Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a bizarre cyberpunk body horror classic. Filmed entirely in black and white and on 16mm, it stars Tsukamoto as the “Metal Fetishist”, a man who embeds an old, rusted piece of scrap metal into his leg. Driven insane by the pain and maggots that have now infested his leg, the Fetishist stumbles into the road where he is struck and supposedly killed by a car driven by a salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara, also a cinematographer on the film). After dumping the body and having sex with his girlfriend at the site, the man notices a piece of metal growing out of his skin. After escaping a woman in the train station who has grown scrap-metal parts, the man begins to transform into a walking, talking scrap-metal being under the control of the Metal Fetishist. As the transformation continues, the man kills his girlfriend and is then subsequently visited by the Metal Fetishist. The new Iron Man must now battle with the Fetishist, but what will become of them?
Easily one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, Tetsuo is a frenetic, psychosexual experience complete with a pulse-pounding industrial soundtrack. The film deals with morality, anxiety, and identity in a world advancing in technology on an almost daily basis. The man and his girlfriend are self-absorbed and not very nice people. They leave a man to die and then have sex by his corpse. They are also two people who tend to blend in with everyone else. He is an average, almost invisible man but this changes with the transformation into scrap metal. There is a nod to tentacle porn in a surreal dream sequence in which the man is raped by his girlfriend and later she is impaled to death on his penis which has become a drill. Culturally, these images represent the anxiety that a traditional patriarchal society has with its own growing pains, as well as the anxieties over sexual identity.
The body horror imagery is enough to give David Cronenberg a run for his money. There is no real rhyme or reason to the man’s transformation, he just becomes a creature made entirely out of scrap metal, wires, and phallic, slithering rebar. Man melds with machine, pain mixes with pleasure, and anxiety becomes a horrific reality as the Metal Fetishist takes over the man’s body. Tsukamoto has never flinched when it comes to surrealism and Tetsuo: The Iron Man reinforces that, as well as his use of claustrophobic scenarios. There’s a fight scene between the man and his girlfriend in his tiny apartment, as well as an interesting chase scene between the man and a woman through a train station’s bathrooms are frighteningly claustrophobic.
The film is frenzied and hyperactive with some very striking imagery, though also monochromatic, and clocks in at just over an hour. If you’ve never experienced Tsukamoto’s work, then Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a great place to start.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday June 25 at the Walter Reade Theater at 11pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.