Japan’s tech noir: Tetsuo and Tetsuo II

Director Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo and Tetsuo II, are out on Blu-ray today. Ryan revisits two of Japan’s finest tech horror movies...

First released in Japan in 1989, but not appearing in American arthouse cinemas until a couple of years later, director Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a heady, intoxicating mix of the violent and the abstract. Immediately acquiring a cult following on its limited theatrical run and release on VHS, Tsukamoto’s film and its 1992 semi-sequel, The Body Hammer, rose above the humming static of world cinema releases.

Looking again at Tetsuo in 2012, it’s not difficult to see why it proved to be such an underground hit. As it fitfully lurches between a loose narrative structure and outright surrealism, Tsukamoto assaults the viewer with striking image after striking image.

The Iron Man

Tetsuo begins with a moment of hideous sci-fi self mutilation, and concludes with the implied destruction of a city, which tells you quite a lot both about the film’s tone and the scale of its filmmaker’s ambition. Armed with a 16mm camera, some black-and-white film and a limited budget, Tsukamoto brings to the screen a welter of bodies in mutation and squelchy gore effects, all hacked together with an editing style that is part MTV and part Buñuel-like nightmare.

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Tsukamoto himself appears in that opening mutilation sequence, in which an anonymous young man shoves a metal rod into an open leg wound. Horrified when his flesh begins to putrefy, he runs screaming from his scrapyard hovel and into the street, where he’s run over by a luckless salaryman played by Tomorowo Taguchi. 

In knocking the chap with the rotting leg over, the salaryman appears to have brought some sort of curse upon himself. Like Seth Brundle in The Fly, he begins to notice small tell-tale signs that his body might be in revolt – including a piece of metal apparently growing from a pore in his cheek – but steadfastly ignores it. 

Things take a nightmarish turn when he’s first attacked and then chased by a deranged woman with a mutated hand (Nobu Kanaoka) on his daily commute. Later, the salaryman’s body begins to morph into a pile of scap metal, and his repressed desires and anger begin to manifest themselves as weird outcroppings and phalic weapons. 

When he accidentally kills his lover (Kei Fujiwara, who shared filming duties with the director), the salaryman spirals out of control, his body continuously erupting into increasingly large and baroque shapes. It’s then that we learn that he’s been hiding a dark secret all along, and that the man he thought he’d killed at the beginning of the film may be alive after all.

Although Tetsuo’s imagery is unmistakeably inspired by the early work of David Cronenberg and David Lynch, with its action taking place in Eraserhead-like wastelands, and its characters’ bodies going through Videodrome-like distortions, Tsukamoto uses that imagery to a very different effect.

Tsukamoto grew up as Tokyo changed around him. What was once green and pleasant became grey and concrete, and Japan, its folklore full of character shape-shifting into animals and back again, was itself transforming into something unrecognisable. This no doubt informed Tetsuo’s overriding theme – the consumption of the individual by an industrial landscape.

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But like the sex-crazed zombie-making disease of Cronenberg’s debut feature Shivers, the intrusion of technology into the realm of the biological provides a kind of liberation. The salaryman is a symbol of the repressed average city worker (not unlike Britain’s own bowler hat brigade), who’s gradually turned into a technological super-being made out of industrial junk, like Godzilla clad in old braided hoses and starter motors.

The image of a woman menacing a man during a commute is also a potent one in Japanese cultural terms – women-only carriages, introduced to cut down on the lewd advances of men, are a common sight on the country’s metro. In Tetsuo, this situation is gleefully flipped on its head. 

Placing these subtexts aside, it’s also possible to simply sit back and watch Tetsuo’s crazed imagery wash over you. As well as convincing gore and prosthetic effects, Tsukamoto employs fast cutting, stop-motion animation, strobing images and undercranked camerawork to build an oppressive visual experience that’s part art installation, part drugged-up fever dream. 

Like Eraserhead, it’s difficult to predict exactly what – if anything – is going to happen next, as lengthy scenes of degradation and metamorphosis abruptly give way to violent combat sequences, flashes of kinky sex or manic chases. The visual aggression is matched by the sound design, which is industrial in the most extreme sense of the word: synth drones are accompanied by blasts of static, the rhythmic clangs of machinery, and occasional, incongruous, blackly comical snatches of jazz.

The Body Hammer

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If Tetsuo was Tsukamoto’s homage to the late 70s/early 80s American cinema of the weird and the extreme, then Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer was his take on another US export: the superhero movie. Like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, Body Hammer is both a sequel and a remake of the first Tetsuo, introducing an expanded budget and even a splash of colour.

Body Hammer also tells a slightly more conventional story, in which the protagonist is turned from a Clarke Kent-like ordinary mortal into an avenging superbeing, and learns something about his forgotten child in the process. It has mad scientists, a scarred villain, and an underground army of identical bald bodybuilders. 

Tomorowo Taguchi once again plays an ordinary salaryman, though one apparently more wholesome than the slightly shady individual he inhabited in Tetsuo. Happily married with a young son, his life is blissfully mundane until a vicious gang attack him in a record shop and kidnap his son.

In a series of increasingly strange encounters, the salaryman’s rage at his attackers reaches a point where his arm spontaneously mutates into a metal cannon. Unable to control his power, the salaryman inadvertently kills his child, and the gang manage to drag him off to an abandoned industrial estate somewhere outside Tokyo. There, the salaryman undergoes his mutation, which begins with bullet-spewing orifices opening on his body, but later spirals out into of control into lumpen kaiju territory.

By moving into slightly more conventional narrative waters, Body Hammer surrenders some of the terrifying weirdness of its predecessor. The late fight sequences were the less interesting part of the first film, but Tsukamoto focuses more of them here, and some scenes look a little like a repulsively distorted John Woo flick. There are also stronger hints of the fetishism that threaded through Tetsuo – machines and buildings are bathed in seductive blue light, one of the antagonists wears a leather corset, and there are numerous, hypnotic shots of topless men weightlifting in disused steel mills. 

Saying that Body Hammer is more conventional than Tetsuo, however, is like saying that Blue Velvet makes more sense than Eraserhead. One is more accessible and less aggressive than the other, but neither make for easy mainstream viewing. And just when it seems that Tsukamoto has forsaken the gore-smattered drill kills of his earlier film, he suddenly pitches us headlong into more mutations, more stop motion animation, and a late revelation which is actually quite shocking – your humble writer may be wrong, but it’s possible that at least one sequence was trimmed on its original release in the UK.

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Between them, Tetsuo and its sequel build up a hallucinatory, often startling experience. Although they function as an allegory for the consumption of Japan by industrialisation, they also have a wider relevance, as they depict a nightmare world where technology invades human bodies. They’re low budget and often rough-edged, but it’s the grittiness of Tsukamoto’s filmmaking that makes them so timeless.

Even now, these films possess the power to shock. For connoisseurs of horror, science fiction or extreme cinema in general, they’re essential viewing. Watch them back-to-back in a single viewing for the ultimate assault on the senses – if you dare.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer are available together on Blu-ray now.