not yet part of our physicality, one only has to leave the house without them to feel the panic of a missing limb.
Most art focuses on the dark side of human and machine mergers. From writers such as Issac Asimov to directors such as James Cameron, the moral implications of combining the human condition with technological mechanizations has dangerous and destructive repercussions. While such scientific advancements could be viewed as a positive – even necessary – part of our evolutionary progress, the literature and art spawned from the subject favors our inherent fear of this melding of flesh and gears.
If there is a film that is decidedly anti-human/machine hybrids, it’s Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), which views the merging of biology and machinery as not only an infection, but a curse. While most often classified as a Japanese tokusatsu body-horror, Tetsuo combines elements of cyberpunk aestheticism, German expressionism, andcerebral surrealism to create what many ironically call “the most metal film ever made.” The visual tapestry of abrasive imagery is set to a score by Chu Ishikawa of the industrial noise-rock band, Zeitlich Vergelter; a perfect synergy of sight and sound that brings to mind a nightmare-induced jam session between late-era Scott Walker and Trent Reznor at some construction site hellscape. The loose plot revolves around a sadomasochistic “metal fetishist” (played by Tsukamoto, who also directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited the film) who’s driven mad while embedding machinery into his body. After he’s accidentally run down by a businessman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara), he passes on a curse to his assailants that begins turning them into grotesque machines.
In the opening of Tetsuo, a handheld camera wanders past a mess of metal and engines, adorned with photos of athletes. This is the first indicator that Tsukamoto is drawing parallels between human performance and machinery. We later see that these photos belong to the “metal fetishist,” who cuts open his leg and inserts a metal rod while admiring photos of Olympic sprinters. While we don’t get any more exposition, it’s clear from these juxtaposition of images that the “metal fetishist” has a severely unhealthy obsession with turning himself into a machine in the hopes of achieving some kind of peak human optimization. This sequence is the first of many in Tetsuo’s brief sixty-seven-minute runtime that showcases bizarre body mutilation, edited together in a blitzkrieg assault of smash cuts and stop motion animation that results in a kinetic explosion of steel and skin, steam and sweat, blood and rust. Tsukamoto shot the film on black and white 16mm, and the stark monochromatic look of the film plays into its austere, dystopian worldview. “We can mutate the whole world into metal,” Taguchi sneers at the end of the film,his body fully morphed into a monstrous heap of steel and valves. “We can make the world rust till it crumbles into the cosmos.”
Viewing Tetsuo as an allegory for the perils of connecting humans with machines is only one of many interpretations. Considering Tsukamoto’s trajectory before making the film, Tetsuo can also be considered a metaphor for the societal infrastructure of Japanese culture. Born into the ceaseless construction of the developing Shibuya ward of Tokyo, Tsukamoto’s early interest in art was dismissed by his father, who often told his son his drawings were “pointless.” Like his father, Tsukamoto was encouraged to be a “salaryman” and not waste his time with artistic pursuits. But like many Japanese children of the fifties and sixties, Tsukamoto fell in love
with kaiju media: Japanese films, mangas, and television shows that featured giant monsters. To appease his father’s wishes while still maintaining his creative vision and fascination with monsters, Tsukamoto would become a commercial director for an advertising agency upon graduating college. But Tsukamoto found the corporate world of advertising to be stifling and uninspiring. He’d eventually transition into Tokyo’s underground theater scene while making his own 8mm short films. These early films included The Phantom Of Regular Size (1986) and The
Adventures Of Electric Rod Boy (1987), both of which played with the same “creature-feature” themes and stylistic editing of what would become his feature-length, directorial debut: Tetsuo: The Iron Man. But before beginning the film, Tsukamoto was thrown out of his house by his father, who told his son, “There are two types of human beings: those who are successful and those who fail. You are a failure, and you shouldn’t make this film.”
After moving into a small apartment in Tokyo, Tsukamoto began work on Tetsuo. The film was self-financed by Tsukamoto, who worked a day job to pay for the production costs. Shot over eighteen months, the film’s cast and crew were made up of friends Tsukamoto had met in the underground theater scene, including actress, Kei Fujiwara, who allowed her apartment to be one of the primary locations for the film (Fujiwara would also be credited as assistant director, costume designer, and second director of photography). In the 2005 book Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto, author Tom Mes interviewed Tomorowo Taguchi about making Tetsuo. Taguchi, who was the only member of the cast/crew that didn’t live on set, said, “It’s true that almost every day I went there another crew member would have left. One day I arrived at the house and the lighting crew had gone, so I had to do the lighting for Tsukamoto’s scenes myself. Toward the end, only the actors were still around. Nearly the entire crew had given up and left by then.”
At the end of production, Tsukamoto was so disenchanted with the process of making the film that he considered burning the negatives. He most likely heard his father’s words echoing in his head: “You are a failure, and you shouldn’t make this film.” The societal pressures placed on Tsukamoto left him little leeway other than to succumb to the corporate salaryman assembly line; an industry that would twist and mold his artistic hopes and dreams into an unrecognizable, monstrous state of industry. Steel buildings. Fluorescent conference rooms. Automated emotions. The businessman. The monster.
Upon completion, the film was considered unreleasable. It was given a limited theatrical release at the Nagano Musashino Hall in Tokyo, where it was screened once a day, late at night. It wasn’t until Tetsuo was shown at the 1989 Fantafestival in Rome that it found its audience. It was given the award for “best film” by famous cult director, Lloyd Kaufman, and was praised by a crowd of admirers including Alejandro Jorodowsky. Tetsuo would not only cement Tsukamoto as the grandfather of Japanese cyberpunk cinema, but also spawn two sequels: Tetsuo II: Body
Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo III: The Bullet Man (2009).
Today, Tetsuo is widely regarded as essential extreme cinema; a bonafide cult classic, not for the faint of heart. While it shares similarities to the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg (most notably 1977s Eraserhead and 1983s Videodrome), it remains a singular expressionistic vision. Because of the brevity of its runtime and abstract plot, it continues to invite audiences to reinterpret its meaning, allowing viewers to project whatever the sociopolitical climate of the time may be into its kinetic frames. The horror genre has always been an exemplary vessel for exploring societal issues and zeitgeist fears. Much like Romero’s zombies being a sensational personification of conformity and commercialization, Tsukamoto’s human/machine monsters serve as a stand-in for our obsession with machinery, social alienation, body dysmorphia, and societal pressures to comply with cultural conventions and industry standards. As of recently, Tetsuo has even been analyzed as a metaphor for homoeroticism and the experience of a queer sexual awakening. However one chooses to interpret the film, part of Tetsuo’s lasting endurance is that it can be enjoyed on a purely visceral level. If you tear away all of the
percolating themes, Tetsuo is a pure emulation of the sci-fi and horror content Tsukamoto grewup watching and reading; a love letter to the kaiju films of Toho Studios and a continuum of Japanese horror. Much like other beloved genre films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Tsukamoto evokes fear in such an evocative way that the surface-level shock value of Tetsuo stands on its own without any elevated messaging. It’s a gritty and unsettling kind of cinematic perversion, dressed up in metal and chrome with paranoid pacing. It’s still quoted, copied, and referenced to this day, but it’s sheer voracity is rarely duplicated. | e hehr