Tetsuo – The Iron Man

(Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan, 1989)


This underground classic from 1989 had to wait for the success of its 1992 sequel, Tetsuo II – Body Hammer, before finding an audience beyond Japan.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto began making movies on Super 8 as a teenager, and later joined the adventurous Kaiju Theatre group. He was influenced by the SF and horror cinema of the '70s and '80s ("David Cronenberg is our father" he has declared) – and even more directly by industrial music and cyberpunk fiction.

Shot cheaply on murky black and white stock, with Tsukamoto handling everything from camera and lighting to make-up, this first Tetsuo film has all the heaviness and dread of a bad dream. The so-called plot is merely a near incomprehensible mish-mash of obsessively repeated motifs.

A man (Tomoroh Taguchi) discovers that he is slowly turning into a metallic, savage machine. The women in his life develop a habit of changing from slinky sex kittens to monstrously mutated vamps. The film is full of ghastly scenes of rape and mutilation, offset only by strangely tranquil images of yet-to-be-born mutants swimming in an amniotic sea of technology.

It is a truly experimental film, strongly reminiscent of American avant-garde classics of the '40s and '50s by Kenneth Anger and Sidney Peterson. Yet it is also an extremely modern experiment.

With its violent discontinuity, free visual associations and harsh soundtrack, it evokes a fantasy of what Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994) might be like if it were remade by Sydney Super 8 artist Melanie El Mir.

Although only sixty-seven minutes in length, Tetsuo – The Iron Man offers a dense, demanding and haunting experience.

© Adrian Martin January 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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